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Leeds United and Paul Heckingbottom: A relationship which never caught fire

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The haste with which Leeds United plumped for Paul Heckingbottom as head coach gave an artificial impression of Andrea Radrizzani’s confidence in him.

Radrizzani had the final say on his 18-month contract but Leeds were a long way down the road to appointing Heckingbottom by the time their chairman arrived in England and met him face-to-face.

Paul Heckingbottom.

Paul Heckingbottom.

An announcement came that same morning.

Their personal relationship was distant to begin with and never really evolved. The men spent little time in each other’s company and at the last round of meetings involving Heckingbottom, prior to his family holiday in Greece and his sacking this morning, Radrizzani was absent.

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Leeds paid £500,000 to buy him out of Barnsley in February but rarely seemed fully invested in him. What Heckingbottom said on his first day in the job proved to be accurate: “A contract, to a manager, is worth what the severance package is.”

He will fly back from Greece tomorrow with the consolation of a pay-off but for him and the club, this resembles a pointless experiment. Heckingbottom outlasted Uwe Rosler by four games and David Hockaday and Darko Milanic by eight. Leeds and Radrizzani tired of him at much the same speed as new toys grew old under Massimo Cellino, the Italian with the widest reputation for dispatching head coaches. Owners come and go but the club’s habits die hard.

Leeds will try not to speak of promotion this summer, preferring to keep their powder dry, but the likelihood of promotion next season was the crux of Heckingbottom’s dismissal: that three months in the post made Radrizzani think that his second year as owner would be safer in someone else’s hands.

Leeds were drawn to Heckingbottom by his grounding in the Championship and his reputation as a direct, demanding coach but scared off by what they saw in the flesh when his players took to the pitch.

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A 25 per cent win-rate after 16 matches worried the club’s board. As consequential for Heckingbottom, despite the mental, technical and disciplinary deficiencies of the squad he took on from Thomas Christiansen, was the absence of any tangible progression in the style or conviction of the club’s football. Their defensive record got worse. Their enthusiasm hardly piqued. Games which mattered were lost with a whimper.

There was a contradiction between talk of the high esteem in which United’s players held Heckingbottom and the way in which they played for him. It was true, nonetheless, that he met the club’s desire to see their better Under-23s blooded. And it was equally hard to avoid the thought that, minus a transfer window or any time to bed in, he was dealt a dismal hand.

Heckingbottom’s ideas for changing that in this transfer window were relatively simple. Leeds were given a list of targets by him, featuring loan signings, free transfers and low-cost permanent deals; in all, an inexpensive plan.

Among the names was Andy Yiadom, the defender who Heckingbottom coached at Barnsley and who he wanted to bring to Leeds. United were not convinced that a full-back like Yiadom was needed so in the week of Heckingbottom’s final meetings at Elland Road, Yiadom went to Reading.

Oli McBurnie, Swansea City’s Leeds-born striker and another player who worked under Heckingbottom at Oakwell, was willing to follow him to Leeds but no effort was applied to that potential deal before Heckingbottom began his holiday in Greece.

In a round of unproductive discussions two weeks ago, involving director of football Victor Orta and managing director Angus Kinnear, it was not made clear to Heckingbottom that he was about to be sacked but the gaps in their ideas made him realistic about his fate. Leeds were in two minds and Heckingbottom knew it. Orta took a flight to Rhodes yesterday to speak with Heckingbottom for the last time before the decision to replace him was made.

A decent, down-to-earth character, it is unfortunate for Heckingbottom that his demise will be largely popular.

There was some bafflement amongst United’s support about the rush to employ a coach who had Barnsley hovering above the relegation positions, despite the complications and politics faced by him at Oakwell. Leeds had a quick look at Marco Silva in February, discovering quickly that Silva - with Everton patiently waiting for him - had no interest in joining them, but they were onto Heckingbottom within 24 hours of sacking Christiansen.

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The deal was done that quickly, perhaps under the misguided belief that time was of the essence and the Championship play-offs were still attainable. Radrizzani acknowledged Heckingbottom’s short track record after exactly two years in management but said he had recruited a coach with “a bright future but at the same time, a knowledge of the territory.”

The territory in question was the Championship but as the division’s top six went down the track, Leeds and Heckingbottom sloped quietly into an irrelevant siding. In the stands at Elland Road, the appetite for another change was rife. Heckingbottom failed to carry the public with him and had no way of countering the perception that he and Leeds were a bad fit.

Like others before him, 14 games is too short a tenure to be sure and the high opinion of him within the game suggests he will fare better elsewhere. But at Leeds, with this pressure and after so many years spent waiting for deliverance, the stones around his ankles dragged him down.

Though not before Leeds’ tour of Myanmar - a contentious trip for which the amount of organising frustrated Heckingbottom - was hung around his neck.

Radrizzani, with his fourth head coach in the offing, might be carrying the same weight and given the failure to publicly challenge two months of speculation about Heckingbottom’s future, retaining the 40-year-old would have been no ringing endorsement anyway.

Heckingbottom’s dismissal rounds off a torrid six-month spell for Radrizzani, comprising of a litany of feeble on-field performances, PR disasters and misjudged decisions, countered only by last week’s investment by the San Francisco 49ers.

Having apologised for one mistake in appointing Christiansen, he is now holding his hands up to another, without knowing for certain what Heckingbottom would have done next season. The Italian is trusting the gut which serves him well when it comes to purchasing TV rights but has yet to adjust to the machinations of professional football.

So who is next?

Leeds have options in mind and two sources have told the YEP that Marcelo Bielsa, a renowned, eccentric and unpredictable coach with Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Lille and Argentina on a CV, is a candidate. Reports in Spain last night claimed formal contact had been made.

Bielsa’s profile is in a league far above Christiansen’s but a choice like that would be a swing in the Dane’s direction, away from the domestic attributes which sent Leeds sprinting to Heckingbottom’s door. Radrizzani is throwing darts in the hope of landing somewhere near the bullseye. This one needs to stick.