FLAK travels farther than a manager’s dug-out and on one occasion when Barnsley and Paul Heckingbottom were feeling the heat, two of his daughters came home from school asking if he was about to be sacked.
“The kids were taking a bit of stick,” Heckingbottom said. An inevitable consequence of his job. He struggled to convince them that the job was in hand but cheered them up by promising that on the day the worst happened, the family would take the chance to head off on holiday.
“I get home now and my eldest boy asks how the game was,” Heckingbottom said. “Same with my youngest girl. But the two middle girls just ask when I’ll be getting sacked because they want to go on holiday. That’s how it is. Keeps things in perspective for me. Win-win.”
It is, as coping mechanisms go, a novel way of rationalising the stress of football management which Heckingbottom took on almost by default. Leeds United’s new head coach, their 14th in as many years since the Premiership dispensed with them in 2004, was a reluctant participant in the merry-go-round at first, unsure of whether the here-one-day-gone-the-next culture was something he could cope with.
It suited him so nicely that on Tuesday Leeds paid £500,000 to buy him out of his contract at Barnsley. Heckingbottom, the Yorkshire-born left-back who grew up in the mining town of Royston and has been through several of the county’s professional clubs, saw initial doubt about management give in to a level of enthusiasm which rushed him into taking United’s offer. Just a few days earlier, Barnsley announced that Heckingbottom had accepted a new contract.
The 40-year-old occupied a string of meaningful roles at Oakwell: fan, player, academy coach, caretaker and eventually manager.
“When I first got offered the job at Barnsley, I waited a long time (to decide),” he said. “I never really wanted to be a manager but bit by bit you get pushed into the role. People look to you to take control. I was reluctant to make that step until firstly I was sure I could do it, and secondly I could be successful. The third thing was my family. They’d got used to me being a footballer but it’s different again when you become a manager.
“They had to know that from the moment I signed on the line at Barnsley I was signing my exit as well. I was going to be sacked in a short space of time or move on in a short space of time.”
Heckingbottom’s roots are in Barnsley, or slightly to the north in Royston. His memories of his childhood, when he and his friends followed either Barnsley or Leeds and staged mock derbies in the public parks, came up in November before the two clubs met at Oakwell, a game United won 2-0.
“We hated Leeds and they hated us,” Heckingbottom said at the time, recalling the kickabouts. “That’s how it was.”
The process of getting a transfer done now, since I played, has changed dramatically. There’s so many things involved in it and it’s so tough to get a deal over the line.Leeds United head coach, Paul Heckingbottom
It was nostalgic stuff but those comments resurfaced on Monday when it became clear that Leeds were courting him as Thomas Christiansen’s successor. They were raised again at his first press conference at Thorp Arch.
“The Leeds fans were older than us and they used to kick lumps put of us,” Heckingbottom said. “That’s where it stems from. Not Oakwell, not Elland Road. The field behind my mum’s.
“All that was them taking the mick, trying to shove down our throat the size of (Leeds) and the stature of the club; always a bigger club and that’s how it was. Those lads were actually the first to ring me and congratulate me and they’ll be in the stands for my first game at Elland Road. They’re probably as excited as I am.”
The inter-club rivalry did not stop Heckingbottom pricking his ears when Leeds first made overtures on Monday morning. He was aware of their interest before he took training with Barnsley but kept it to himself. Leeds later agreed to fund a £500,000 release clause and Barnsley, despite confirming Heckingbottom’s new deal three days earlier, had no power to stop him leaving.
Barnsley described themselves as “shocked” and “thoroughly disappointed”. Heckingbottom was unapologetic about the timing yesterday, saying his new deal had been signed earlier in January but was left unannounced due to the death of former Barnsley owner Patrick Cryne. Talks, he insisted, had first been mooted almost a year ago but went nowhere for months while Cryne attempted to agree a takeover which was finally completed in December.
“The contract was first mentioned to me in March and then nothing was spoken about until July,” Heckingbottom said. “Straight away, there’s a big gap. We started discussing it and then the new ownership came in. I had lots of responsibilities there and I literally put it on the back-burner for the good of the club and the team. Then we had the sad news regarding Patrick. I’d already signed the contract a week before but we were trying to get the timing right so we delayed it even further.
“If they want to hide behind the fact that the contract was signed a couple of days before I left then fine. But in all honesty it was nothing to do with it. If you look at it, there’s only me missed out on the money from the new contract. Barnsley have received more compensation than they would have done if I hadn’t signed. Barnsley have been the winners out of it.”
His former club are 21st in the Championship and will do well to keep their heads above water this season. Leeds, though, are 10th and in a bit of a storm after watching so much go wrong in January. The club’s owner, Andrea Radrizzani, told the YEP on Wednesday that he was not demanding Heckingbottom make the play-offs in May; hoping but not demanding. On the basis of his comments, Heckingbottom has taken the same attitude.
It did not matter to him that so many head coaches have come and gone at Leeds over the years. He did not seek the advice of anyone in the game before travelling for talks at Elland Road, or before accepting an 18-month contract.
“It’s honestly not an issue for me,” he said. “A contract to a manager is worth what the severance package is. That’s not to say I’ll be gone in 18 months or I’ll stay for 18 months but I know that if we’re successful here the club will want to keep me.
“It’s one of those things I just had to jump at. I’d never want to be in a position and think ‘I wish. I wish I’d done that’. I don’t believe in being like that or having any regrets. It felt right.”
He was as willing to slot into a management structure which, despite Leeds’ defence of it, sits rather uncomfortably with United’s support. There is much debate about control of Victor Orta, the club’s director of football, over transfers at Elland Road. For Heckingbottom, the absence of someone in a similar role at Barnsley was a problem, dragging him into areas of work he wanted to avoid.
How much influence on United’s signings does he want? “How I see the head coach’s role – involved in the start, involved in the process.
“You work through the squad and identify the targets with the recruitment department,” he said. “Then they go out and find them. We work together.
“The process of getting a transfer done now, since I played, has changed dramatically. There’s so many things involved in it and it’s so tough to get a deal over the line.
“(Head coach) was my title at Barnsley but we had less resources and were a smaller club. You can begin to spread yourself too thin, dealing with issues which here, maybe, I’ll be involved in but there’ll be other people to help get the job done. It’s a big appeal for me.”
The juggling act at Oakwell never quite brought him down, though Heckingbottom’s annoyance showed itself in patches. Barnsley form under him was undeniably poor this season but relations between him and the club were not perfect either and Heckingbottom is believed to have been frustrated last month by their failure to sign a goalkeeper he lined up. His focus at Leeds will be narrower but no less intense, bringing more of the stress which the jokes about family holidays help to counteract at home.
His ethos, he said, would be one maximising potential and negating the idea of upper limits; of promoting the message that a team ranked 14th in February made the play-offs and a team in 10th can attempt to do likewise.
“No-one wins anything unless they overachieve,” Heckingbottom said. “I love thinking that way. There’s always more you can get out of people.
“The overriding factor is to build a winning team but within that you need a winning mentality and players who are all determined to get better and improve.
“This is how you have to look at it – block out all the distractions and the white noise. Get a clear picture in your head of what we will look like and how we’re going to get there. And drag people along.”