LEEDS UNITED head coach Paul Heckingbottom insisted a run to the play-offs is possible this season but said he is focused on creating “a force in this league” after taking on the challenge of ending the club’s 14-year stretch below the Premier League.
Heckingbottom, who left Barnsley for Leeds on an 18-month contract on Tuesday, drew inspiration from the promotion he earned in League One at Oakwell as he contemplated the likelihood of claiming an immediate top-six finish with United.
Barnsley were in the bottom half of League One when Heckingbottom took charge, initially as caretaker, in February 2016 but the club overturned a large deficit to win promotion via the play-off final at Wembley. Heckingbottom inherited United’s squad from Thomas Christiansen this week with Leeds seven points short of sixth place in the Championship and without a league win since Boxing Day. Christiansen was sacked after a 4-1 defeat at home to Cardiff City last weekend.
Leeds go to Sheffield United on Saturday, starting Heckingbottom’s reign with a Yorkshire derby, and four of the 40-year-old’s first six games in charge are against sides in the Championship’s play-off or automatic promotion places. Speaking at a press conference called to formally unveil him, Heckingbottom was optimistic about his players’ chances of reaching the play-offs in the remaining 16 fixtures.
“It’s a target, definitely,” Heckingbottom said. “Two years ago, when I sat in this chair at Barnsley, we were 14th and we went up. I know it can be done.
“It’s something that’s definitely achievable but if you get carried away with me setting that target and putting undue pressure on … the next game’s important.
“If anyone heard me speak at Barnsley about setting goals and targets – if you do that then they should be short term and private in lots of senses. One, you can sell yourself short and two, you can put undue pressure on people. But we want pressure on every game, to win every game. The aim is to be a real force in this league.”
Heckingbottom, who managed Barnsley for exactly two years and more than 100 competitive matches, said he was pleased with the way in which United’s players had responded to him after what he called “a whirlwind few days”.
Despite Christiansen losing his job on Sunday, Leeds’ squad met with the Dane for a final time at Thorp Arch on Tuesday morning while Heckingbottom was signing his contract at Elland Road. Heckingbottom arrived soon after to begin his first training session.
“Tuesday was a strange day, a tough day for the players – saying goodbye to a previous manager and then getting a new one in,” Heckingbottom said. “While that benefits me and the club, it can be testing for players. I understand. We just wanted to be really bright with them and straight with them and they’ve responded well.
Two years ago, when I sat in this chair at Barnsley, we were 14th and we went up. I know it can be done.Leeds United head coach, Paul Heckingbottom
“There’s good talent here. I know the division and know how tough it is and we’ve got a tough start in terms of fixtures and people missing but that’s an opportunity for the players who are available. The boys who I can pick from have got a head start on everyone else.”
Alongside a different run of fixtures, Heckingbottom has assumed the extensive list of injuries and suspensions which contributed to Christiansen’s downfall after 35 games in the job.
United have enjoyed two bursts of impressive form this term, the first taking them to the top of the Championship in September, but a return of two points from six league games has seriously weakened their play-off bid.
“One thing you have to have in this league is consistency,” Heckingbottom said. “You hear it over and over again by managers sitting in a chair like this but there’s no reason why we can’t find consistency between now and the end of the season.
“We’ll start putting things in place that will hopefully benefit us in the short term this year and we’ll rise up the table but ultimately we want to build a way of playing that will benefit us in the long term. Consistency’s a big thing.”