TWO mouth-watering derbies that already justified the billing of being among the “highlights of the Yorkshire football season” have been given added intrigue this lunchtime by the managerial merry-go-round of the past week.
Paul Heckingbottom’s bow at the helm of Leeds United takes place in front of the live TV cameras at Sheffield Unitedy as the club he left behind, Barnsley, host Sheffield Wednesday.
Both fixtures are hugely important for the participants with the two Uniteds needing the points to get faltering play-off pushes back on track while at Oakwell the priority is very much staying clear of trouble.
Sheffield Wednesday may be seven points clear of Hull City in the final relegation place, but defeat today against the fourth-bottom club would reduce the gap between the two South Yorkshire neighbours to a solitary victory.
Plenty at stake in both games, therefore, as Chris Wilder approaches an all White Rose clash for the second time in a month admitting to being unsure what to expect against a team under new management.
“It was always going to be a tough game,” said Blades manager Wilder, who was in the home dugout for Jos Luhukay’s bow as Wednesday boss last month. “There is always going to be an added edge and more spice.
“They might change the formation, they might bring players in that have not been considered by the previous manager.
“But too much is talked about managers and coaches. It is a players’ game. It comes down to their desire to win a game of football.”
Like Wilder, Heckingbottom was manager of his hometown club.
But the Blades boss understands why he was lured by the “size and history” of Leeds.
It is a situation for us to try and not think about. We have to think about what we are going to do. We will respect the team, of course, but we know this is an important game for us.Sheffield Wednesday’s Jos Luhukay
“I know him and it won’t have been straight-forward,” added Wilder. “He will have his own views and a career path. But I don’t think it will have been done lightly. Whether he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse, I don’t know, I am not his agent.
“But you can see the attraction. It is a club, with its size and history, which should be in the Premier League.
“But as we know, size and history of a club don’t guarantee anything.”
Heckingbottom, for his part, has already lost at Bramall Lane this season, a Billy Sharp goal being enough to beat Barnsley back in August on an afternoon when both teams were reduced to ten men.
“It is perfect for me,” said the new Leeds chief about starting his reign with a derby. “I know what it means to the fans and what it means to me. I enjoy the big games and especially the derbies. It couldn’t be any better for me.”
The 40-year-old is United’s 11th manager in five years, but he insists this was not a concern when agreeing to take the job.
“I don’t know what they (his predecessors) did, but I know what I want to do,” he added. “I will stick to those beliefs and principles.
“I enjoy what I do so, hopefully, that brings success. I wasn’t considering how many managers had gone when I accepted the job, I was considering, ‘Where can we get Leeds to?’ That is all that matters.”
As Heckingbottom starts a new chapter in his life, the club he supported as a boy are searching for his successor.
Under-23s coach Paul Harsley is in interim charge today for Barnsley and has a chance to impress ahead of interviews getting under way next week with a view to an appointment being made before the crucial home clash with fellow strugglers Burton Albion on February 20.
“With the Hull City game being cancelled (due to the Tigers being involved in the FA Cup next weekend),” said chief executive Gauthier Ganaye, “we have a bit more time.
“Even if we would like to finish this recruitment process as soon as possible, we won’t rush.”
Wednesday, meanwhile, are still searching for their first league victory under Luhukay.
“I read the trainer goes to Leeds United and now the trainer from the juniors is in for our game or maybe for the future,” said the Dutchman, who has taken three points from his first four games.
“It is a situation for us to try and not think about. We have to think about what we are going to do. We will respect the team, of course, but we know this is an important game for us.
“We know when we win we make a (bigger) distance (between the Owls and Barnsley), when we lose the gap is smaller. We must be careful, but not be afraid.”
Previews: Pages 2-3