Heckingbottom's memorable first year in charge of the Reds

A MEASURE of just what a remarkable first year Paul Heckingbottom has enjoyed in management came earlier this week.
Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom holds aloft the League One play-off final  trophy (Picture: Nigel French/PA Wire).Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom holds aloft the League One play-off final  trophy (Picture: Nigel French/PA Wire).
Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom holds aloft the League One play-off final trophy (Picture: Nigel French/PA Wire).

To mark the anniversary of the club’s head coach taking interim charge, Barnsley’s official website asked for supporters’ favourite memories of the past 12 months.

As was to be expected, plenty of the responses centred on last May’s glorious play-off final success at Wembley against Millwall.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

That triumph under the Arch, however, was far from the only positive recollection that Reds’ supporters have of Heckingbottom’s reign.

The thrilling Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win against Oxford United also got plenty of mentions, as did the day a man regarded by fans very much as “one of our own” signed a permanent deal to take charge last summer.

Other personal fan highlights included how Heckingbottom galvanised his players after the dejection of conceding a ‘98th-minute’ equaliser to Colchester United on the penultimate weekend that left Barnsley needing to win at champions-elect Wigan Athletic to guarantee a play-off place and even his clash with the Wolverhampton Wanderers bench a couple of weeks ago.

As worthy as all these were, however, perhaps the reply that best summed up Heckingbottom’s first year at the helm was the one that simply read: “Too many to mention. Thanks, Hecky.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Barnsley do, indeed, owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 39-year-old, who stepped in after Lee Johnson had opted to swap Oakwell for Bristol City on February 6 last year.

Johnson’s exit came just 36 hours after the South Yorkshire club had booked their place at Wembley in the Football League Trophy final via a dramatic penalty shoot-out victory at Fleetwood Town.

It also followed an upturn in fortunes that had brought 21 points from their previous eight games to take the Reds from bottom of League One to 12th place.

Despite that, as Barnsley prepared to host Bury a year ago yesterday in what proved to be the first of 27 wins for Heckingbottom, there was an air of uncertainty at Oakwell.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Heckingbottom and Tommy Wright had been handed the reins on an interim basis as the board began the search for Johnson’s successor. A couple of caretaker stints apart, at Barnsley and Chesterfield, respectively, the duo had no previous experience of being in charge so plenty in the 9,443 crowd were unsure what to expect.

Three unanswered goals later, however, and fears that Johnson’s departure might de-rail the season had eased. Typically, Heckingbottom, never one to chase personal glory, insisted the credit for beating the Shakers went to the players.

Within a few weeks, Heckingbottom had been nominated for the manager of the month award and a sense of momentum was truly behind both him and the Oakwell club.

Those two Wembley triumphs are the most obvious barometer of how Heckingbottom has powered Barnsley forward, along with his first year anniversary dawning with the Championship play-off places just four points away.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But, perhaps, what makes the job done by Heckingbottom all the more impressive is the hurdles he has had to negotiate along the way.

Losing assistant Tommy Wright after he was caught up in a national newspaper investigation into football will have come as a blow.

Heckingbottom, though, merely got on with things and Barnsley’s season remained on track as a result.

A similarly pragmatic approach was evident when Heckingbottom had to, effectively, rebuild twice following several high-profile departures.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In the summer, this involved a host of loanees who had played a big part in Barnsley’s promotion. Ashley Fletcher, Lloyd Isgrove, Josh Brownhill and Ivan Toney all featured in the Millwall triumph before returning to their parent clubs, leaving big holes to fill.

It was a similar story when Alfie Mawson joined Swansea City for £5m just five games into this season. Results subsequently proved Heckingbottom did an admirable job in filling those holes.

Last month brought another flurry of departures, key figures such as Conor Hourihane and Sam Winnall heading out of the club along with teenager James Bree for the best part of £5m.

Once again, Heckingbottom, despite for a time having to field endless phone calls from agents and rival clubs following the sudden departure of chief executive Linton Brown, moved quickly to bring in five new faces at a fraction of the price.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

All this was done with the bare minimum of fuss, continuing the trait that most impresses about Heckingbottom.

Where other managers will bemoan their lot or even make the story solely about themselves, the 39-year-old is the exact opposite. The continued success of the club he supported as a boy is all that motivates Heckingbottom, as was made clear during the final weeks of last season when he was still in temporary charge.

Barnsley were willing to sit down and discuss a permanent contract, but Heckingbottom felt the timing was not right.

“There were players’ futures up in the air and I asked them to be selfless in our quest to be successful, so I really felt I should do the same,” he said in the wake of the play-off final win.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I was demanding a lot from the players so I didn’t feel it was right me sorting my future out.”

Such a selfless attitude is typical of the man who has steered Barnsley to within touching distance of the Championship play-offs.

Whether that is a realistic goal considering last month’s upheaval remains to be seen.

But if the past year teaches us anything then surely it is that if anyone can pull off such an unlikely feat then it is the head coach considered very much “one of our own” by the Oakwell faithful.