You sense that as a player and to some extent I think it’s why you often see the managerial ‘bounce’ people talk about. In the immediacy, players wise up, knuckle down and work a bit harder because it feels as if you’re being watched very closely. Then the new man settles and the squad go back to the way they were.
That can be the folly of sacking a manager. Sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes the relationship between a coach and his dressing room is beyond repair, but if the problem boils down to the attitude or ability of the players in the camp, the chances of a big surge aren’t very high.
To put that in the context of Leeds United, if the results under Paul Heckingbottom are as poor as they were under Thomas Christiansen towards the end, doesn’t that tell you that this, first and foremost, is down to the quality and mentality of the team?
I’m not giving Heckingbottom an easy get-out here. He’s had a bad start in terms of the points he’s picked up and I can understand why the supporters are restless about his record. A new manager has to make an impact. If he doesn’t make an impact then why else change? It’s a logical point of view and I’ve said several times that heading into pre-season in this sort of form will leave everyone at Leeds feeling flat. The key this summer is recruitment, that’s blatantly obvious, but finishing the season on a bad run is no way to start.
There are aspects of the job which are making Heckingbottom’s life difficult. To say otherwise would be very unfair. Injuries are rife and at times it’s been hard not to question the motivation of the players. You expect footballers to raise their collective game when a new manager comes in – that old cliche about proving yourself again – but I know from experience that it doesn’t always happen. Some dressing rooms need an overhaul and this, in my opinion, is one of them.
The problem for Heckingbottom, as I see it, is that his track record isn’t especially long. He has the experience of winning the League One play-offs with Barnsley but in the Championship, despite doing well at Barnsley last season, he’s yet to prove that he can mix it at the top.
I don’t have an issue with that because we all have to start somewhere, but when results go wrong, it can count against you. If you’re asking the supporters to have faith, they could argue that they’ve nothing to base that faith on yet. And I see where they’re coming from.
But here’s an interesting comparison. Down the road at Bradford you’ve got Simon Grayson. He’s got a fine track record with multiple promotions from League One but Bradford are as bad under him as they were under Stuart McCall and you can’t have missed Grayson tearing into his players after they got battered at Blackpool last weekend. You could lay the blame at Grayson’s door but isn’t the truth that Bradford need a clear-out? To suggest that Grayson isn’t up to the job isn’t credible. He’s clearly up to it. Take a look at his background.
Then, on the flipside, you’ve got Neil Warnock. I know he isn’t popular in these parts, but if you’re looking for an example of a new manager working wonders with a squad which some would class as limited, look at Cardiff.
Personally I think they’re punching well above their weight and that’s got to be down to him in the main. It is possible for a different coach to make a difference and I saw that first hand when Grayson took over at Leeds.
He had an astute, softly-softly approach which quickly gave us continuity and confidence. I lost my place and that was hard to take but I couldn’t argue with the results. Grayson took a group who were pretty beaten under Gary McAllister and got the show back on the road.
So when it comes to assessing a manager, clubs need to be honest about where they are and what’s going wrong. Where Leeds are concerned, I think they’d be justified in feeling disappointed in how little things have changed on the pitch under Heckingbottom. But I think they’d be passing the buck by claiming he’s the crux the problem.
For the sake of his career, which I hope will be long because I’ve always found him very clever and switched on, he needs to get himself through this. He needs to find a way of turning the corner and making a fist of a big job. It’ll hurt him if such a good opportunity comes to nothing so soon.
As for Leeds, it won’t reflect well on them if, at the the end of the season, they jettison Heckingbottom. It’s literally three months since Andrea Radrizzani was apologising for the last appointment he made.
It would call into question Radrizzani’s judgement, the advice he’s getting from people around him and the idea that Leeds have a coherent plan when it comes to their philosophy.
Heckingbottom needs to produce better results, there’s no denying that, but pointing the finger at him feels like missing the bigger picture.
Yes, he’s had 13 games. But I don’t think he’s had much of a chance.