Dean Smith, Brentford’s Head Coach, was not a happy man after his side’s defeat to Paul Heckingbottom’s increasingly resolute Leeds United at Elland Road yesterday. Careless of “sour grapes” accusations, he complained on several fronts: the grass was too long, the goal was offside and the referee and assistants were in thrall to the Elland Road crowd. In truth, criticism of the officials was justified, but you’d have needed to stagger past Specsavers and into a lamppost to be dazed enough for a claim that they favoured Leeds. It was that kind of press conference though. Fortunately, Mr. Grumpy was followed by Mr. Happy.
Paul Heckingbottom breezed into the room as you’d expect with a man basking in the afterglow of his first win in the job. The fact that he’d also got his first clean sheet – something that had looked highly improbable during most of the first half – served to put an even broader smile on the face of a coach who appears to be settling in nicely and feeling at home. He dealt briskly and good-humouredly with the gripes of his Brentford counterpart: the grass was too long? It played better than on Sunday against Bristol, it were too short after t’rugby. Offside for the goal? I’ve only seen it on the small monitor, we’ll take it apart and look at it later. But (twinkly grin) I don’t care. And the referee? Another grin – and Paul states that he doesn’t talk about referees – “After a few weeks, you’ll probably stop asking me about them”.
All in all, it was a post-match conference of two halves, but Smith had lost and Hecky had won, so perhaps that’s understandable. What did come across, as it increasingly does with every passing game into the Leeds job, is Heckingbottom’s self-assurance and confidence, together with a no-nonsense yet engaging style of explaining his take on matters relating to the task he’s taken on. He seems very comfortable in his own skin, and you get the feeling that this is an air that will instil confidence into players who had, perhaps, begun to lack that valuable commodity. And that could be half the battle; so much of the professional game, with its fine margins between success and failure, is about confidence.
Asked about the prospects of the play-offs, Hecky said he was taking the remainder of the season one game at a time, and see where that gets us. But he added that he’d be happy if people were still asking him that question for a good while – it’d mean we were still in with a shout, just maybe. And you can see that’s the case. Courtesy of Cardiff‘s late win over Bristol City, we’re just five points off. Win at Boro on Friday night, at a venue that Leeds have found quite amenable over the years, and things could be getting quite interesting.
Either way, Hecky will most likely be content with his lot, happy to take anything that might come along this season, but equally prepared to play a longer game and put his stamp on the club in time for next time around. I’ve had Barnsley-supporting mates tell me that we’ve bought ourselves a pup, but, from what I’ve seen so far, I can’t help being impressed with the new guy. There’s just an air of “I’ve got this” about him. He clearly sees Leeds United as a massive opportunity, one he’s determined to make the most of. Daft considerations like who he supported and who he hated as a kid don’t come into it, as all of us should be grown-up enough to figure out for ourselves. Paul Heckingbottom is Leeds now, and he’ll be just as set on restoring the club to its rightful place as any Leeds-fan-since-birth you could name.
Can he, will he succeed at Elland Road, where so many others have failed before him? By Heck, it feels like a risky thing to say, but you know what? He just might.