Championship: What Paul Heckingbottom must do to win over Leeds faithful

Can Paul Heckingbottom get Leeds back on track?
Can Paul Heckingbottom get Leeds back on track?
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It takes a brave man to jump ship from one local rival to another, but one that Paul Heckingbottom has been willing to make. Martin Laurence looks at the issues the new Leeds United manager will face...

"Heckingbottom's first and perhaps biggest task then will be to win over the fans of a club he admitted to hating growing up. The only thing that will enable him to do so is winning football matches, and a failure to hit the ground running will make it very difficult."

The fact that the good ship Barnsley is sinking at a worrying rate will no doubt have played its part, but while the Tykes' survival hopes have diminished in recent weeks, their young manager's reputation remains relatively unscathed.

Indeed, the 40-year-old has been linked with almost every Championship job that has become available this season, making his name in management having earned promotion to the second tier in 2016.

He then steered his boyhood club to the comfort of a mid-table finish last season, but the loss of countless key players has unsurprisingly taken its toll and explains the unwavering faith in a coach that may well have taken the team as far as he can.

The likes of Conor Hourihane, Marc Roberts, Alfie Mawson, James Bree and Sam Winnall were pivotal to the club regaining promotion but have since been snapped up, while Ryan Kent and Harvey Barnes have had an impact in the Championship under Heckingbottom but since returned to their clubs following loan spells.

It's left the manager with a threadbare squad lacking quality, and he may just have realised that it's one that's only heading in one direction.

From free fall to freeze frame

Leeds' big problem, meanwhile, is that they're going nowhere. A sleeping giant of English football, they've turned to a man born and bred as a fan of their fierce local rivals to inspire change.

Heckingbottom's first and perhaps biggest task then will be to win over the fans of a club he admitted to hating growing up. The only thing that will enable him to do so is winning football matches, and a failure to hit the ground running will make it very difficult.

There's a positive and negative spin to take from the slump that ultimately cost Thomas Christiansen his job then, given that its difficult not to build on a record of two points from the last 18 available - the worst record in the league over that time. The job the new boss will have on his hands is to restore confidence in a side that now seems to have very little to play for.

Promotion hopes a thing of the past?

Seven points adrift of the playoffs, while a far from unassailable gap at Championship level the form of the sides in the top six right now means the Whites are out at [21.00] on the exchange to earn promotion and [10.00] to secure a place in the playoffs.

Getting a tune out of the players that fired Leeds to a strong start will be important, with Samuel Saiz and Pierre-Michel Lasogga hitting dry spells of late, though the return of the former from suspension will be a huge boost. That leads on well to the next major issue in the ranks, which is a lack of discipline.

Keeping calm and marching on

While Gaetano Berardi's red against Cardiff may have only exacerbated an already dire situation, a sixth dismissal in the league this season is two more than any other Championship side and has left what should be a competitive squad badly depleted at times. It's telling that the current top-4 have received fewer red cards combined (five).

Instilling some composure in every aspect will be crucial. The forwards need to find their feet in front of goal again, while the team as a whole needs to keep the ball far better and keep their heads when they don't have it.

Finding a plan B has been a gripe of the fans too, with Christiansen loyal to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system to a fault and not knowing how to change things when that wasn't working. The same fans can at least take some solace in the fact that their new man is more tactically flexible, deploying a 4-1-4-1 system more often than not but not adverse to deploying a front two or three. He's not used a 4-2-3-1 all season, so a tactical change should be afoot.

There's enough creativity in the ranks to adapt after all and to have sustained a push for a top six finish, with Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper offering a solid defensive platform when available - the latter has received his marching orders twice.

All in all while it's not a squad up to the standards of the very best in the division, the players available to Heckingbottom at Leeds are far more capable than those he will leave behind at Oakwell. He needs time and the understanding that most men in his position would get from the supporters, if not a trigger happy board, that promotion will have to wait another year at least.

Whether their willing to give that to a Barnsley man through and through is another matter though.


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