The Easter Road head coach gets his first taste of the Edinburgh derby this weekend as his on-form side go in search of a first away win over Hearts since May 2013.
The visitors also have the incentive of knowing that a victory will lift them above their bitter rivals into fifth place in the Premiership.
Heckingbottom has been involved in several Yorkshire derbies, both as a player and a manager, and the 41-year-old is unlikely to be fazed by the ferocity of the occasion.
“I always enjoyed the derbies,” he said. “Derbies are a little bit different and I think they’ll be different again up here just because of the way the game is. It’s a lot more physical and there’s a lot more contact allowed up here. Things like that can help build the atmosphere.
“I actually enjoyed away games better than home games. I enjoyed the atmosphere. Some players relish going away in a derby, some don’t. It’s not something we’ve spoken about, but I always remember liking the away games. Especially going to the big clubs away from home with the big atmospheres.
“Part of it was possibly the feeling of you all being in it together, a small group taking them all on. I don’t know if that’s what it was but it’s certainly something that sticks with me.”
Heckingbottom’s most memorable derbies as a player came in his time with Sheffield Wednesday more than a decade ago, when he came up against Barnsley, his boyhood team and the club he would go on to manage. He recalls roaring into challenges that would have brought him instant dismissal in the present day.
“I got sent a video of a game I played in for Sheffield Wednesday,” he said. “Just a little clip, about 30 seconds. There were about five tackles, I think I’m involved in three or four of them and they should’ve been red cards. All it was was the game carrying on.
“They’d have been red cards now.
“It gets the fans and the crowd up, the cheers, the roars – that’s what’s changed. It’s probably changed a little bit more up here as well but there’s still a lot more contact here, a lot more tackles and the atmosphere at grounds responds to it.”
Heckingbottom believes Scottish referees are more likely to allow a feisty derby match to unfold than their English counterparts, whom he feels are now far quicker to clamp down on most forms of tackling than they would have been in his playing days.
“The build-up to a derby is the same down there,” he said. “The same questions, how big it is, the rivalry, the importance of it, understanding how much it means to the fans – all those questions are exactly the same. But the actual product on the pitch and what it looks like is totally different to what it was.
“Even me now, I still complain, or I did down south, ‘how is that a foul?’ because you could see it coming, which is what annoyed me about the referees down south. You’d see it a split second before that the player was going to put on the breaks, step across an opponent who’s at the back of him and win a free-kick. So how is it a free-kick? None of that up here. That would be ‘get up’ and I like that side of it.”
Heckingbottom acknowledges that player safety has to come into consideration, however, when tackles are flying in amid the heat of derby battle.
“I am conscious of how I’ve changed in that respect,” he said.
“Before it would have been ‘good tackle, he’s won the ball’ but then his foot’s bounced up over the ball and he’s caught him just below the knee. Ashley Young’s (for Man United against Wolves) was similar the other day. Now they’re red cards. Before, if you got the ball then it was play on.
“Things like that have changed for the good.”
Heckingbottom experienced the depth of feeling that can be fuelled by local rivalry a year ago when Barnsley fans turned on him after he left to take over at Yorkshire foes Leeds United. “When I joined Leeds as manager the whole local rivalry thing came to the fore,” he said. “Barnsley Football Club played their part in that and they were bang out of order. They know that.
“The most sensationalist things were reported on social media. I can still walk round Barnsley and talk to everyone and chat about football, that will never change.
“But some outrageous things were being said and sensationalist incidents were reported at the time when I left Barnsley to join Leeds and people thought that was the norm, but it most certainly wasn’t.”