A DIFFICULT few days for Barnsley culminated in a third defeat from four outings, but manager Paul Heckingbottom still believes his promoted side can be pleased with their start to life back in the Championship.
The Reds were rocked midway through last week when allegations of corruption were made about assistant manager Tommy Wright as part of an expose into football by a national newspaper.
Video footage released by the Daily Telegraph showed Wright accepting £5,000 in cash during a series of meetings with a fake Far East firm, in which he agreed to help sign players part-owned by the firm. Wright denied any wrongdoing, but was sacked on Thursday morning following an internal investigation by the club’s hierarchy.
Wright had played a pivotal role in last season’s success as Barnsley won promotion and lifted the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, and Heckingbottom admits the departure of his good friend has been “difficult”.
“I have spoken to him a few times,” said the 39-year-old when asked if there had been any contact between him and Wright.
“It is difficult. He is my mate. From (last) Wednesday morning, the conversations I have had with him have not been nice.
“Anything I said to Tommy is between me and him. Anything I say to you is about football and about us getting better and moving on, which is all we can do.”
Jamie Clapham, who had left Coventry City earlier in the week following Tony Mowbray’s own departure, was drafted in ahead of the trip to Elland Road to bolster the Reds’ coaching team.
The former Leeds loanee was alongside Heckingbottom in the away dugout as Barnsley slipped to defeat despite a late rally that saw the home goal come under intense pressure.
Barnsley, in fact, started and ended the derby on top, and could consider themselves unfortunate to make the short trip back down the M1 empty-handed.
In that regard, Heckingbottom’s side deserve praise for the manner in which they coped with last week’s disruption.
“Easy, because that’s our job,” replied the Oakwell chief when asked how he had managed to keep the players’ focus on football. “I am glad it is out of the way, although I would have loved to have got that equaliser to put everything behind us and move on.
“But, in terms of the response by the players, it was first-class and they have shown there is no hangover. They want to do it for themselves. We are a team and a group and we want to do well for each other.”
Pressed on his own thoughts after the Wright affair, Heckingbottom added: “Nothing changes in terms of my view. It has been done. What happened happened, and you have to move on.
“Players know that and their role doesn’t change. They will be asked to do the same things and from my perspective – like I say to anyone at the football club – when you make a change you have to make sure it is a change for the better and get some good staff in and improve.
“The club acted swiftly, you have to. It has made my job easier and the players’ jobs easier because their focus is on the football.”
As for Clapham’s arrival and whether the move could be a long-term one, he added: “The timing was perfect. He happened to leave Coventry at the same time. I have known him many years now and he agreed to come and help me out in the short term, which is fantastic for me.
“We are looking. It may be ‘Claps’, it may be someone else.”
Defeat meant Barnsley slipped to 10th, one place above Leeds in the table and four points adrift of the play-off spots.
With Wigan Athletic sitting fourth bottom and Burton Albion occupying 15th place after 11 games, the Reds are the best performing side of the trio that won promotion last term.
“I just said to the players,” added Heckingbottom, “16 points from 11 games is something we would have snapped someone’s hand off for. But we are about getting better, so can we get more than 16 from the next 11. We will work hard at the start of next week and then have a little break. Then, we start again.”