What one of Hull's most recognisable sporting faces was doing at Sheffield United this week
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Given that Heckingbottom’s team had just been applying the finishing touches to their preparations for tomorrow night’s game against the East Yorkshire city’s football club, Tony Smith’s presence might have raised eyebrows among the security staff who patrol the gates of the Randox Health Academy; tasked with ensuring United’s tactical and strategic planning takes place in total secrecy. But the Australian rugby league coach is a long-time friend, mentor and confidant of Heckingbottom. Despite not sharing his mate’s passion for the self-styled “greatest game”, the United manager still cherishes his regular catch-ups with Smith who, after leaving Hull Kingston Rovers towards the end of the last Super League season, is now preparing to begin the new one in charge of their neighbours and arch-rivals Hull FC.
“It’s good for both of us, I hope,” Heckingbottom told The Star, detailing his relationship with Smith ahead of the meeting with Liam Rosenior’s side. “It’s hard, when you’re both working, to meet face to face as much as you’d like. But Tony comes through when he can to watch us work and see how we work. I really respect him, as a person and his opinions. Where it benefits me, definitely, is that I get a chance to bounce ideas about.”
Heckingbottom first met Smith several years ago, when the League Managers’ Association hired the former Illawarra Steelers and St George Dragons stand-off to deliver a workshop on leadership. It is a subject Smith is eminently qualified to advise on, having won two Grand Finals and three Challenge Cups during successful spells with Leeds Rhinos and Warrington Wolves before heading to Craven Park. Fascinated by what he had to say, Heckingbottom made Smith’s acquaintance immediately afterwards and the pair have remained in contact ever since.
“He’s got much more experience than me, much more,” Heckingbottom said, revealing he hopes to visit the Jacuzzi Elite Performance Centre, where Hull FC based themselves ahead of matches, in the near future. “There’s things Tony sees because of that. We’d love to do this the other way around as well.”
“It’s a change from the normal routine, so that’s good for both of us,” he continued. “I’ve encouraged all of my staff to pick Tony’s brain as well, because he’s got some brilliant ideas and things to say.
“There’s always a danger, when you live and breathe what you do, that you get stuck in your own bubble. I love this job and I live it. But where is your perspective? What is your reality? That’s why it’s great for me to be able to speak with someone like Tony.”
Smith was a huge source of encouragement and advice for Heckingbottom when he was handed the reins on a caretaker basis towards the end of the 2020/21 campaign; accepting the brief of restoring some stability to a club in chaos following Chris Wilder’s departure and spiralling towards relegation from the Premier League. Twenty one months on, having been appointed on a permanent basis midway through last term, Heckingbottom has led United to second in the Championship table. A victory over Rosenior’s men, who are 16th, would see them move 14 points clear of third place.
“We’re always discussing management and leadership,” Heckingbottom said. “Tony might be involved in a different sport but the key principles of those are the same, no matter what the discipline. Football is something that I’ve done all my life and I feel comfortable in it. But things change and you have to try and stay ahead of the curve. There’s plenty of things that you can apply across the board.”
Somehow, in between organising United and spending time with his family, Heckingbottom also finds the time to study towards a doctorate in professional practice in sport. Although that work, overseen by Leeds Beckett University, has been temporarily placed on hold in order to allow him to focus on trying to deliver promotion, Heckingbottom already possesses both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the subject.
“I like to study away from here and that academic perspective can bring something different to football,” he explained. “Managing upwards is important at any club and I know that’s something Tony is really big on as well. We’ve just had five minutes together before coming in here about personal values and how they might conflict with your job."
Heckingbottom’s intelligence and willingness to embrace different methods enabled him to steer United through an injury crisis earlier this season which would have overwhelmed most other clubs. Although Rhian Brewster and Rhys Norrington-Davies remain unavailable for selection, Oli McBurnie could be named on the bench after making progress in his battle to overcome an ankle problem. Heckingbottom, who confirmed John Fleck and Ciaran Clark are also “back on the grass” following Wednesday afternoon’s training session, had been minded to only recall the centre-forward when he was fit enough to start. The leg problem Iliman Ndiaye sustained during last weekend’s win over Stoke City is not as serious as first feared, meaning the Senegal international is again expected to spearhead United’s attack. But given the difficulties Heckingbottom is experiencing as he attempts to sign a replacement for the now departed Reda Khadra, coupled with Brewster’s continued absence, appear to have prompted his plan for McBurnie to be revised.
Heckingbottom first came across Rosenior during the latter’s spell at Derby County, when he brokered the loan deal which took United’s Will Osula to Pride Park. Osula is now back at Bramall Lane while Rosenior joined Hull in November.
“He’ll be really hands-on and you can see little changes in the team there already,” Heckingbottom said. “I really like that and I’m looking forward to having a proper chat with him afterwards, hopefully once we’ve won.”