Sheffield United's Paul Heckingbottom reflects on experience and calls for fans to be given a greater say in the governance of football after European Super League furore
Paul Heckingbottom has advocated calls for supporters to be granted a greater say in how English clubs are run as the domestic game continues to deal with the aftershocks of the European Super League crisis.
Confirming he viewed the proposal to create a breakaway competition as an affront to the “traditional” values of the game, Heckingbottom, Sheffield United’s caretaker manager, told The Star the role fans played in thwarting its creation had only strengthened his belief they should be more involved in the sport’s governance.
Although Heckingbottom admitted he does not envisage teams in this country adopting the German model - which limits the influence commercial investors can exert over an individual team’s affairs - he described his experience of working with an elected representative from the terraces during a spell in charge of Hibernian as “totally positive”.
“Would I like to see it happening? Yes,” replied Heckingbottom, when asked if English sides should allow a spokesperson for their following to attend board meetings. “Can I see it happening? Can I see us going down the route of Germany, where no one person is allowed to own more than 49 per cent of the shares? No, I can’t. I think that would be difficult.
“But I’ve experienced it as a manager myself and, from my perspective, it was a really positive experience. Totally positive, because it gave the people who came to watch us the knowledge that they were being listened to.”
Heckingbottom spent nine months at Easter Road before leaving Edinburgh in November 2019. After being appointed to United’s coaching staff last summer, with special responsibility for their under-23’s squad, Heckingbottom was placed in interim charge last month when Chris Wilder’s five year reign came to an end.
Reflecting upon his time north of the border, and also the decision of six English sides to withdraw their interest in joining an ESL following a series of protests, Heckingbottom said: “What happened up there was that fans could buy shares in the club, although there was a cap I believe. But that was important because the owner of a club can change at any time, whereas they are always there.
“What it did was provide a lot more clarity. Like I say, I can’t see us going down the German route but I think it speaks volumes that there were no German clubs signing up for the Super League project.”
After Manchester City and Chelsea signalled their intention to withdraw from talks about establishing an ESL, which would have seen relegation outlawed, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur also confirmed they would no longer be seeking to take part. John Henry, United owner Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s counterpart at Anfield, later apologised for his role in the project after supporters of the reigning champions voiced their disapproval.
Dismissing the notion that handing fans a seat around the boardroom table would complicate the decision making process, Heckingbottom continued: “They weren’t necessarily making the key decisions but, like I say, it did bring them real clarity. It enabled them to know that the things they care about where being noticed and listened to.
“There was a maximum the fans’ group could own at Hibs and then they voted one person onto the board. That brought a real openness.”
“The manager’s role wasn’t altered at all,” he added. “It was a really good idea because it helped the fans to connect. To be honest, in Scotland, there is a lot more of a connection between them and the clubs full stop because it’s less corporate and there’s less money, which is what often gets in the way.
“You could feel that on the touchline and also just walking about the place. I liked it.”
With United’s relegation from the top-flight being mathematically confirmed following last weekend’s defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers, the furore surrounding the ESL has at least provided a distraction from events on the pitch at Bramall Lane.
Although Heckingbottom insisted his sole focus in on Saturday’s game against Brighton and Hove Albion, he acknowledged he expects the ESL proposal to be repackaged and reshaped at some point in the future.
“My own opinion is that I think it was wrong and am pleased with the outcome so far,” Heckingbottom said. “But it won’t go away. It won’t go away, because some of the owners obviously want it. The fans have had a voice and all of football has had a voice. That’s only right.”
Despite United’s demotion following two years at the highest level, Heckingbottom described the concepts of promotion and relegation - which the ESL was seeking to abandon - as sacrosanct. Involving supporters more in decisions about how football is developed would, he predicted, act as a bullwark against the influence of big finance.
“It’s been happening all the time, change,” he said. “You think of how big a deal it was when SKY came in and the reworking of the European Cup into the Champions League. The big problem is it’s the money that’s driving it. Clubs want to be in charge of their own money, showing their own games and all of that. That is the driving force behind it.
“It has to be the competition first, for integrity. Not clubs coming first. I would hate to think you are never rewarded for how well you perform on the pitch. Not the money you can bring in.”