Sheffield United’s Paul Heckingbottom reveals why Leeds United were right club, wrong time for him

Paul Heckingbottom’s time as manager of Leeds United is widely regarded as a bit of a disaster, the last before the club finally got back on track by appointing Marcelo Bielsa as coach.

Statistics to some extent back up the argument – only 16 games in charge, half lost, only a quarter won.

But as he prepares to return to Elland Road for the first time as a manager – Sheffield United’s interim manager – and for his first proper Premier League test, he can expect to be warmly welcomed back to what he views as ‘right club, wrong time’.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Heckingbottom’s final Leeds team-sheet bore the names of Luke Ayling, Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips and Ezgjan Alioski, all in with a very good chance of facing his side today.

No regrets: Paul Heckingbottom. Picture: David Klein/Sportimage

Bielsa is grateful for his inheritance and talks of time allowing him to get the best of them. Although in his typically modest way that overlooks all the coaching he and his staff have put into improving the quartet, he is far from alone at Thorp Arch in viewing the 43-year-old from Barnsley in a good light.

“The people who remain at the club and worked under him have a very good impression of the work he did here,” says Bielsa. “I’ve only heard praise for the time he was here.

“For players to mature and get the best of their abilities, it happens at different times. What I value a lot is a great portion of the players who are the base of the team were around when he was.”

Heckingbottom admits to frustration at not getting more time at Leeds, but points out: “I still speak to the ownership, no ill feeling. Right club, wrong time for myself, that’s how I look at it. Lots of things I took from it were positive.”

THAT WAS THEN ... Paul Heckingbottom, during his short time as Leeds United's head coach. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Heckingbottom took over a club in need of an overhaul after flagging for far too long and was sacked before he got time to do it. Whilst no-one could argue Bielsa was better placed to carry it out, it is hardly an insult.

“He’s done great,” says Heckingbottom. “There was a good energy about the place, really good intentions to be successful, it just needed some direction, making the squad leaner, the staff leaner.

“The club did need a shake-up and that’s what it’s been given.”

Heckingbottom says he learnt from what was only his second managerial job, leaving Barnsley to take it. “Whatever club had come in, I would have gone without really preparing properly for it, without doing as much due diligence, because of the way my mind was at that time,” he admits.

LEADING ROLE: Sheffield United's interim manager Paul Heckingbottom speaks with substitute Rhian Brewster at Stamford Bridge. Picture: John Walton/PA

“I enjoyed it and it’s part and parcel of being in the game, player, manager, coach, you’re going to move about and what it did give me was another experience to work with, to get better and learn. That’s how I see it, I don’t look back with any regret whatsoever.”

After Leeds, he moved to Hibernian before becoming Under-23s coach at Bramall Lane. He is in charge of the first team until the end of the season, when he plans to return to that job.

With Premier League relegation all but guaranteed, his main task is ensuring the Blades go down fighting.

“We’ve just got to try and win every game regardless of opposition and try and take some positivity into next season,” he argues.

Leeds United's Patrick Bamford scores against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane earlier this season. Picture: Alex Livesey/NMC Pool/PA

“We just have to keep focusing on that approach, positive mindset, try and get three points and build some momentum, some positivity and some real structure that will reinforce all the positive things they have done in the past.

“We know how difficult it can be in terms of (Leeds) creating opportunities but with that we know they give you chances.

“It’s going to be a tough game dealing with their attacking threats but we also believe we can create problems and chances at the other end as well. You have to stand up and enjoy the man-to-man nature of that game.”

If Heckingbottom knows exactly what to expect from Bielsa, the same is not true in reverse. For his first game in charge, Covid-19 protocols prevented him even meeting his squad until the morning of the game, so a 5-0 defeat at Leicester City was no great shock. The only match since was a tight FA Cup defeat at Chelsea.

“They were two different games,” says Bielsa.

“Two games is not enough to observe major changes. It’s very difficult for a coach to generate to big changes in such a short space of time but clearly the game against Chelsea was of a very good level.”

Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you’ll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click HERE to subscribe.