The Square Ball Week: Depending

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Howard Wilkinson never wanted to leave Sheffield Wednesday. When he did, to become manager of Leeds United, he found saying goodbye to the players and staff so difficult that he rushed out of the room, sought sanctuary in the boot room, and spent ten minutes sobbing into a large blue towel.

“If it wasn’t for those bastards in the boardroom,” he told the boots, “I would be still be here.”

I can’t imagine the last time Paul Heckingbottom cried. I can imagine him, as a child, training himself not to by rubbing coal dust in his eyes. Little Heck would have foreseen no use for tears, whatever was going off in tarn. He won’t have cried when he left his part of South Yorkshire to manage Leeds, although like Wilkinson, it was his decision, also driven by the lack of ambition of the bastards in the boardroom. The question is whether Barnsley FC will have him holding pins inside his fists again on Saturday, pricking his palms to help him fight back the tears.

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Wilko kept his relationship with Wednesday almost wilfully close; Mel Sterland, Lee Chapman, Carl Shutt, Imre Varadi, Dylan Kerr, Jon Newsome, David Wetherall, Carlton Palmer and Nigel Worthington all followed him from Hillsborough to Elland Road. He must have been glad that Glynn Snodin and John Pearson were already here. He had the benefit, though, of soon achieving his aim of winning the First Division championship the Wednesday directors didn’t believe was possible, giving him an obvious advantage in the relationship. In the live TV coverage of the famous 6-1 win at Hillsborough in 1992, after Chapman scored United’s fourth, the camera cut to Wilko leaning against the side of the dugout with his hands in his benchcoat pockets, not demonstrably celebrating, but broadcasting smugness like Emley Moor transmitter wrapped in Umbro.

Heckingbottom has been linked with bringing a couple of Barnsley players here, but he’s far from able to be smug about it. Their new manager, Jose Morais, says he wants the game with Leeds at Elland Road on Saturday to be played fairly, so that after the game everyone can have a beer together. Perhaps he knows that the way to Heckingbottom’s sorrows is not found down a path of tears, but in the dregs of an emptying pint glass. “Youse a good lad, Jose,” Heckingbottom will tell him, jabbing his chest with a wet finger, “Nobody I’d rather have doing my job. Come and do this one. An’ I’ll have mine-yourse’s back.”

It’s the moment when, in the kind of old film noir for which Heckingbottom looks made to play the backstreet crook, such behaviour would end with an upright gentleman in a double-breasted suit punching his lights out. But we haven’t got that far into the story yet. At the moment we’re caught mid-gasp, our hand covering our mouth in horror, waiting for the camera angle to change and reveal the worst of the villain’s crimes yet. It’s the kind of sustained tension the movies trade off, but at Elland Road, most people just want it over and done with.

I’m covering myself here because I didn’t think Thomas Christiansen should be sacked, and published an article about him needing more time about fifteen minutes before he was, and never really got to do anything approaching an analysis of his failure. Everything moved quickly then: he was sacked, it was sad, then Heckingbottom arrived. So perhaps I need to write his elegy now.

But I don’t think Heckingbottom should be sacked, either. At the same time, I can see that he has done absolutely nothing to merit staying in his job. It is possible to hold both opinions. Heckingbottom still has all the qualities that made him a good prospect for the job in the first place: he’s young and ambitious, he’s well regarded by knowledgable people within the game, he overachieved in his last job, he has an appreciation of the tough requirements for this level of football, he has an old school sensibility with a modern coach’s approach, he has a track record of improving young players, and he’s not Alan Pardew. If you were to draw up a list of attributes for the coach Leeds United need for next season, you would still find Heckingbottom one of the leading candidates.

The problem is that his CV now includes thirteen matches in charge of Leeds United, and only two wins. The circumstances have been almost impossible; Leeds needed their defence sorting out, but when injuries and suspensions mean the defence is Stuart Dallas, Vurnon Anita and two kids from the Academy, there’s only so much sorting out you can do. But then, when it came to hard knocks, Thomas Christiansen’s door wasn’t so much covered in fist prints as drenched in saliva, and he lost his job all the same.

Heckingbottom’s saving, well, not grace exactly, but his chance of greasing his way out of the hot chip shop kitchen, is his part in the planning for next season. Listening to him — everyone else has disappeared, unless they’re talking about Uber, so we have to listen to him — we’re being promised a lot of good stuff next season: a more aggressive style of play, and a revamped squad full of players with Championship-proof characteristics, as explained by Heckingbottom to Victor Orta, whose job will be finding them. Looking at him, as he rubs his hands over that inscrutable face and scratches his pickpocket’s nose, there’s a tightening of expression whenever they’re mentioned that suggests we’ll see less-to-nothing of Pierre-Michel Lassoga and Jay-Roy Grot. Felix Wiedwald is already spending his Saturday afternoons taking long walks in the Yorkshire Dales, so a break with this season’s failures doesn’t seem unlikely.

Except for the extent to which Heckingbottom has made himself one of this season’s failures. As he gruffly explains to the board about how, next season, if he signs some players with real grit he can get them showing aggression with and without the ball, you can imagine Andrea Radrizzani eagerly lapping it up now that Neil Warnock has replaced the Jaap Stam poster on his wall; but you can picture Orta and Ivan Bravo looking doubtful. If this coach is as good as he says, why hasn’t he coached the players we’ve got? Okay, there have been no defenders to coach, granted. But you would still expect to see… something? Some slight suggestion that Leeds aren’t just going to drift out of every game until they’re beaten by a couple of goals? A hint of a style of play that might get at least a result out of a team that Thomas Christiansen, for all his Build-A-Bear Workshop demeanour, had at least got some results from? And then there’s Jay-Roy. He was such a bubbly, outgoing character a couple of months ago. The life and soul of the party.

Heckingbottom can’t just sweep this season aside on the promise that he’ll improve things when he gets round to it in the summer, even if he’s right. But equally, the board can’t just keep hiring and firing coaches like new Cellinos. While long-term strategic planning seems to be their forte — unless the Elland Road 2020 project is just loads of taxi ranks and doesn’t include any football pitches or something — they’ve not shown themselves quite so adept at thinking on the fly. Force them to come up with something quickly, and you get the Salute Crest fiasco. Or you get Paul Heckingbottom. With three weeks left until the summer, would it really be wise to force them into another hasty search for a head coach? Or are we only deferring the hasty search until later, when it might be too late?

I don’t know. This isn’t one of those easy situations where your team is bottom of the league and sacking the manager is such an obvious good idea that the crowd have been singing about it for weeks. I’m blissfully naive slash optimistic slash stupid enough to think Heckingbottom might be the right manager for next season. I’m also realistic slash pessimistic slash pissed off enough to say we should get rid of Heckingbottom now and send him back to whatever Parisian orphanage he came from. And I’m senselessly depressed slash bored slash morbid enough to realise that Leeds could hire Pep Guardiola and within six months he would be reduced to pissing on the corner flags to lift whatever has cursed us.

So really it all depends on what Barnsley do at Elland Road on Saturday. Which is not the way I thought this season would turn out. ◉

(feature image by Jim Ogden)

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