Forgive the tardiness in responding to the news that Leeds United have appointed a new head coach in Paul Heckingbottom (it’s been a busy week and much of what needed to be said had been covered by other people). I went through the entire range of initial emotions that most fans experience in years in little under 12 hours. After 24 hours I was sold – Paul is the right man for the job. For now. For everyone.
Why? Well, it transcends the simple notion of him being from Yorkshire, though that is a comfort to me. I’ve long maintained that it takes someone from the area to “get” what Leeds truly is. It’s a difficult job and that’s hard to explain to an objective outsider. Fan expectation is rarely tempered by reality and even less so by diminished hope due to poor owners (such has been our story for the last decade). A head coach might join the club anticipating that they’ve got 3 years to build a squad capable of promotion, yet we know that this is a false promise. The fans expect continual upward momentum (even if it’s gradual) and seemingly the board do too.
There’s a weird dichotomy of being head coach at Leeds. The fans can get behind you, the players and the board and it can be an incredible force. But if it starts to turn toxic, it’s very hard to rectify. A few bad results with perceived bad decision making contributing to it and a head coach can suddenly find themselves very “discussed” on social media. The grace period is small and that’s a big hurdle for a lot of coaches.
Paul Heckingbottom, however, seems to be a shrewd appointment though not without nagging concerns. Initial interviews with him are incredibly good material for showing why he got the role. He’s articulate, considered and knowledgeable whilst maintaining this veneer of stern authority. If we acknowledge that there’s been a lack of control over the playing squad then this seems a suitable antidote. Thomas Christiansen may have been friends with the players, but this friendly accord is seemingly insufficient to drag underperforming people into shape (or even cut out poor discipline).
Heckingbottom has a reputation of being a strict time-keeper and sets high standards he expects all players to work to. This bodes well for a squad that most fans would label “soft”. Initial video footage of him taking training sessions shows him to be a very different presence on the grass than TC. The latter’s more dulcet tones contrasted with Heckingbottom’s louder more authoritarian bellows. Psychologically I think this introduction of discipline and structure will help shore things up and correct some mistakes. People can’t “go rogue” under PH easily, I can’t imagine.
But it’s more than just having a more “shouty” boss, his footballing philosophies seem more in-tune with what Leeds need. Christiansen was fond (to a fault) of 4-2-3-1 and refused to budge from it despite overwhelming evidence suggesting he should. Heckingbottom has used a range of formations over his time at Barnsley to suit the players that were available and the opposition, though he acknowledges that the system changes depending on the phase of play. In attack they might form a different shape to defending. I expect he’ll start simple at Leeds and play conservatively until he understands the players more. But he himself would say that he likes more pressing, attacking tactics, so it’s exciting to see what happens tomorrow.
The doubts I have are around Barnsley’s current form where he has been unable to end a win-less streak that stretches beyond a dozen games. Though those closer to the club suggest that given the materials he has been forced to work with, it’s no surprise that things are looking dire. But when you look at the slump Leeds find themselves in and the fact TC was sacked for not being able to find a way to turn it around, it’s only sensible that you carry concerns for a new head coach who had struggled to achieve the same in his previous role.
But those closer to the club still loved “Hecky” and he’s well respected, so it’s only fair that he’s given a shot with Leeds. He has a fondness of developing younger players and bringing them through to the first team. Which is clearly the business model that Andrea Radrizzani is wanting to work with, so having a head coach that endorses it makes total sense.
Kick off isn’t far away now and while it would be unfair to expect great things from his first game (with so many key players out), it’ll just be exciting to get the next chapter of the club moving forwards. There’s something to be said for what we’ve seen from Radrizzani this week too, but that’s for another day.