HECK OF A JOB
Paul Heckingbottom on life at the Barnsley helm – and his playing days
REGRETS? Paul Heckingbottom has just one – and it’s not his failure to make the grade at Old Trafford. A trainee at United in the early 90s glory days, the youngster had little hope of supplanting Gary Neville or Denis Irwin for the fullback slot he craved.
So, he packed his bags and hit the road in what would turn out to be a recurring theme of a professional career that was eventually cut short by injury at the age of 31.
Between 1996 and 2008, the new Barnsley boss changed clubs seven times, only once sticking around for longer than two seasons.
And, while he achieved promotions with Darlington, Sheffield Wednesday and the Tykes, Heckingbottom wishes he’d kept the suitcase stashed a little longer.
“My problem was that I tended to walk away from clubs if I wasn’t a regular,” explains the 38-year-old, who was handed interim charge following Lee Johnson’s switch to Bristol City in February.
“That’s what football was all about for me – if I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t interested. At United, then at Sunderland, I was in among the first team, living the life of a pro. But it didn’t mean anything.
“I always remember a coach saying to me ‘You’re not a footballer until you’ve played 100 games’ and I quickly realised that I got more of a buzz playing League football on loan at Darlington than I ever had training with superstars.
“That philosophy stuck with me, and I do regret it. Footballers these days always get criticised for being greedy and chasing the money.
“I was the complete opposite. I walked away from contracts and money I was owed just because I wanted to play. I made stupid decisions in a financial sense.
“Now, I’ve got a big family, kids, responsibilities. I’m trying to earn a living. I look back and think ‘How easy did it seem then to walk away from all that money?’ I do wish I’d been more ruthless.”
Yet, if those early days at United instilled a damaging wanderlust, they also provided Heckingbottom with a glimpse of the qualities required for success.
“The Class of 92 were two years above me,” he says. “Phil Neville was my age, so we went fulltime in the same year. It was a great environment to grow up in.
“I always say to young players that it’s no fluke that people like Paul Scholes and David Beckham went on to achieve everything they did.
“They lived and breathed football. They worked hard, studied the game. They weren’t asked to stay back after training. They did it themselves to make sure they improved. “Looking back, it was a great experience. I learned a lot. But, from a personal point of view, it was obviously a nonstarter. The standard those lads set. I couldn’t hope to compete.”
Complementing that upbringing was the old and much-lamented practice of chucking the kids into men’s reserve matches.
Unlike today’s sanitised, non-contact world of Under21 leagues, Hecking- bottom’s generation learned their trade the hard way, regularly coming up against grizzled pros who had slipped out of first-team reckoning.
“It’s changed a hell of a lot,” he admits. “At United, you could be an Under-18 playing in the Lancashire A League on a Saturday, then on Tuesday it was an open-age reserve game against Blackburn, with Alan Shearer coming back from injury.
“Most of my reserve football was at Sunderland. You had guys like Kevin Ball, Gary Bennett, Micky Gray – people who’ve had terrific careers and were giving everything to get in a Premier League side.You couldn’t help but learn.
“We try to make changes now to the Under-21s, to make it more conducive to development, but we’ve probably lost that ‘real’ experience of proper football. It certainly helped me.”
What didn’t help were the injuries. Hamstrings, knees, groins. By the time he reached Bradford in 2007, Heckingbottom was on his last legs and it took a spell in Non-League to convince him he had to focus on coaching.
“I got a hamstring injury at Bradford and that finished me really,” he says. “But it’s difficult to walk away when you feel like you can still compete.
“So, I joined Mansfield, then Gateshead, then Harrogate. I we right to the bitter end – probably to long, if truth be told.
“I was in that much pain and di comfort that I lost all enjoyment playing. Then, it started lasting in the week. On a Sunday, I felt hu gover. I’d not had a drink but m body was so battered.
“I’d have my day off with the kid
at home and I couldn’t play with them, I couldn’t go out to the park. I could hardly walk.
“You always get people saying ‘I bet you wish you were still playing’ but I honestly don’t miss it one little bit because, by the end, it was horrible.”
Heckingbottom’s coaching chops were earned at Barnsley, the boyhood club for whom he made 53 appearances and scored a penalty in the League One play-off final victory over Swansea in 2006.
First came the Under 18s, then the Under 21s and a caretaker spell following the departure of Danny Wilson. Now, after a stunning resurgence from bottom of League One to a place in the top six under Johnson, he has been tasked with edging the Tykes over the line.
First up is a JPT final against old pal Michael Appleton’s Oxford on April 3.
“Appy was a year above me at United,” adds Heckingbottom. “We were YTS together. He’s a great lad who had a lot of respect from the young lads there. It was a terrible shame his career was cut short, but he was obviously going to go into coaching.
“His character was perfectly suited. I’m sure we’ll share a few stories, but we’re both there to do the business.”
Then it’s on to the more serious business of continuing Johnson’s good work.
“The idea was to just keep things rolling,” says Heckingbottom, who has won five of his eight games in charge.
“But, in a really short space of time, we got a suspension, three injuries and one of our key players went back to his loan club.
“That’s meant young players stepping up, a few loans in. So, as much as we wanted to keep things rolling, circumstances dictated we had to change a hell of a lot.
“It’s a challenge but I just came in with the mindset of enjoying it. I’ve worked hard to get to this level and I just want to make the most of it.”
And this time, stick around a while.
RED DEVIL: Paul Heckingbottom won promotion with Darlington, Sheffield Wednesday and his present club
CLASS ACT: United’s famous Boys of 92 with Cantona and Keane
HANDS UP: I wish I’d stayed longer at the clubs I played for, says Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom