Pragmatic Heckingbottom feels Barnsley’s peak is likely to prove out of his reach

BaBarnsley's head coach Paul Heckingbottom. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
BaBarnsley's head coach Paul Heckingbottom. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
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Asked to assess how far he has come in a little over 18 months in management, Paul Heckingbottom rocks back in his chair and exhales slowly.

“Crikey, that’s a question,” responds Barnsley’s head coach, a smile creeping onto his face.

Cameron McGeehan, of Barnsley, celebrates scoring his team's second goal against Middlesbrough (Picturer: James Hardisty)

Cameron McGeehan, of Barnsley, celebrates scoring his team's second goal against Middlesbrough (Picturer: James Hardisty)

“The amount of things we’ve gone through on and off the pitch, the different situations...I ought to really look back at it properly and take as much from it as I possibly can,” is his more considered response when it finally comes.

“I haven’t done that yet. I know it’s made me better, all the things we’ve gone through. Just purely from a team perspective, and coaching perspective, this summer all that we went through, was a really, really, big challenge and that’s why when I speak well of the players it’s not me just trying to build their confidence up, I do actually believe what I’m saying.

“From where we were just a few weeks ago, two months ago, we’ve come a long way, and that’s down to their application.”

They have come further still from February 6, 2016, when Lee Johnson left Oakwell for Bristol City and Heckingbottom was tasked with taking the reins in a caretaker capacity.

The amount of things we’ve gone through on and off the pitch, the different situations...I ought to really look back at it properly and take as much from it as I possibly can

Paul Heckingbottom

Fourteen wins later, two of those at Wembley, in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and League One play-off finals, and Heckingbottom was made head coach on a permanent basis.

This extended honeymoon led to the usual peaks and troughs of a marathon Championship season when Barnsley did enough to survive in the second tier despite spells in the first half of the season and at the end of the campaign in which they claimed just two victories in 25 games.

In the background of what was ultimately a successful campaign was the changing of chief executives that left Heckingbottom filling that role for much of the back end of last season as the club’s prime talent became ripe for picking by rival clubs. Such demands on his time and the high turnover of players could have broken lesser men, but Heckingbottom used it to his advantage.

A quarter of the way through his second full season at Oakwell, the signs are that once again he is building a young squad capable of mixing it with the bigger names in the division.

The Reds went into the latest international break on the back of an encouraging week in which they took seven points from three games, which propelled them away from potential trouble and up to 16th.

This latest Barnsley vintage is cut from the Heckingbottom image – young and hungry – and if the head coach has his own way, they will stay together for a long time to come.

“You look at the age of the squad and I’d love to keep this group together because in four years we might be in our prime,” acknowledges Heckingbottom of a Utopian theory he is not foolish enough to buy into.

“If you knew you could keep everyone together and keep delivering the same message and push as hard as you can every day, then if they did ever reach their peak together it would be exciting.

“I got told after the Burton game (last Tuesday) that 25 was our oldest player in the team.

“So you can see how far they’ve got to go. It’d be great to keep all these players together for that many years and have them together in their prime, but the chances of that are slim.”

So Heckingbottom knows he has to keep evolving his squad via the transfer window, with this January’s latest mad dash to the sales set to be as stressful as the summer’s market. With a young squad at his disposal, does he feel the need to balance it out with veteran leadership?

“With a young squad we’ve got lots of strengths; our running stats are among the best in the league so we have to play to those strengths; and our frailties off the back of that is something we have to hide, and we try and get people in to cover that,” he says.

“But in terms of signing older players, they just have to be the right player. I know where we have a couple of deficiencies in the squad, but they have to be the right type of player to bridge that gap, and that’s all we look for, and if we don’t find the player we’re not just going to sign someone off the back of their age or what they’ve done.”

That form towards the international break owed much to a squad getting healthier and a consistency of selection for Heckingbottom. Not that he is taking an eye off the players on the outside looking in.

“I can find out a lot more about the players when they’re left out; do they take it on board and put it right?” he asks, rhetorically.

“How do we make them better during that period, without being soft on them, how do we provide the right support and the right environment to push them?

“I’ve said it to them all, if you want to be the best you can be you have to fight and scrap for it, or you just go to a level where you play every week.”

Heckingbottom has been fighting and scrapping for Barnsley Football Club for the last 18 months or so. He just has not had time to stop and think about it.