PAUL HECKINGBOTTOM has stressed that he and his Barnsley players will ‘stay strong’ amid unsavoury national headlines that culminated in the club’s dismissal of assistant head coach Tommy Wright following corruption allegations.
Wright was sacked after a club investigation having being filmed by undercover Daily Telegraph reporter, when he appeared to accept a £5,000 cash ‘bung’ after allegedly agreeing to help Barnsley sign players from a fake Far East firm.
The newspaper had filmed the operation as part of a 10-month investigation into alleged corruption in football. Wright has denied any wrongdoing.
He was introduced to undercover reporters by two football agents and reportedly agreed in a series of meetings to identify players who could be “put into” Barnsley and help get players to sign up with the fictitious firm.
Video footage appeared to show Wright accept “a bundle of £20 notes” handed to him in an envelope during a meeting in Leeds on August 11.
The Telegraph also reported that club owner Patrick Cryne had agreed to meet a representative of that purported Far Eastern company looking to invest in football, together with head coach Heckingbottom and Wright.
But there was no suggestion that Cryne, Heckingbottom or anyone connected with the club had been aware of the payment to Wright or his arrangements with the bogus firm.
The club announced the decision to terminate Wright’s contract with immediate effect via a statement yesterday lunch-time, with the Reds’ assistant coach having earlier met with chief executive Linton Brown.
A statement read: “After considering Mr Wright’s response to allegations in today’s (Thursday’s) Daily Telegraph about breaching FA rules over player transfers, Mr Wright was dismissed.
“The club was unaware of such matters or involved in any wrongdoing. The club will continue to fully investigate the issues at hand and will co-operate with the regulatory authorities as necessary.”
Heckingbottom spoke to the players about the whole issue at a team meeting yesterday morning before trying to draw a line under the matter ahead of tomorrow’s derby at Leeds United.
The Reds’ head coach has pledged that the events of a difficult last day or so for the club will not impact on the players come kick-off at Elland Road – or serve as a potential excuse.
He said: “Our job is on the pitch and we have to stay strong and focused. We have shown that we are good at that, whether in game pressure situations or things rumbling on in the background.
“Some things are really hard to deal with. But you deal with them and get on with it and that is what we will do again.
“There are loads of distractions that do not come out. Some are not nice to deal with, some are minor. There are always things going off – that is the nature of it.
“Whether it is big news or personal issues for people, there’s always difficult things to deal with. It is just the nature of the job.
“Obviously, this is a big nationwide thing at the minute and everyone is interested and rightly so; it is a big deal.
“But we cannot get carried away with anything going off and we have to keep doing our job and preparing properly.
“If our focus shifts, we will come unstuck. It is our job that everyone is on task.
“If you want an excuse to fail, you can find one. You can find one every day, if you want.
“The people who succeed and go on to be great in whatever they do find an excuse why they are not going to fail.”
Weekend opponents Leeds were also the subject of newspaper allegations, with owner Massimo Cellino filmed by undercover reporters where he appeared to offer an investment deal to a fictitious firm as a way of avoiding Football Association rules on third-party ownership of players.
Leeds swiftly dismissed the report as a “non-story” in a statement, insisting that Cellino had breached no regulations during the conversation.
Head coach Garry Monk stressed that he also felt that the club’s response was “appropriate”, with no case to answer.
But in terms of the wider topic of corruption in football, which is hogging the headlines in the wake of the allegations that saw Sam Allardyce lose his job as England manager, Monk believes that everyone connected with football need to do what it takes to preserve the game’s integrity.
He said: “If these things are proven right, it needs to be cleaned and wiped out of football. What is important to me is the integrity of football.
“I grew up as a young kid watching football and have been a fan in the stands and lucky enough to have a professional career and seen every single league, the struggles and the highs.
“The biggest part of that is the integrity in what we do and honesty in which we do it and we have always been very conscious of that in this country.
“Football needs to be taken care of. We all have that responsibility; managers, players, agents, fans, owners – everyone involved.
“We have a responsibility to make sure this game is held in the highest regard.”