Paul Heckingbottom on his time at Leeds United and why he has fallen in love with Sheffield United
Paul Heckingbottom learnt plenty of important lessons during his short spell in charge of Leeds.
The only trouble is, for anyone hoping to chart his journey from Elland Road to Bramall Lane, most of them are unprintable.
“I’ve had important experiences all throughout my career,” Heckingbottom says, as he prepares to make his first return to the club he managed for four eventful months with Sheffield United this weekend. “Most of them I wouldn’t say because people would then be writing about them.
“I’ll give you an example. I might have been having a conversation with a senior figure involved and what comes up might mean something to me but absolutely nothing to them. One thing is for sure, the landscape has certainly changed since I started coaching. And I think it will continue to change in the future as well.”
Tomorrow afternoon’s Premier League fixture, at the home of last season’s Championship champions, is a significant date on Heckingbottom’s calendar for a host of different reasons. Professionally speaking, after being placed in caretaker charge of the visitors following Chris Wilder’s departure last month, it is the first English top-flight contest the 43-year-old has properly prepared for since deciding to carve out a career in the dug-out. On a personal level, it represents an opportunity to meet some old friends, renew his acquaintances with those who helped him behind the scenes before leaving West Yorkshire in 2018 and have a face to face conversation with Andrea Radrizzani; the chairman who sacked him after only 16 matches at the helm but with whom he still enjoys a cordial relationship.
“Of course I was frustrated I didn’t get more time,” admits Heckingbottom, reflecting upon the shortest but most instructive episode of his managerial career so far. “I still speak to the ownership there. Right club, wrong time, that’s how I took it. I took positives away, and I’m sure they’d say the same about my time there. A lot of your best work, people just don’t see.”
Leeds clearly left a mark on Heckingbottom, who won four and lost eight of his games in charge. Now aged 43, and with an equally turbulent spell at Hibernian also behind him, the former Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday and Scarborough defender regrets not doing more due diligence on what was happening there at the time before leaving Oakwell after delivering promotion.
United, however, have made an impression on him too. Initially hired to oversee their under-23’s team, Heckingbottom confesses he quickly bought into the philosophy and personality of a squad Wilder, a friend as well as colleague, twice led to promotion before relinquishing control 24 hours before last month’s visit to Leicester City. United lost that match 5-0 but Heckingbottom, who later conceded their chaotic display was inevitable, was pleased with the response his players conjured during their FA Cup quarter-final at Chelsea before the international break.
“Why has this place got into me? First and foremost, it was the relationship with the people here,” Heckingbottom explains. “We’d had conversations, Chris and I. Then we were setting teams up against each other, as my first match at Leeds was here at Bramall Lane.
“I just liked the way this team played, the way it embraced the challenges and went about its business, that’s why I really enjoyed watching it.
“I was asked before I actually came in about coming here. But to be honest, the timing wasn’t right initially as I didn’t know if I’d be able to stay around. And if I came in, I wanted to be totally committed long term to the job. I’ve enjoyed every moment of being here, and I’m pleased with the work we’ve been able to do so far.”
Until Wilder’s hugely successful reign came to an abrupt end three weeks ago, Heckingbottom’s focus was on nurturing talent rather than helping seasoned professionals finish what has been a punishing season on a high. Despite finishing ninth in the table last term, challenging for a place in Europe until the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed their momentum, United travel to Leeds at the bottom of the table and 14 point adrift of safety. Bielsa’s men are 11th, after making the same seamless transition to life in the top-flight as United did 20 months ago.
Having inherited an injury depleted and dispirited group which has lost more times than is healthy since September’s return to action, Heckingbottom has turned to the youngsters he coached at the Steelphalt Academy to try and reinvigorate United’s campaign.
“The under-23’s have been strong all season,” he says, having handed Iliman Ndiaye his senior debut at the KP Stadium. “We might be a category two academy but we’re operating under Premier League rules and so, with the Covid, it’s been tough to get the flow between the groups you’d ordinarily like.
“We’ve tried to open it up a bit, within the testing framework, and there’s been a few who have been involved in one way or another. I don’t have any qualms about bringing them in because, if they’re good enough, they’re old enough.”
A student of the game, Heckingbottom’s sure-footed performances with the media confirm he has used his experiences at Oakwell, Easter Road and also Leeds to grow not only as a coach but also a person. Having enrolled on a coaching course at Leeds Beckett University when his own playing career came to an end, he studied Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund as part of his Masters degree in sports coaching. But Heckingbottom can draw upon plenty of practical experience too, thanks to the contacts he has accumulated during nearly three decades in football.
“There’s lots of people you can ring or call,” he says. “ There’s lots of people who have rung me, since I came into this, with advice and that’s really appreciated. It’s all about not overcomplicating things, not trying to reinvent the wheel. But there’s still plenty we can do.”