LEEDS UNITED were last night closing in on the appointment of Paul Heckingbottom as manager after a dramatic day of twists and turns in Yorkshire football.
The Elland Road club turned to the Barnsley chief just hours after calling time on Thomas Christiansen’s reign at the helm.
Providing there are no late hitches, Heckingbottom, who only signed a new one-year rolling contract at Oakwell a few days ago, will take charge of training today as the United players return from a day off.
His first game in charge will be a White Rose derby against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane as Leeds look to breathe fresh life into a flagging push for the play-offs.
Heckingbottom, whose second anniversary of taking charge at Barnsley is today, was quickly identified by the United hierarchy as the man for the job.
An approach was made to the Reds along with an offer that triggered the buyout clause – believed to be around £500,000 – in the 40-year-old’s new contract.
Talks over personal terms then followed last night in Leeds with Heckingbottom, who has rejected interest from Sunderland and Nottingham Forest in recent months to remain in South Yorkshire.
His impending departure will come as a blow to Barnsley, who sit one place above the relegation zone after winning just one of their last 15 league outings.
The club’s new owners, led by co-chairman Chien Lee, clearly wanted the former Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford City defender to lead the fight for Championship survival.
Six players arrived in the January transfer window, including three in the final half-hour, in an attempt to kick-start a revival. Five of those new faces featured in Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Queens Park Rangers.
Heckingbottom took charge of Barnsley, initially on a temporary basis, following Lee Johnson’s departure for Bristol City on February 6, 2016. He led the Reds to the double of promotion from League One via the play-offs and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success inside his first few months.
Last season, he had guided Barnsley to eighth place and to within touching distance of the play-offs when the January window opened. The heart of his side was then ripped out as Conor Hourihane, Sam Winnall and James Bree were all sold.
Barnsley’s next move will be fascinating as the club’s owners begin their search for a successor.
As for Heckingbottom, he is set to become Leeds’s tenth managerial appointment in a little over five years. Only Watford come close to matching such a frequent turnover in dugout personnel, Javia Garcia having last month become the ninth new man at the helm of the Premier League club during the same period.
The Royston-born lifelong Barnsley fan inherits a Leeds squad that has taken just two points from a possible 18 and suffers from an appalling disciplinary record.
Gaetano Berardi’s red card against Cardiff City last Saturday, which will incur a two-game ban for the defender, was the fourth time in five outings that United had been reduced to ten men. It also took the season’s tally of dismissals to seven, comfortably the highest in the Championship.
The new man at the helm also faces a daunting fixture list, with the weekend visit to Bramall Lane followed by home games against Bristol City and Brentford that sandwich a trip to Derby County.
Then comes a visit to Middlesbrough on the first Friday in March before runaway leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers head to Elland Road.
It is a tough schedule and one made no easier by the lengthy list of suspensions and injuries.
Heckingbottom, however, has already proved himself to be a coach capable of overcoming adversity.
He suffered the blow of losing assistant Tommy Wright after the former Leeds and Oldham man had been caught up in a national newspaper investigation, but Barnsley’s season did not suffer as a result.
Nor was Heckingbottom fazed by the abrupt departure of chief executive Linton Brown during last year’s January transfer window, something that led to him having to field countless phone calls from agents and rival clubs for a spell due to no one else being able to step in.
Despite that clear distraction from his ‘day job’ of preparing the team, Barnsley still brought in five new faces and went on to finish 14th on the back of losing Hourihane, Winnall and Bree.
United analysis: Page 18.