PAUL HECKINGBOTTOM’S home bow as Leeds United head coach coming with Lee Johnson in the away dugout seems entirely appropriate.
The pair share a bond having worked together at Barnsley for a year before Johnson’s departure to Bristol City in 2016, which paved the way for an initially reluctant Heckingbottom to take control of the first team.
Two years on and both men are thriving, the Yorkshireman newly installed at Elland Road and looking forward to his first home game in charge of Leeds against a Robins side occupying a place in the Championship play-off places.
“We worked pretty closely together with the first team at Barnsley,” said the 40-year-old ahead of tomorrow’s televised Championship clash. “We have kept in touch and I have seen ‘Jonno’ quite a bit this season.
“I am pleased for him because he has been through a couple of tough spells, one at Barnsley and another at Bristol, and come out stronger. Bristol are getting the rewards for sticking with him.
“Me knowing ‘Jonno’, his team now is very much in the mould of what he wants. He has been given the time to build and has recruited well.
“The one thing I always said about ‘Jonno’ is how hard he works. He is not someone to rely on luck. ‘Jonno’ was really open at Barnsley. Always getting advice and wanting to know my opinion on things, which was really good for me.
“It opened me up to the things he was dealing with; I would have been a fool not to learn from that.”
Heckingbottom is yet to get the better of the man he succeeded at Barnsley as a manager. Three meetings over the past 15 or so months have yielded two victories for Bristol City and a 2-2 draw.
Even then, Johnson was only denied all three points on his first return to Oakwell since walking out by a stoppage-time equaliser from Adam Hammill.
Nevertheless, the Leeds chief is confident that his Elland Road bow can bring an end to what has been a dreadful run of form in 2018 for his new charges.
“We are in the business end of the season now,” he said about a United side that has taken just two points from six fixtures since the turn of the year.
“To maintain a realistic hope, probably (Leeds need to win). Once the gap gets really big you are struggling. It isn’t a must-win game, but we want to win it for ourselves.
“The run of fixtures we have got gives us an opportunity to pick points up off the teams above us, to reel those teams in.”
If Heckingbottom wants any tips on how to end a debilitating run of form then he could do a lot worse than seek the counsel of Johnson.
At Barnsley, the diminutive midfielder oversaw an eight-game losing streak in the autumn of 2015.
After the last few of those defeats, Johnson fielded questions about his future on a weekly basis from a media fully expecting the plug to be pulled.
The Reds’ board, however, stood firm and were rewarded with a remarkable turnaround in form that took the South Yorkshire club from rock bottom of League One at the start of December to 12th place when Johnson left on February 5.
Hours earlier he had steered Barnsley to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final via a penalty shoot-out victory at Fleetwood Town.
Heckingbottom subsequently built on those foundations to take the Reds up just a few months later.
“The one thing you get from this job is a good camaraderie between managers,” added the Leeds chief. “Within our league especially, or maybe the top two leagues, there are not many English managers knocking about to know someone personally.
“He knows we will be hell bent on beating them and he will be the same, but there is an appreciation for the job the other is doing.”
Heckingbottom, as he admitted last week, may not have initially known if the job of head coach was for him after being thrown into the role by Johnson’s departure for Ashton Gate.
Once in charge, however, the former defender began to relish the challenges that accompany the job of management. Among those at Elland Road is dealing with a lengthy list of absentees, caused in part by the club’s horrendous disciplinary record in the final weeks of Thomas Christiansen’s reign.
Samuel Saiz, who netted twice in United’s 3-0 win at Ashton Gate in October, will tomorrow complete a six-game ban for spitting in the FA Cup defeat at Newport County.
Gaetano Berardi is also out along with captain Liam Cooper following their recent red cards.
Heckingbottom knows Leeds must make light of these absentees to claim a victory that would cut sixth-placed Bristol City’s advantage over his side to five points.
To do so he believes the atmosphere on his home bow can play a big part in front of the cameras.
“I am really looking forward to my first game,” he added. “I have only been here with the opposition team, either coaching or playing. I know what that is like.
“That atmosphere can make a massive difference. When the place was bouncing and I was playing it was silly little things like getting information to a team-mate that it affected.
“So, it will be nice to have the majority on our side and be responsible for the side and, hopefully, putting a smile on people’s faces.”
As for what he wants to bring the home fans, Heckingbottom added: “One of the things I have got going for me is I know the area and the club and what it is about and what the fans expect of us. I want to build a team that represents the city and the Leeds fans.
“I want drive and intensity. You need that to be successful in this league. I want everyone in this building fighting and pulling in the same direction.”