Paul Heckingbottom's thoughts turn quickly to '˜next challenge' with Barnsley

WHEN Paul Heckingbottom won the first of two promotions via the play-offs as a player, he celebrated by going AWOL from the team coach with the trophy.

The full-back took advantage of a traffic jam on the outskirts of Newport to make his escape as Sheffield Wednesday edged their way home from the 2005 League One final in the Millennium Stadium.

At first, Heckingbottom’s team-mates were not overly concerned, but it was sometime later before he was eventually located, still clutching the trophy but by now sharing a beer with a group of Owls fans in the back of their car.

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Now a manager in his own right, such behaviour is unlikely to be encouraged with the emphasis being on sticking together as a team.

However, if Heckingbottom did want to do his own thing last night, surely no one at Oakwell would have begrudged him.

He has earned that much after a quite remarkable start in management that has now brought a promotion to go with his Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success in April.

It is a remarkable feat for any head coach, never mind one in his first job and still to be confirmed as a permanent appointment.

No wonder, therefore, he took more enjoyment from yesterday’s triumph than either the 2005 promotion with Wednesday or achieving the same feat as a Barnsley player 12 months later.

“It is better than when I was in this fixture as a player,” said the 38-year-old. “I can’t remember that far back for a start. Those days were long ago.

“When we were warming up, I actually saw our (Barnsley) captain that day, Paul Reid. That was nice. We have a reunion coming up for that win, which will be nice. It is 10 years ago.

“But this is better, definitely. I have been trying to get that across to the players. I think that has hit home now. As soon as that final whistle went, I think they realised what we were talking about.”

Heckingbottom stepped up to take temporary charge in early February, Lee Johnson having quit to join Bristol City just hours after Barnsley had booked their first trip to Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

At the time, the Reds were 12th in the table. It represented a big improvement on being rock bottom of League One, as the club had been as recently as December 12.

Asked about those dark days of winter and what he felt was the target, Heckingbottom, at the time a member of Johnson’s backroom team, replied: “The goal was to stay up, simple as that.

“We needed to turn a corner. It was difficult. In some games, we were playing well, but we were too open, a little bit naive and too easy to play against.

“Even if we thought we had played well, the opposition were always getting chances. Football-wise, that is the biggest thing that has changed.

“We have really tightened up. We have worked hard to do that. Especially when we don’t have the ball, getting the midfield to protect the back four.”

Under Heckingbottom, Barnsley have won 14 of 22 games. That includes a four-game winning run to end a remarkable campaign, as 13 goals were scored against champions Wigan Athletic, third-placed Walsall and now Millwall.

““We all know how good the JPT was, but this was the main goal,” added the Reds’ chief.

“I am not one for reflecting and looking back. We celebrate this, of course we do. But I am already wondering about what we do next.

“That said, I can put into perspective what we have achieved this season. It is all through hard work, determination and a togetherness. They are all willing to go above and beyond. But I want to push them further. That is the next challenge.”