Aston Villa v Leeds United: Paul Heckingbottom is confident of being at Elland Road next season

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HEAD coach Paul Heckingbottom says he was surprised to hear of speculation about his future despite admitting his first two months at Leeds United have been “horrific”.

Heckingbottom will oversee his 13th game in charge of Leeds with tonight’s clash at Aston Villa, but reports on Wednesday suggested that Leeds and owner Andrea Radrizzani were already preparing to sack the former Barnsley boss at the end of this term.

Leeds United head coach Paul Heckingbottom watches from the sidelines during Tuesday's defeat at 'Preston North End (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

Leeds United head coach Paul Heckingbottom watches from the sidelines during Tuesday's defeat at 'Preston North End (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

Two months after being brought in to replace axed former head coach Thomas Christiansen, Heckingbottom has savoured just two victories in his 12 games, which have yielded just ten points for a side going nowhere in 15th.

Christiansen was sacked as Leeds slipped further off the play-off spots in February with Radrizanni having set the Dane a target of a top-six finish after Leeds only narrowly missed out when finishing seventh last year.

But United are now 14 points off the top six with four games remaining having won only twice since Boxing Day.

Heckingbottom has had to endure a nightmare spell of injuries and the head coach will have ten first-teamer players injured or suspended for the trip to fourth-placed Villa, who still have a chance of finishing second.

But despite a torrid run, Heckingbottom said stories suggesting he was fighting for his job had come as a surprise with the former Barnsley boss insisting he would be given the chance to take the club’s squad into next season.

“I think that surprised everyone in all honesty,” said Heckingbottom, responding to claims that Radrizzani had lost faith in him. “Nothing has changed.

“I came in here in February with slim hopes of the play-offs and we were chasing that down.

“That was the first goal – let’s not let this season die out quickly – but it did die out quickly, so we were straight onto the second phase of what we wanted to do, which was to start looking at players and getting our plans laid down for next season. We’re going to have to work hard because we’ve seen the calibre of players who are in this league, the calibre of clubs. But it doesn’t mean we can’t do it if we’re all on the same page, over-achieving and building a hungry, competitive squad.

“That’s the stage where we’re at now. Make no mistake about it, it’s all going to be on results next season without a doubt. That’s what we should be judged on.

“It’s been a horrific spell and results will always dictate whether you’re in a job or not, but they wouldn’t change what I’m doing.”

Asked if he was confident of still being in his role next season, Heckingbottom said: “I’ve got no reason not to be. Everything has carried on as normal in terms of meetings, planning, discussions for next season.

“Nothing’s changed. As far as we’re concerned, it’s just business as usual.”

Heckingbottom looked set to bag his third win as Whites’ head coach in Tuesday night’s game at Preston North End after Kemar Roofe fired them into a 13th-minute lead. But United crumbled after the break en route to a 3-1 defeat in which Swedish international centre-back Pontus Jansson had to be substituted with a head injury.

Jansson, who has concussion, will miss the clash at Villa and United will be looking at an extremely inexperienced pairing at centre-back with Liam Cooper, Conor Shaughnessy, Luke Ayling and Adam Forshaw all injured and Gaetano Berardi banned.

Under-23s centre-backs Paudie O’Connor and debutant Hugo Diaz finished at centre-back in Tuesday’s game at Reading, but the duo have just 213 minutes of first-team football between them. O’Connor only made his Whites debut in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Sunderland.