Roker Report recently asked its writers to contribute a candidate that they would like to see take over from Simon Grayson - and for any of you who came across the article that I’m talking about, you will recall my choice to replace the former Leeds United gaffer was Paul Heckingbottom.
First and foremost I do admire the man, and would welcome him gladly into the Sunderland family, a place he once shared our embrace as a reserve player very early in his career. Despite there being numerous reasons for my support of him as a potential new manager, I couldn’t help but also think... should he get the job, ‘there’s another career ruined.’
However, despite the (in my opinion) completely underwhelming links to Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill in the press this morning, I want to focus on why I believe Heckingbottom might just be the man to partially resurrect this ailing footballing behemoth.
I say partially, because to fully reinvigorate this club the entire structure and business practice of the institution would need to change, including the owner and Chairman - a manager can only do so much at a crisis club like ours.
Barnsley have one of the smallest budgets in the division, with the highest paid player allegedly on no more that £7k a week (at most). They have a manageable salary cap brought in by wily owner Patrick Cryne, who is sadly fighting a terminal battle against cancer. Steadfastly and admirably - in previous years Cryne has been determined to ensure that Barnsley would be a self-sustaining enterprise and as a consequence, they have little to no debt.
Resulting from that financial stance, Barnsley’s wage structure is understandably anaemic compared to ours where our highest paid player (and I’m loathed to call him that) Jack Rodwell is earning in excess of 60k per week. Which in all reality, is likely more than the entire Barnsley side put together.
The Yorkshire Post reported yesterday along with several red top tabloids that even Heckingbottom himself was barely on £100k per annum, and his rolling yearly contract is designed to strictly fit into the salary cap and structure that exists to keep Barnsley financially viable.
This has made the club as self-sustaining as it can be. Indeed such is its healthy financial state, as a consequence of very careful and meticulous fiscal planning, that Barnsley are mooted to be in talks with the billionaire owners of French Champions League outfit, Nice FC. Sadly the same billionaire football owners have shown no interest in a debt crippled, financial basket case of club only an hour and half down the A1.
So bearing in mind our current fiscal restrictions, he’s no stranger at making a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
Another important and key indicator of a manager’s worth is the admiration they incur from the fans they are paid to represent.
It’s a difficult metric to measure as there are no graphs or charts that can accurately reveal the true feelings of an individual fan’s appreciation of his football club’s coach, but the Tykes supporters idolise Heckingbottom. One fan even has a tattoo of the 40-year-old’s face on his back.
I have personal experience of this idolatry too. One of my colleagues -who is one of the nicest, smartest people and certainly one of the proudest Yorkshiremen I’ve ever met - is like Heckingbottom; Barnsley born and bred.
His whole family are season ticket holders at Oakwell and his father quite literally travels the entire length and breadth of the country to watch the Tykes. For the last week I’ve been receiving nonstop texts of elation, despair and now desperation. My colleague, who faithfully travels from Hetton to Barnsley to watch his home town team on a regular basis, absolutely and unequivocally loves Paul Heckingbottom.
In fact late last night, one of his final texts of the evening simply stated ‘You don’t deserve Paul Heckingbottom.’
As a player, the now Barnsley gaffer was a trainee at Manchester United before he moved to Sunderland. Without making a first team appearance, in 1999 he moved to Darlington. He subsequently went on to play for his boyhood club and began coaching Barnsley’s under-14s on a part-time basis six years ago. Since then, he has undertaken almost every role at Oakwell – officially and unofficially, paid and unpaid – until being appointed head coach permanently last summer.
Last season could have meant the end of Heckingbottom’s short tenure as a club manager. With the books needing to be balanced carefully at Barnsley, Hecky lost his captain, Conor Hourihane, and top scorer, Sam Winnall, to Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday respectively. Defender James Bree, a 19-year-old academy graduate and much touted starlet, also left for Villa.
Heckingbottom also lost his right-hand man, Tommy Wright, early into last season after he was sacked as a result of bung allegations; and chief executive Linton Brown left midway through January. Added to that, the tragedy of owner Patrick Cryne’s personal circumstances and subsequent putting the club up for sale and Heckingbottom’s experiences have that familiar smell to it.
It’s an odour that Sunderland supporters are very familiar with - the smell that comes from the recipe of disaster. Key injuries also prevented Heckingbottom from playing a full strength team most weeks.
On this period of negativity and unforeseen misfortune, Heckingbottom had this to say as his club fought bravely and picked up some impressive results, all whilst playing football the fans were happy to see:
We would not allow anything else. You can go in any pub in the world and there is always a person in there who never made it as a footballer because of something, but you never go into a pub when somebody sits alongside you with a reason why they have not failed.
And that’s what we believe in. Anyone can have an excuse as to why they have not performed but we are the opposite and we have reasons why we do not fail. It is the standards we have set, and in the short time I have been doing this job there’s been all sorts to deal with.
Not for the first time, Heckingbottom found himself multitasking and improvising his way through the largely money free transfer window with a wage structure that invariably focussed on the young and untested. In the end, the club did some seemingly smart business, adding Alex Mowatt, Ryan Hedges, Gethin Jones, Cole Kpekawa and Matty James – four of whom are 21 or younger.
Heckingbottom has proved he can work under trying circumstances. Many other managers would not have been able to cope with such restrictions, but this only strengthened his steely resolve to fight on, improve and succeed within the limitations of his situation.
For the second season in a row, Barnsley have the youngest squad in the league and yet they play a brand of thoughtful football that has been impressive, even in the games they’ve lost. They schooled us this year if you recall. Heckingbottom has been developing young players for years and has developed an excellent reputation in the game for identifying and nurturing brilliant young talent.
The Barnsley gaffer has a knack of developing and then selling young, talented players – especially defenders. John Stones, Mason Holgate and James Bree are products of the Tykes’ academy. Heckingbottom nurtured Jon Stones through every age group before the England defender joined Everton in 2013.
Heckingbottom has also worked with a raw young man that Barnsley bought for next to nothing. Under Hecky’s tutelage, Alfie Mawson developed fantastically before he joined Swansea City for £5m after an impressive debut campaign with the Tykes. Swans fans would note that Mawson has been one of the stand out players of the last few seasons.
Despite being a victim of his own success and Barnsley’s strangling wage cap (Winnall and Hourihane more than quadrupled their wages when they left), Heckingbottom has maintained and nurtured an exciting next generation.
Angus MacDonald and Andy Yiadom arrived from Torquay United and Barnet respectively and former captain Marc Roberts, the subject of interest from several Premiership clubs in the summer before eventually joining Birmingham for £4 million, joined from Halifax Town on a free almost two years ago.
Yiadom’s rise with Heckingbottom by his side has been nothing short of amazing - with the defender now a full Ghanaian international, he has become sought after by various Premier League clubs, with a last minute transfer to Swansea falling through in the summer due to ill-timed filed paper work.
Heckingbottom is a pragmatist, always determined to better himself and his team despite all of their limitations.
Former Barnsley and Sunderland goalkeeper David Preece, who is now a columnist for the Sunderland Echo, has played and worked with Heckingbottom extensively and had this to say about his former colleague:
If Hecky wasn’t on the short list for Sunderland last summer then serious questions need to be asked.
As for Heckingbottom, his pragmatic and hardworking attitude towards football and achievement can perhaps best be described by the man himself:
It’s never a hard-luck story. You get what you deserve and if you want to achieve things you have to work hard. Nobody has an excuse. If you cheat on any little bit, you might concede a goal or it might be- you do not become what you can be.
Despite what some pessimists bleat about him being too young, I believe it’s his innovative and pioneering youthfulness that will be an asset to this club.
Regardless of what the difficult to please may say about his experience, we’ve had blissfully experienced managers over the years who have still hit brick walls.
Heckingbottom is bright, energetic and determined. His ability to develop young players is matched by his sustaining of a club with a League One wage structure quite comfortably in the Championship. He’s been a Sunderland player before and understands the requirements of honest to goodness working class Northern people.
I believe he is qualified for the job, but are Sunderland AFC qualified to nurture his talent and dedicated desire in the same way Heckingbottom does for his teams?
I hope they are, because he is an excellent young manager who can work miracles in difficult circumstances, on small budgets and can do what all Sunderland fans have been crying out for, for years - he can spot, nurture and develop excellent young players who others would miss or cast aside.
If Heckingbottom gets the job, I will be behind him 100% and he deserves nothing less from the board and owner.