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23 Mar 2018

Leeds United: Heckingbottom must ensure he's got a future to plan for

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The story so far

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Heckingbottom's approach

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The rest of the season

(Photo credit: Lufc83)

When Leeds United sacked Thomas Christiansen in February, they acted decisively in securing a replacement. Within days, Barnsley coach Paul Heckingbottom was appointed.

This unhesitating approach was encouraging. 

It was the best possible start, the club's hierarchy made it clear they believed in his ability to lead. All too often, clubs scramble around looking for options, negotiating and interviewing different candidates. When somebody is finally appointed, they're instantly fighting an uphill battle, attempting to convince when ideally that part is a prerequisite. 

The story so far

Heckingbottom, unlike a blind and speculative punt down the lower leagues (Dave Hockaday), looks like a manager with a future, having achieved good things with Barnsley. His honesty and strong-mindedness in press conferences has been convincing.

The performances on the pitch less so. Of course, it is too early to judge, and there are extenuating circumstances, most notably a patchy, flimsy squad to work with. The fact remains a lack of form will damage the faith shown in him.

Under Heckingbottom, Leeds have won just one of eight games, losing four times. He hasn't been able to arrest the slide that saw his predecessor shown the door. 

Of a table made up of results since Boxing Day, Leeds are bottom -'relegation form' would understate how bad this run is. 

Spread over a season, it would mean finishing last, miles behind safety and down with a whimper. It's Rotherham 2016-2017 form, and it's large enough a sample for concern. 

While results have been bad, performances have been mixed. The defeats to both Sheffield clubs and the consecutive 3-0 losses to Middlesbrough and Wolves were different degrees of appalling. 

The 1-0 win over Brentford, the second half comeback from 2-0 down against Bristol City, and the unfortunate last minute equaliser conceded to Derby (all of which are placed above Leeds) showed encouraging signs.

Heckingbottom's approach

It's an excuse, but one that genuinely holds up: Heckingbottom is finding his feet with this new squad, only the second he's worked with. 

He has made no secret that he's giving certain players opportunities to see if they sink or swim, and is using this period to establish who is good enough for next season's campaign. 

17 points clear of safety, and 12 points off the play-offs, there's a logic and pragmatism in this approach. With fans paying upwards of £30 for tickets however, they can justifiably demand more than an experimental, extended pre-season.

The most encouraging thing from Heckingbottom is how unfettered he has been in his criticism. He makes no excuses and recognises the team hasn't been good enough. 

This has a shelf life. It's only a matter of time before it becomes a Warnockian glasnost and fans are asking for responsibility over honesty.

The rest of the season

This might be good for the club in the long-term, but the manager needs to ensure he's around to instil the vision he has. 

There are eight fixtures remaining, including eminently winnable matches against Sunderland, Barnsley and QPR and they must be more convincing than his first eight games. 

In a practical sense, points mean little, but they would be extremely valuable for his standing. There's a danger of a hangover, that Leeds carry this sorry form into next season - regaining some momentum is key. 

Should Heckingbottom end the season with just one or two wins, his greatest asset - trust in his ability - would be severely compromised. All of a sudden, the characterisation of a bright young coach who worked wonders at Barnsley becomes an out-of-his-depth charlatan who doesn't have what it takes.

Paul Heckingbottom will never get a bigger opportunity in football. Leeds United desperately need a manager to end a cycle of directionlessness. That doesn't start next season, it starts with building momentum now.

Will we see Leeds back in the top flight soon? Let us know in the comments section below.