ANHOUR or so after clinching the first of two promotions as a player, Paul Heckingbottom took a traffic jam that had brought the M4 to a standstill in south Wales as his cue to open the fire escape of the Sheffield Wednesday team bus and leap out.
The League One play-offs trophy, which the Owls had just lifted at the Millennium Stadium courtesy of an extra time victory over Hartlepool United, went with the defender as he danced off down the motorway to the approving toots of car horns from celebrating supporters.
When finally relocated by a couple of his team-mates a few minutes later, as the gridlock seemed to finally be about to clear, Heckingbottom was in one of those same cars, tucking into a can or two, with a group of fans he had just met.
Now a head coach and into his second job, such behaviour would, of course, be frowned upon. Examples have to be set, and discipline has to be kept.
But that episode in 2005 speaks volumes about the character of the latest man to be handed the task of leading Leeds United back into the promised land of the Premier League.
Heckingbottom, as the Barnsley players discovered during his two years at the helm, is not a man to be taken on without expecting to come off second best. Nor is he afraid of making the big calls or tackling problems head on.
As was confirmed yesterday by his first public outing as Leeds head coach, however, the 40-year-old is also a relaxed character. This much was clear in his response to an enquiry as to whether the stress levels at Elland Road would be that much higher than at Oakwell.
“This story puts it in perspective,” he replied with a smile. “My kids were getting a bit of stick when (Barnsley) were getting beat. My two middle girls came home and asked if I was getting the sack. I said, ‘No’ but they still looked worried.
“So, I told them, ‘Don’t worry –when I get the sack we are going on holiday’. I get home now and my eldest boy asks how the game was. Same with my youngest girl.
“But the two middle girls just ask when I will be getting sacked because they want to go on holiday. That is how it is, keeps things in perspective for me.”
I know if we are successful here the club will want to keep me. If I am unsuccessful the club won’t want to keep me.Leeds United boss, Paul Heckingbottom
Such a level-headed approach to management and life will serve him well at Elland Road, which has seen a bigger turnover of managers in the past five years than at any other club in the country.
Only Watford, with nine managerial changes during the same period, come close to the ten departures that began with Neil Warnock on April 1, 2013. Heckingbottom, though, is not fazed by either the rapid turnover of personnel or Leeds offering an 18-month contract, when the vast majority of player signings during Andrea Radrizzani’s reign have been on deals stretching to three or four years.
“A contract, to a manager, is worth what the severance package is and what the compensation payment is,” he said. “That is not to say I will be gone in 18 months or if I stay for 18 months. I know if we are successful here the club will want to keep me. If I am unsuccessful the club won’t want to keep me.
“An 18-month contract could become a three-and-a-half year contract. Or it could become one where everything is suddenly over in ten months.”
Heckingbottom clearly took the job with his eyes wide open, as is to perhaps be expected from someone whose character was formed in the pit village of Royston.
Certainly during a Football League career that featured ten transfers, eight clubs and an early curtailment at the age of 31 through injury, playing was what mattered and not the “white noise” that can attach itself to the life of a footballer. It is why he sometimes walked away from contracts when money was still owed, in the days before he had a young family to support.
This desire to follow his instinct has continued in management, a role he initially did not fancy only for Lee Johnson’s decision to quit Barnsley for Bristol City a couple of years ago to force his hand somewhat.
At first, the players were told it was fine to still refer to the former Reds youth coach as ‘Hecky’ rather than the more conventional ‘gaffer’. Only later the following summer did that change and then only because the turnover in personnel meant many of the squad had not known him in the previous role.
This same instinct was why approaches from Nottingham Forest and Sunderland were both rebuffed before he finally said ‘yes’ to Leeds, a club about whom he had made a few light-hearted jibes ahead of last November’s derby at Oakwell.
He explained: “I am from Royston, which is north of Barnsley and if you live there you are either a Leeds fan or you are a Barnsley fan. I was a Barnsley fan and we used to play on a field behind my mum’s (house).
“The Leeds fans were older than us and they used to kick lumps out of us. So, that is where this stems from – not Oakwell, not Elland Road, but the field behind my mum’s.
“To be honest, all that was them always taking the mick, trying to shove down our throat the size of the club and the stature of the club. Funnily enough, those lads were actually the first to ring and congratulate me. They will be in the stands for the first game at Elland Road. So, they are probably as excited as I am.”