Paul Heckingbottom: I had to move house at Barnsley to escape autograph hunters

Paul Heckingbottom is unlikely to be cowed by the scrutiny of life as Hibernian head coach, having moved house in a bid to escape the attention of adoring supporters in his home-town of Barnsley.
Hibernian's new manager, Paul Heckingbottom, alongside chief executive Leeann Dempster. Pic: SNS/Ross ParkerHibernian's new manager, Paul Heckingbottom, alongside chief executive Leeann Dempster. Pic: SNS/Ross Parker
Hibernian's new manager, Paul Heckingbottom, alongside chief executive Leeann Dempster. Pic: SNS/Ross Parker

The 41-year-old was always a well-known face in the Yorkshire town, growing up there, helping them to promotion from League One in 2006 and starting his coaching career with the youth team. He was a season ticket holder at Oakwell as a boy.

Plenty of locals had his phone number; everybody seemed to know where he lived.

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Heckingbottom recalls how everything changed in 2016 when he became Barnsley manager, winning the EFL Trophy and guiding the club to the Championship via the play-off final – both games at Wembley – in his first four months at the helm.

The texts were incessant, the tone was different and he had autograph hunters on his doorstep while he was in his dressing gown.

“After I took the job we got promoted and, living in the town, I knew the majority of fans,” he recalled. “I had been a supporter and knew people from going to games.

“There was a change, even among friends. On match days, you went from being one of the boys to it being a case of them having the manager’s number. So there’s a difference in how they behave. It makes you realise ‘s***, this is a big deal’.

“Kids were knocking the door, bringing their footballs. Dads were bringing their kids round for autographs – meanwhile, you’re in your dressing gown watching telly! So I had to move house. Really.

“I noticed it when we played Oxford in the Johnston’s Paint Trophy final at Wembley. I got up in the morning of the final, pretty laid back about it, saw my phone and there were so many texts from Barnsley fans. You felt the responsibility – it was there in your back.”

Nevertheless, Heckingbottom used that sense of duty to galvanise the club, the fans and the town. Following their two glory days at Wembley, they consolidated in the Championship and continued to upset the odds. He was one of them and, although the pressure could be suffocating, he saw the potency that he could harness.

“The power of that can be used to get everyone on the same page,” he continued. “I could influence the fans. I’m a big believer that the fans and I are no different from each other. If you have the human element and the fans identify with you, then you are one of them.”

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As Heckingbottom embarks on this new chapter in his career, he paid tribute to the man who started the journey for him, Eric Harrison.

Heckingbottom credits his time at the Manchester United academy with imbuing him with the work ethic and humility that underpins his methods, with legendary youth coach Harrison at the heart of that.

Harrison passed away this week at the age of 81. “He was a massive influence,” he continued. “It was a special time. I always wanted to be a youth coach and Eric Harrison and Pop Robson were the reason.

“My time at Manchester United, more than anything, taught me the importance of work ethic. Everyone goes on about talent but it’s about work. I was realistic enough to know when I went to Man Utd there was a chance that I wouldn’t make it to the first team but they still had a big impact on me and my career.

“Sir Alex Ferguson brought me in and told me I wouldn’t be staying, but it was still a really positive experience.”

Those initial aspirations to be a youth coach quickly morphed into a desire to become a boss in his own right and, following a sensational two years in charge of the Tykes, he joined Leeds.

He endured an ill-fated four-month spell at Elland Road before being sacked in June 2018. Predictably, he has chosen his subsequent career move carefully. He is convinced Hibs is the right one.

“People say a hell of lot of things in football to look good and can’t back it up with anything,” says the plain-talking Yorkshireman. “But there was an acknowledgment here of where Hibs are, a realism and a clear plan to get to where we want to get to.”