Paul Heckingbottom said speculation about his future as head coach had “surprised everyone” at Leeds United as he insisted he would be given the chance to take the club’s squad into next season.
Heckingbottom played down reports that Leeds and owner Andrea Radrizzani were preparing to sack him at the end of this term, just three months after paying almost £500,000 to buy him out of Barnsley and appoint him as first-team boss.
The 40-year-old’s performance at Elland Road has come in for criticism after a 12-game spell which has yielded only 10 points and comprehensively ruled United out of the promotion picture in the Championship.
Heckingbottom, who quit Oakwell in February after two years as Barnsley manager, inherited an out-of-form squad from Thomas Christiansen but has so far failed to inspire an improvement amongst the players under him.
The suggestion that Radrizzani is considering replacing him arose after a 3-1 defeat to Preston North End on Tuesday and prior to tomorrow’s game at Aston Villa, a match for which Leeds are again beset by severe injury concerns.
Heckingbottom, though, has a contract which runs to 2019 and he spoke confidently about the prospect of guiding Leeds into the summer, saying his management should be judged on “results next season”.
“I think that surprised everyone in all honesty,” Heckingbottom said, responding to claims that Radrizzani had lost faith in him. “Nothing has changed.
“I came in here in February with slim hopes of the play-offs and we were chasing that down. That was the first goal - let’s not let this season die out quickly - but it did die out quickly so we were straight onto the second phase of what we wanted to do, which was to start looking at players and getting our plans laid down for next season.
“We’re going to have to work hard because we’ve seen the calibre of players who are in this league, the calibre of clubs. But it doesn’t mean we can’t do it if we’re all on the same page, over-achieving and building a hungry, competitive squad.
“That’s the stage where we’re at now. Make no mistake about it, it’s all going to be on results next season, without a doubt. That’s what we should be judged on.”
Radrizzani last spoke publicly about Heckingbottom last month during a radio interview in which the Italian openly attacked the attitude of the players in United’s senior squad. Radrizzani admitted to being “pleased with his leadership and communication skills”. “He needs to prove himself but I'm convinced he can be a good coach for the club,” Radrizzani said.
Heckingbottom said he was certain of retaining his job after the season ended on May 6. “I’ve got no reason not to be. Everything has carried on as normal in terms of meetings, planning, discussions for next season. Nothing’s changed.
“Whilst there was that speculation, I think it surprised everyone at the club, not just me. As far as we’re concerned it’s just business as usual.”
Heckingbottom also voiced support for United’s director of football Victor Orta, the head of a recruitment strategy which has been heavily criticised over the past nine months.
Orta was given authority to steer the club’s transfer business following Radrizzani’s takeover 12 months ago but despite a huge influx of signings, Leeds are 19 points worse off than they were after 32 games last season.
Chants of ‘Orta out’ were heard in the away end at Deepdale on Tuesday and the Spaniard’s involvement at Elland Road remains contentious, despite United’s board retaining faith in him. Orta, who came to Leeds after a fractious spell as Middlesbrough’s head of recruitment, was linked this week with the vacant director of football’s job at Deportivo La Coruna, though United have received no approach for him.
Heckingbottom said: “He’s been great with me, fantastic and supportive in terms of influence. “Definitely the club wants direction from the manager or head coach in terms of recruitment, identifying the areas we want to strengthen and the characteristic of players we want.
“It’ll be a smaller squad and a hungrier squad. Everyone will turn up every day knowing they’ve got a chance. Whether it worked like that in the past I don’t know, it might not have done. I’m unsure.
“But once it comes to the summer, that’s when we’ll be judged. And it’s everyone’s responsibility, not just the recruitment department. Everyone’s responsible for getting the players over the line.”