NEW Leeds United head coach Paul Heckingbottom last night pointed to his promotion success with Barnsley as justification for believing the play-offs are still attainable this season.
The 40-year-old will head to Sheffield United tomorrow for his first game at the helm since calling time on his two-year stint in charge at Oakwell to succeed Thomas Christiansen at Elland Road.
Leeds sit seven points adrift of the top six after a run of half a dozen games that yielded just two points, but Heckingbottom insists this is not an unbridgeable gap.
He takes inspiration from the near identical situation facing the Reds when he took over two years ago this week following Lee Johnson’s sudden departure for Bristol City, the South Yorkshire club having been eight points adrift of the play-offs with 16 games remaining.
A place in the top six was secured on goal difference via a 4-1 final-day win at champions Wigan Athletic as a prelude to the clinching of promotion when Millwall were beaten at Wembley.
“It is a target definitely,” said the new Leeds chief when asked if a tilt at the play-offs was still on.
“Two years ago, when I sat in this chair at Barnsley, we were 14th and we went up. I know it can be done. It is something that is definitely achievable.”
Heckingbottom’s move up the M1 caught many at Oakwell by surprise, not least because it came just a few days after he had signed a new one-year rolling contract.
A strongly worded statement from the Reds’ new owners on Tuesday laid bare their upset, speaking how “shocked” and “disappointed” the club had been that their head coach wanted to leave after the £500,000 release clause in his contract had been met.
Much was also made in the statement of how “tirelessly” Barnsley had worked, in tandem with Heckingbottom, to make six new signings in the transfer window.
Two years ago, when I sat in this chair at Barnsley, we were 14th and we went up. I know it can be done. It is something that is definitely achievable.Leeds Unitred head coach, Paul Heckingbottom
Asked if there were any regrets surrounding the handling of his departure, Heckingbottom replied: “No, because there were other things in place regarding the contract.
“The contract was first mentioned to me in March (2017) and then nothing was spoken about until July so, straight away, there is a big gap.
“We started discussing it and then the new ownership came in so it was a real issue to get me a new contract.
“But I had lots of responsibilities there and I literally did put it on the back burner for the good of the club and the team.
“And then we had the sad news regarding Patrick (Cryne, the former owner who passed away last month). I had already signed a contract the week before. We were trying to get the timing right, but then there was the sad news about Patrick so we decided to delay it even further.
“So for everyone, if they want to hide behind the fact that the contract was signed – or announced, shall I say – a couple of days before I left then fine. But, in all honesty, it was nothing to do with it.
“If you look at it really, there is only me that has missed out on the money of the new contract. Barnsley have received more compensation than they would have got if I didn’t sign (the new contract), while Leeds have ended up paying more. So, Barnsley have been the winners out of it.”
Heckingbottom, who also lifted the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in his first season at the helm of a club he supported as a boy, added: “I had an unbelievable time (at Barnsley). Not just the two years (in charge) but the time I had as a fan, then a player and a coach.
“Some great times, some really tough times, but also some emotional times, on and off the pitch.
“I do think this is a real fresh start for the club now. With the sad news of Patrick passing away and now I have gone, yes, I can understand because we all had some really good times there and I had some good times there.
“It can be sad, it can be tough, but the football club is bigger than me and, hopefully, they find someone who can be just as successful for them.”
As that search for his successor at Oakwell continues, Heckingbottom’s focus is on lifting Leeds out of their current slump.
Improving the disciplinary record that has seen four United players sent off in the last five games is a priority, as is instilling the beliefs and principles that served him so well at Barnsley.
Reflecting on a whirlwind week that began with preparations for a derby against Sheffield Wednesday at Oakwell, but will end with him instead tackling their Steel City rivals United at Bramall Lane as Leeds’s new head coach, Heckingbottom said: “Monday was a strange day. I knew before training on Monday that things were happening, but, as it stood, I was still Barnsley manager.
“I carried on there as normal, no one knew, and then things started really moving on Monday night. Timing is everything, as they say. I had opportunities as a player, a coach and a head coach to go, but I didn’t really want to leave. But, this time, everything was right.
“There is some good talent here, we have some real strengths. But I have been brought here for a reason. We need some consistency and there is no reason why we can’t find that between now and the end of the season. I know this division and I know tough it is. What I want to do fits with what the owner wants to do.”