Leeds United were not the first club to court Paul Heckingbottom and his reputation in various boardrooms transcended Barnsley’s league position. Barnsley are in trouble this season, out of form and in the soup, but Heckingbottom’s stock remains intact, untainted by the prospect of him taking them down.
The Championship table, with Barnsley in 21st place, is an unflattering reflection of Heckingbottom’s talent but the landscape at Oakwell and the reality of his two years as manager were more nuanced and complicated.
Barnsley, in their own way, are a talent factory, adept at generating a good calibre of footballer but prone to selling them when the knock on the door comes. Player sales were the backdrop to Heckingbottom’s entire reign.
The trend began before his tenure commenced and continued during it. Barnsley’s precarious standing suggests the club, inspite of Heckingbottom’s responsibility, have pushed their luck too far. They were eighth in the Championship after beating Leeds at Oakwell last January, in with a shout of the play-offs. They sold Sam Winnall, Conor Hourihane and James Bree in the space of three weeks and tailed off into 14th.
Their preparation for this season, in a problematic summer transfer window which suffered at first from the absence of a chief executive, was such that Heckingbottom warned the club they were “falling way behind with recruitment.”
Heckingbottom is used to juggling balls and in his first year as Barnsley’s manager he found time to study and qualify for an MSc in sport coaching at Leeds Beckett University.Phil Hay
Heckingbottom was part of the production line at Barnsley, an academy coach before the opportunity of management presented itself when Lee Johnson left for Bristol City in 2016.
The South Yorkshire club have reaped a sizeable income from their output, selling John Stones and Mason Holgate to Everton and Alfie Mawson to Swansea City.
Stones’ subsequent transfer to Manchester City was worth an extra £7m via a 15 per cent sell-on clause.
Heckingbottom’s track record and prior handling of rough diamonds appealed to Leeds, as it appealed to other Championship clubs.
Sunderland tried to appoint him in November but the 40-year-old sized up the mess at the Stadium of Light and said no.
He came onto Nottingham Forest’s radar last month and is understood to have spoken to the club twice, before Forest appointed Aitor Karanka.
There was ample motivation for him to leave Oakwell before Christmas, at a time when Barnsley was stuck in the cogs of a protracted buy-out of the late Patrick Cryne’s shares, and the irony of him quitting for Leeds four days after signing an improved contract is that he upped sticks at the precise point where Barnsley were under new ownership and happy to hike up his way his pay.
“There was never any doubt,” Heckingbottom said after accepting the deal last Friday.
There is, as a result of both Thomas Christiansen’s sacking on Sunday but also Leeds’ deteriorating results, mounting debate about the suitability of the structure at Elland Road, the director of football model in which Victor Orta holds so much sway, but the layers of management maintained by United might sit comfortably with Heckingbottom.
The 40-year-old is used to juggling balls and in his first year as Barnsley’s manager he found time to study and qualify for an MSc in sport coaching at Leeds Beckett University.
But earlier this season, and not for the first time, he voiced wearily about the infrastructure at Barnsley and a shortage of key personnel which in his view was stretching him too far and limiting his coaching input. He was waiting for a takeover which finally came in December, a few days before Christmas.
“I want to try and get more away from the administration stuff I should never been doing anyway,” he said at the time. “I have to do stuff like that and get dragged away.
“It’s needs must and you have to do it but it dilutes your work and spreads you too thin to be really focused on what your role should be.
“If anything is taking me and the coaching staff away from the grass then something is wrong. That’s one area we can improve definitely.”
Leeds did not ask Christiansen to do any more than prep his players week after week. The Dane, who lost his job after a 4-1 defeat to Cardiff City and his 35th game in charge last Saturday, was an out-and-out head coach in the continental mould.
Orta managed the club’s scouting network and pulled the strings with transfers. In principle Heckingbottom, who as recently as last month was asking Barnsley to employ a recruitment specialist, could accept that arrangement, although it remains to be seen if the appointment of a domestic coach with experience of the Championship, both as a manager and in his days as a left-back, alters Orta’s influence.
In the short-term, some authority in the dressing room is what Leeds will seek from Heckingbottom.
The high regard in which Christiansen was held by United’s players was demonstrated by the squad meeting the Dane for a final time yesterday morning, saying their goodbyes as Heckingbottom signed his contract at Elland Road.
Christiansen’s sacking was not the result of any bad blood but Leeds were troubled by the stream of red cards which leaves Heckingbottom with a threadbare squad for his first match at Sheffield United on Saturday.
He and his assistant, Jamie Clapham, took training yesterday and have three days to organise a line-up which might contain only two recognised defenders.
With a stronger set of players, Heckingbottom leaned towards a 4-4-2 system last season to good effect before the January sales.
This season, with poorer resources and in an attempt to bail water, Barnsley often used a holding midfielder and a lone striker either side of two banks of four. Leeds had no problem working that formation out during a 2-0 win at Oakwell in November.
Moreover, Leeds want Heckingbottom to create the spark which at least keeps their fight for a play-off place alive.
His first block of games is as difficult as it could possibly have been, culminating in the visit of Wolverhampton Wanderers to Elland Road on March 7 which will challenge him to avoid a low-key start.
He and the club have much to prove: Heckingbottom, after irking his boyhood club by quitting Oakwell so suddenly, to show that his coaching ability is better than the sum of Barnsley’s results, and Leeds to demonstrate that the squad they possess is more than the mid-table unit some believe it to be.
There is risk involved, for him and United, but a belief on both sides that the risk is calculated.