Words of advice and when Sheffield United tried to sign Leeds United and England midfielder Kalvin Phillips
It was supposed to be a discussion about working with Kalvin Phillips, the Leeds and England midfielder, during his brief spell at Elland Road.
But as he reflected on perhaps the most important piece of advice he gave the 25-year-old before being replaced by Marcelo Bielsa - the man he reminded who should take most of the credit for unlocking Phillips’ potential - Paul Heckingbottom also provided Sheffield United’s players with an invaluable nugget of information about how to handle the criticism provoked by their results this term.
Placed in caretaker charge of today’s visitors to West Yorkshire following Chris Wilder’s departure last month, Heckingbottom spent four months working with Phillips after being appointed as the hosts’ new head coach in 2018. The youngster’s talent was immediately evident. But so too, Heckingbottom remembered last night, was the bad atmosphere surrounding Leeds as they plodded towards a mid-table finish in the Championship, much to the disgust of the home fans.
“Usually, the local boys get spared the stick from the stands,” Heckingbottom said. “But in this case, they weren’t being. There were a few young local lads in there at the time and so we told them ‘Get back to listening to your manager, because he is the one who picks the team.’
“As a player, you’ve always got your friends and family around you. They will give you the support.
“All the rest, well it’s just background noise. So don’t listen to any of it.”
United were applying the finishing touches to what only one season later would become a promotion winning squad when Heckingbottom arrived at Leeds following a successful but testing time at Barnsley. With Bielsa’s squad joining them in the top-flight a little over 12 months later, after Chris Wilder had led United to a ninth placed finish, Heckingbottom inherited a squad languishing at the bottom of the Premier League table and destined for relegation when the former Northampton Town and Oxford chief departed three weeks ago following a series of disagreements behind the scenes.
As United prepare to return to the Championship, and finalise their search for Wilder’s permanent successor, it has been forgotten that Wilder made a discreet enquiry about signing Phillips during the summer of 2019. Although that was rebuffed, Wilder felt encouraged enough to try and revive the bid several weeks later. By that time, however, Bielsa had already decided that Phillips should not be sold at any price.
“I knew Kalvin from being a 15 year old,” Heckingbottom said, after watching him make his international debut in September. “I’d seen him in youth teams, and was really interested in him.
“When I went in, I knew all about him. As a coach, there’s nothing better than seeing players you’ve worked with achieve great things.
“You knew he had the potential. But not for England, when he was in the Championship. I know he was getting a look in, which shows how well he was doing. But usually, if you think England, you think Premier League. That’s what he’s done.”