HECK OF A JOB

Paul Heck­ing­bot­tom on life at the Barns­ley helm – and his play­ing days

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE: - By Chris Dunlavy

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.

Crit­i­cised

“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.

Ex­pe­ri­ence

“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.

Resur­gence

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

PIC­TURE: Me­dia Im­age

HANDS UP: I wish I’d stayed longer at the clubs I played for, says Barns­ley man­ager Paul Heck­ing­bot­tom

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