HEAD COACH Paul Heckingbottom insists lessons learned in the final few months of this season can turn Leeds United into genuine promotion challengers next time around.
The 40-year-old has had a tough start to life at Elland Road since succeeding Thomas Christiansen last month.
His first six games, played exclusively against teams residing in the top ten of the Championship, have yielded just one win and five points. United’s last two outings have also brought resounding 3-0 losses to Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Hopes of gatecrashing the top six, that were already slim when Heckingbottom arrived, are over even if the club is not yet publicly willing to give up the chase.
It means, along with the desire to end the campaign with a flourish, the final two months are all about honing plans designed to ensure United can compete with the second tier’s elite clubs next term.
“I knew it was a big job when I came to Leeds,” said Heckingbottom when asked if he had been surprised by how much needs to be done at Elland Road to turn them into genuine challengers.
“That was the attraction. But you can never understand totally what is in front of you until you have got your feet under the table.
“Be that the players, the make-up of the club, decision making or the staff already here. Until you are here and working, you can’t see these things.
“That is why you need to come in and assess everything. Then you can see exactly what it is.”
Heckingbottom called time on his two-year reign at Barnsley to take charge of Leeds.
“This is enjoyable because it is what I wanted to do,” he added about the rebuilding job required at Elland Road. “From my own personal circumstances of being at a club for a while and knowing it inside out, coming to Leeds and knowing there was loads to do was an appeal. Not a bit scary.
“The bigger picture and getting things right behind the scenes is the most important and harder job. It is the longer process, but, hopefully, the one that brings the rewards.
“When you are competing against different financial clout you have to have that.”
The bigger picture and getting things right behind the scenes is the most important and harder job. It is the longer process, but, hopefully, the one that brings the rewards.Leeds United manager, Paul Heckingbottom
United, in the play-off places as recently as New Year’s Day, have fallen way off the pace courtesy of just one win in a dozen outings.
Heckingbottom’s on-going review of what needs to be done is wide-ranging, with everything from the zonal marking system adopted by his predecessor to what areas of the squad need strengthening up for consideration.
He added: “Even if we were sitting three points outside the play-offs we would still be thinking longer term and towards next season.
“I said (to the players), ‘Forget the play-offs if it is weighing you down in any way’. We have had a look at the teams above us now. We have competed in some games, but come up short in others.
“The teams above us are deservedly where they are. We can see that and we can see why.
“If that pressure or hope of getting in the play-offs was weighing us down then forget about it. You are playing for something totally different, which should be more important.
“And that is the chance to be in this group and this squad next season, looking to compete to be in the top six places.
“At the minute the table doesn’t lie. We are too far off it.”
United’s schedule, starting with tomorrow’s trip to Reading, eases slightly in terms of opposition quality following Heckingbottom’s tough baptism of fire against the likes of Wolves, Derby and Boro.
Only Aston Villa and Fulham, in fact, of the current top six are still to meet Leeds, who face seven of the bottom 11 clubs between now and the end of the season.
“Mathematically we are not out of it and we would be delighted to get there,” added the United chief when asked about the play-offs. “But the bigger picture is that we need to improve and build a squad that will challenge.
“There are bigger issues to address going forward that need to be tackled.”
Meanwhile, Football League officials are to meet Wolverhampton Wanderers to discuss the club’s relationship with agent Jorge Mendes.
United are among several clubs in the second tier to have questioned the tie-up between the runaway leaders’ owners, Fosun International, and Mendes’s agency, that has brought the likes of Portugal international Ruben Neves and manager Nuno Espirito Santo to Molineux.
Andrew Radrizzani, the Leeds chairman, chose the final few minutes of Wednesday night’s defeat to send several tweets accusing Wolves of practices he considers “not legal and fair”.
Following a meeting of the League’s board yesterday, the governing body will seek further clarity over the relationship.
A League spokesman added: “It should be noted that the club was explicitly informed in July 2016 of all the requirements it was expected to meet as part of the change of control, and appropriate arrangements were put in place to ensure compliance.
“The club has confirmed that the undertakings given at the time remain in place and are being complied with.”
Forshaw has no regrets about switch to Leeds: Page 24.