By Chris Dunlavy
PAUL Heckingbottom may not be the man Leeds fans want, at least if the outcry on fans’ forums is any gauge.
But after six months of a season that has veered from the sublime to the ridiculous, the 40-year-old Yorkshireman may be the man they need.
In the 14 years since Leeds’ relegation from the Premier League, 19 men have occupied the Elland Road dugout. For many – not least Thomas Christiansen – that seat proved far too hot.
As defeats mounted amid a disciplinary meltdown, the Dane became increasingly subdued and monosyllabic.
Even in the good times he appeared introverted and serious, a perpetually furrowed brow betraying the pressure of managing this fallen behemoth.
“I felt the players were a little bit stressed when they went into games,” said owner Andrea Radrizzani who rather harshly called Christiansen “a mistake”. “We needed a coach with personality to calm them.”
At first glance, Heckingbottom, lured from Barnsley after two years of quiet overachievement, doesn’t fit the bill. The former Manchester United trainee certainly isn’t a larger-than-life character in the mould of Neil Warnock or Harry Redknapp.
But if we assume that ‘personality’ is shorthand for self-belief, the new Whites boss has that in spades. Like a younger, less belligerent Mick McCarthy – a fellow Barnsley boy – Heckingbottom is straight-talking, pragmatic and fazed by nothing.
That much was evident in his opening media call, when he gently scoffed at questions over the length of his contract.
“Doesn’t bother me,” he said. “A contract is worth what the severance payment is. That’s it. In this business, we all know an 18-month contract can last three years or six weeks. That’s how I look at it.”
He cursorily dismissed Barnsley’s complaints over Leeds approach, just days after he’d signed a new deal at Oakwell. “If anything, they are the winners in all this,” he stated, referencing the £500,000 release clause that Leeds activated to release him.
He refused to set arbitrary targets, outline expectations or discuss the myriad men who’d tried and failed before him.
“I don’t know what they did and I don’t want to know,” added Heckingbottom. “I’ll just enjoy it. I’ll block out all the distractions, all the white noise. I’ve got a clear picture in my head of what the future looks like and I’ll drag people along with me.”
For Heckingbottom, this is a yearned-for chance to show his coaching mettle. Barnsley’s straitened circumstances often left him performing administrative duties at Oakwell, torture for a man who loves to work on the grass.
At Elland Road, scouting and recruitment will be controlled by director of football Victor Orta, leaving the manager free to revive a side seven points shy of a play-off spot pre-weekend.
What’s for certain is that Leeds’ players will challenged. Having been forced to scour the lower leagues for uncut gems at Oakwell, Heckingbottom was asked if he’d enjoy working with players more like the finished article.
“There’s no such thing,” he insisted. “Nobody wins anything unless they overachieve. No-one. I love thinking that way because there’s always more you can get out of people.
“The overriding factor at any club is building a winning team. But, within that, you need players who are determined to get better – regardless of their stature. Only when you get that will you succeed.”
At Leeds, only a place in the Premier League represents success. In Heckingbottom, Leeds not only have someone who recognises that, but genuinely believes he can deliver it.