He might not become Sheffield United's next manager, but Paul Heckingbottom has already proved his worth at Bramall Lane
You can sense the opportunity to become Sheffield United’s next manager is beginning to slip from his grasp, as Bramall Lane’s hierarchy cast flirtatious glances in Slavisa Jokanovic’s direction.
But two months after being handed one of the hottest potatoes in football after being placed in interim charge, Paul Heckingbottom has demonstrated both an eye for detail and ability to think strategically which suggests the club’s owner would be missing a trick if he does not expand his brief beyond overseeing the under-23’s. Assuming, as now seems likely, United appoint externally.
Having temporarily vacated his position at the Steelphalt Academy following Chris Wilder’s departure in March, Heckingbottom has struggled to change fortunes on the pitch since replacing the 53-year-old. To do so would have been virtually impossible, given the events of this term. But he needed a sequence of positive results to convince supporters, and a board sensitive to being accused of taking the cheapest possible option, that he had what it takes to lead United next season.
Overseeing preparations for Sunday’s visit to Everton having lost six of his seven matches so far, Heckingbottom has failed to deliver on that particular score. But with United’s relegation from the Premier League already confirmed, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief has made an impression behind the scenes where, to borrow one of Wilder’s favourite phrases, his “fingerprints are all over” the recovery programme officials have designed to help Jokanovic, Alexander Blessin, Philippe Clement or whoever hit the ground running when they arrive in South Yorkshire.
“Every suggestion I put forward, every opinion I’ll give, it’s for the benefit of the club as a whole,” Heckingbottom said. “That’s the only thing in my mind. Not how it might impact on me or whatever. Just the club, because that’s how it’s got to be.”
Only a couple of weeks ago, after chief executive Steve Bettis confirmed he was in contention for the job on a permanent basis, Heckingbottom looked and sounded more like Wilder’s successor with every interview. Suspicions Bettis had been instructed to publicly reveal his candidacy in order to gauge the temperature on the terraces solidified when it also emerged Heckingbottom had been invited to help shape United’s response to being relegated from the Premier League with six games remaining.
It is in this role where Heckingbottom has really impressed; outlining where and how United must improve in order not to not only give themselves the best chance of returning to the highest level at the first attempt but also more hope of establishing a foothold when they do.
By also issuing advice to United’s hierarchy about their responsibilities, Heckingbottom now comes across as a potential sporting director. Or, at the very least, someone who could help Wilder’s eventual successor comprehend the bigger picture in S2, rather than obsess purely about first team affairs. Given the accent United have placed on youth in their recovery blueprint, and recognising his role in helping to develop the likes of Iliman Ndiaye, Antwoine Hackford, Frankie Maguire and Daniel Jebbison, who made his senior debut against Crystal Palace last weekend, HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his advisor Jan van Winckel might be wise to consider making even better use of his knowledge.
“The key thing is, you’ve got to grow the club in all areas,” Heckingbottom said. “You’ve got to grow on the pitch, but you’ve also got to grow it off the pitch as well.
“If you look at Palace, they are one of those who managed to establish themselves. But the fact they have retained people like Wilfried Zaha and brought Andros Townsend in, how much do you think they pay them? Obviously not as much as they might earn elsewhere but they’ve grown the club to ensure they can do that.”
“It’s everything, the whole package,” he continued. “You’ve got to strive to get better and move forward in every single department. If you can grow the club, for example, then that opens up avenues you might not otherwise have been able to explore in terms of quality, which in turn brings the best out in those around them.”
Perhaps Heckingbottom’s greatest asset during his discussions with Prince Abdullah, van Winckel and Bettis is the fact he has first hand experience of how and why clubs fail. After impressing during a brief spell at Oakwell, Heckingbottom observed the circus that was Elland Road before Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at close quarters before seeing his posting in Edinburgh hijacked by political upheaval. In short, Heckingbottom knows the danger signs and the pitfalls of not adhering to a plan.
“People often look at jobs, and how someone has performed, but they never consider the context, they never think about what was happening around them at the time,” he said. “Things happen that suddenly change the goalposts and, ideally, unless you are the one changing them then you don’t want that to happen.”
Despite being thrust into the spotlight when United acknowledged they were analysing his CV, Heckingbottom has consistently tried to distance himself from suggestions he covets the position. Despite admitting he might return to management “one day”, he has reminded journalists on countless occasions that the first thing he did after stepping into the breach, after clearing things with Wilder, was seek assurances he could return to his work at the academy when his first team responsibilities expired. The smooth transition Ndiaye, Jebbison and co have made after being summoned to the first team building illustrates he is a skilled youth coach; particularly when it comes to ensuring those under his command know what is expected of them when they make the step up.
“You need a young, hungry group coming through,” Heckingbottom said. “That’s the sign of a healthy football club.”