Leeds United: Paul Heckingbottom’s appointment tells us a lot about the club’s ownership
Regardless of Paul Heckingbottom’s suitability, his appointment sets a dangerous precedent for the club.
A week is a long time in football. Particularly if you are a Leeds United manager.
Last week, the West Yorkshire club were embroiled in an off-field drama, releasing a badge that might have had the legal team at Gaviscon reaching for their copyright law textbooks.
Despite back-tracking within six hours, the damage had already been done with the PR department at Elland Road learning the hard way that the old adage “all publicity is good publicity” might not necessarily be a universal principle.
Perhaps in a bid to draw a line under Badge-gate, the club decided this week to go back to what it does best, creating on-field drama.
Manager Thomas Christiansen, who had arrived at the club in the summer from Cypriot champions APOEL, was fired eight months after his tenure had begun, making him the eighth manager to be dismissed from the role since 2014.
On Tuesday morning, the club announced that Paul Heckingbottom was to be appointed as the new manager with immediate effect, being given an 18-month contract and a chance to turn the fortunes of the so-called ‘sleeping giant’ around.
A perfectly able candidate
Paul Heckingbottom arrives at Elland Road with, if not a good pedigree, then certainly an impressive CV from his short career so far.
A journeyman footballer, he rarely spent more than two seasons at a club, spending five seasons as a loanee during the course of his career.
His managerial credentials, although not extensive, are still noteworthy. Working his way from Barnsley’s development squad to their full team via a couple of stints as a caretaker, he was eventually given a permanent role as manager in June 2016.
During his time as a caretaker, the Barnsley-born coach took the team to Wembley twice: once, when he took Barnsley to their first cup final since 1912, beating Oxford United 3-2 in the Football League Trophy, and again that season, seeing his charges promoted into the Championship after a win over Millwall in the 2016 League One play-off final.
That first season in the Championship, Heckingbottom managed to drag his team to a 14th-place finish in spite of the fact that his team had been victim to a fire sale which saw most of his promotion squad sold on.
It is clear, then, that Paul Heckingbottom is just the sort of manager that Leeds United need, particularly going into the concluding months of a season, with the management keen to keep a steady ship as they look to prepare for next season.
There are, however, somewhat mixed signals being sent by the club as to how it is that they conceive of the future of Leeds United going forward.
Over the summer, the club went through a sea change, being bought outright by Andrea Radrizzani, bringing in a new director of football in Victor Orta, appointing a new manager and overhauling the squad with a number of players garnered from relative backwaters around Europe.
In so doing, there was a consciously continental feel to the club. This was its upside: it would adopt a progressive mode of coaching and complement this with added-value purchasing from more reasonable foreign markets.
The Heckingbottom appointment throws a spanner in the works to some degree. Does this indicate a change of plan from the ownership? Has the previous model been proven not to work?
Is this a return to the sources? An admission that the best way to proceed from here is to adopt a Championship mentality implemented by bringing in someone who ‘understands the league’?
During the 2000s, the English FA faced a similar conundrum.
Having fallen behind the global pecking order, the powers-that-be looked for quick-fix solutions to the obvious problems of English football by appointing a litany of much-acclaimed foreign coaches who, so the logic went, were going to change things around.
What happened in reality was a flip-flopping between two different approaches – Sven-Goran Eriksson replaced by Steve McClaren, McClaren replaced by Fabio Capello, Capello replaced by Roy Hodgson.
Of course, the problem here was not the individuals – Steve McClaren excepted – but the approach. By failing to commit whole-heartedly to a consistent modus operandi, the result was less not more: a golden generation ruined by a loss of nerve.
If the case of Leeds United is anything to go by, we could be about to see a similar oscillation between approaches: a progressive continentalism followed by a tried-and-tested traditionalism.
In fact, what such instability tends to indicate is an internal division within the boardroom which is placated by an ongoing compromise which sees the failure of one approach replaced by another change for the other approach.
Paul Heckingbottom could have a successful tenure at Leeds United. I hope he does. But let’s hope that his appointment isn’t indicative of a more subversive problem lying at the heart of the boardroom at Elland Road.
What do you think? Are Leeds United in danger of entering a new period of changeableness? Get in touch by commenting below.