Interview: Paul Heckingbottom didn’t come to Hibs just to beat Hearts

As he reflects on his less than glorious career as a footballer, stopping off at some of English football’s more obscure outposts including Bradford City three times, I’m inviting Hibernian manager Paul Heckingbottom to nominate his greatest goal achieved with a crashing header and also the piece of terracing abuse which stung the most but forced him to concede: “Fair play – that was pretty funny.”

Saturday, 3rd August 2019, 7:30 am
Paul Heckingbottom says he understands Hibs have a tradition of playing attractive football but believes what supporters want most is simply to win. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

“Crashing header you say,” he muses. “Well, I once scored a spectacular o.g. for Sheffield Wednesday at Colchester – it was a diving header as well. I had any number of different positions. Sunderland took me as a left-back but I’d only played there once before. Sometimes I was put in midfield but really, was me doing that job going to get a Championship team up to the Premier? I don’t think so.”

So come on then, quit stalling, what’s the jibe that even now makes him wince and smile? “Yeah, there was one but I’m not sure if I can tell you. I’m not sure your paper could print it.” Try us, I say. “Okay, well … nah, sorry, it’s just too bad!”

Hecky and Hibs – who could have predicted that back on 21 May, 2016, to choose a date entirely at random? Certainly not him although he watched the historic Scottish Cup triumph, or at least the key bits: “I saw Hibs score right at the start and thought: ‘Wow!’ Then I came back to see David [Gray] head the winner in added-on time and went: ‘Bloody hell!’”

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Heckingbottom is a Yorkshireman: plain-speaking, straight-talking, calls a spade Geoffrey Boycott’s bat. Is there any other kind, you ask? Well, he’s in a jovial mood today which is in contrast to the sternly studious countenance he offers up post-match. This encourages me to find out if his name brought teasing in the school playground or was there already a healthy complement of Ramsbottoms, Rowbottoms and Winterbottoms? “Only two bottoms on the entire roll,” he confirms. “Me and my little brother Mark.”

He hails from the village of Royston in the old West Riding, which was also the birthplace of Charlie Williams, one of the dinner-jacketed gagmen in TV’s The Comedians who once turned out for Doncaster Rovers, strangely not among Hecky’s old clubs. But there’s something of the Williams’ quippery and timing when I ask our man about his summer signings – seven thus far yet none is Scottish.

Surely just coincidence, I suggest – accident not design. “Nah,” he says. “I’m going to get the Scots who’re still here right out of the club!” Joking apart, the serious business resumes today. The 42-year-old head coach is no lover of friendlies, preferring the straight-talkingness of proper league games, beginning for his Hibs against St Mirren at Easter Road. It’s a new era for the club with a new owner manning the shop. And they are Hecky’s Hibs now; they bear his stamp. Only four of the cup-winning heroes remain at Easter Road so he takes the credit for what the team achieve, and of course the blame for what they don’t.

So what’s the ambition for 2019-20? “To get better,” he says after training at East Mains. To finish where in the league? “To get better,” he repeats. To win what? “You want to win whatever you can but you’ve got to try and get better. All the time, every transfer window, every week, every single day. Be better.”

Hecky’s at the wheel, as the song goes, and he’s travelling a relentless road. His family – wife Clare, plus kids Archie, Marcie, Connie, Elsie and Alice – remain in Barnsley for the time being. “This sounds awful but up here without them I can work 24/7 on football. This sounds even worse but in my previous jobs when I was much closer to home I didn’t give them a lot of attention. What I’m trying to do now, though, is plan better so there’s time for them. They’re all coming up for the St Mirren game, along with my mum and dad, and we’ll have a week here together, maybe see a bit of the Edinburgh Festival.

“But, honestly, I’m liking these days of being at the training ground until gone six then having a coffee with [assistant] Robbie [Stockdale], getting the laptops out, being back at the digs for eight, making some food, watching some football on TV, then bed and repeat.” He cannot remember the title of the last film or boxset he watched.

It’s a relentless road, too, for his players, now all sworn to the doctrine of the hard press. When I ask him who starts in the midfield from the trio of Scott Allan, Stevie Mallan and Daryl Horgan he says: “Maybe I’ll play all of them.” Who’s going to do the heavy lifting, though? “Well, if you don’t tackle back you don’t get in my team.”

Hibs – and here Hearts fans and others can laugh and shout “Hoof!” and remember some of the donkeys and dumplings who’ve unmistakably worn the green and white down the years – have a reputation for flair football. What says Heckingbottom to that? “Well, what the supporters want isn’t always what’s best. That can also apply to the ownership, players, folk who’ve been here a long time who have a bias or wear blinkers. If I went round Edinburgh going ‘Tell me what you want your team to look like’, some would say: ‘We want to be playing good football.’ ‘What’s that, then?’ I’d say. ‘Erm … ’

“Everyone’s idea of what good football looks like is totally different. Some will say ‘We’re a passing team’ but they might moan about the ball being kept at the back. West Ham United and Everton might have the tradition for flair but the way football’s evolved through so many cycles with changes of ownership, big money and different managers, can the fans really claim these clubs have always played that way? This club I know have that tradition too and I do think there’s still a desire that they play in the Hibs way. But fans everywhere if they’re honest want winning football. You’ve got to win.”

Some purists may wonder if Hibs under Heckingbottom will be more pragmatic, more prosaic, but the manager offers this reassurance: “Every player we’ve signed is a footballer. It’s much easier to get a footballer working hard than it is to get a hard-working guy to play football. I’d rather take talented, technical players and get them running around the pitch, giving them a real organisation and a drive, than have guys who will automatically offer those qualities but who can only play one way, can’t pass the ball or keep it on the floor, because that just produces a real scrap every game.” He hopes the doubters are suitably reassured.

Football, he concedes, is all about opinions and today he’s looking forward to renewing acquaintance with the punter behind his dugout who in one game last season chirruped advice on how Hibs should be combating their opponents’ inventive corner-kick routines. “We could see what was happening. At half-time Robbie said: ‘Are you doing your change?’ I said: ‘Yeah, but that f****r will go away thinking I got the idea from him and tell everyone in the pub.’” Everyone thinks management’s dead easy but Hecky’s the boss and what’s more he has two degrees.

He was brought up by parents Mick and Denise in a solidly mining community, the old man working at the Shafton pit. “Everyone in Royston was in mining and then when the [1984-85] strike happened, everyone wasn’t. I was young and my main memory is of the little tickets entitling all the kids to free school dinners.” I’ve met a few sporting sons of miners who’ve had the same story to tell about being shown life underground by their fathers in the hope this would frighten them into sticking in at school. “I missed that,” he says, “because after the strike the pit was closed down.”

The other unifying theme of Royston was that everyone, young and old, played football and Heckingbottom paints a sweet picture of cheering on his team that’s almost Lowry-esque, Golden Gordon clodhopping up the wing.

He played for Barnsley and later managed them but first he was a fan, a proper Tykes tyke. “Me and my grandad were at Oakwell every Saturday. I’d play football in the morning and then meet up with him for fish and chips. He’d want to see some of the horseracing on TV but not too much because he liked us to be first in the ground. Bloody hell, we were sat in the Brewery Stand, him with his flask and me with my programme, for ages before kick-off.

“I was a club mascot and so was my brother – his turn came on the day of the Hillsborough disaster and I’ll never forget that. Oakwell was proper old-school in those days, wooden seats and pillars spoiling your view. There was terracing everywhere else until the ground started to change – I did a school project on the new East Stand which got into the local paper. And, you know, Scottish football and the atmosphere around it reminds me of those days at Oakwell.

“I like that there’s still a connection between clubs and their fans here. Football here is not all about the commercial, the big money, the TV deal. Obviously the game here needs the investment but I’d be disappointed if that came at the expense of the supporters who really love their teams.”

I mention a famous social media juxtaposition of fans celebrating goals either side of the border: the Scottish scene is one of slapstick euphoria; the English one is of just about every supporter holding a cameraphone, snapping the superstar on the pitch or possibly themselves. “Yeah, it’s a completely different game in England now. If I go to the Etihad or the Emirates it’s to see great players for sure but you don’t watch football in those places for the atmosphere. The younger generation of fan at the big clubs in England will think that this is all that football’s about but not for me it isn’t. A derby down south is nothing like the ones I played in or derbies in Scotland. In the Premier League derbies are just like any other games; the intensity has been lost. Football in England and Scotland are totally different products now.” Maybe Scotland doesn’t have the money but maybe it’s got something that money can’t buy.

Now this is all very fine and fascinating and what you might expect of a thoughtful fellow who went to uni to study sports coaching, albeit that this was partly so his CV might stand out from those of other journeymen who’d played 400-odd games as they chased jobs in management. But derbies, and in particular the Edinburgh derby, have already made him groan.

He returns to the conversations he’s had with Hibs fans, seeking insight into their hopes and dreams. You can have a chat with them about winning the cup again, he says, and you can talk about getting back to Europe – “but what a lot of them told me was: ‘Just beat Hearts.’

“Right after we won at Tynecastle [2-1 in April] I was on a train, heading back to Barnsley for a wedding. Three Hibs fans spotted me and came charging along the corridor to shake my hand. They told me it was the first time we’d won there for ages; I didn’t know that. Don’t get me wrong: I was happy for them. But finishing above the local rivals: is that all I came up here for?”

That win went a long way to confirming what the Leith faithful believe to be the natural order but for Heckingbottom there were still a few more games remaining of the season. He heard the same from others of a Hibee persuasion – job done – and professes not to have understood the mindset. But surely he could. Surely when he was waving his metaphorical rattle at Oakwell, beating Leeds United – who he also went on to manage – mattered the most? “Yes, but I was a fan back then. Now football’s my job. I understand how crippling [the obsession with local rivalries] can be.”

Well, I think that to some extent he’s playing the bluff Yorkshireman, a role he enjoys – “I don’t like wasting time,” he says, revealing one of the criteria for membership of God’s own country. For I reckon that victory must rate as his Hibs highlight thus far, not least because a tactical switch was crucial to the outcome. “We had one man deep in midfield and were going long too early so we brought Mallan further back to give us an overload so one of their midfielders would have to come out and we could play in behind.”

Heckingbottom’s degrees always get mentioned but he underplays their significance to the East Mains day-to-day. “I could talk forever about football and everything I say could be right but is all of it needed? That would just be me trying to show off about how much I know.”

Regarding footballers, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. “Information overload,” he says. “My reasoning is: how can I have the most amount of impact by saying as little as possible?” Two little nuggets if everyone’s understood and remembered them can win a game and sometimes simply dropping back a midfielder can do the trick. The resumption of capital hostilities comes next month.

By then, Easter Road will be more familiar with Hecky’s Hibs and their ability to defend corners. The manager is happy with his new recruits, pointing out that they all chose the club over others offering more money, and makes the confident prediction: “Some of the guys we’ve brought here will become massive fans’ favourites.” For good measure, he adds: “This squad might not end up winning something but parts of it definitely will.”

Maybe that will require some of Ron Gordon’s munificence although Heckingbottom is not looking to the new owner to open up a fat chequebook. “It’s not just one man’s job [to potentially turn Hibs into a real force in the game], it’s the job of the club as a whole to become better, more efficient, more proactive, more aggressive, more forward-thinking.”

These in any case are concerns for the future. Right now all that matters to the man at the wheel is the first game and three points in front of the wife, kids and mum and dad. “You could not do another job which makes you feel like this one,” he says, just before remembering my question right at the start...

“You wanted a cutting remark. It’s Sheffield Wednesday, I’m on the bench having lost my place in the team, Paul Sturrock’s the manager and I’m jumping around, desperate to see my number flash up. ‘Hey gaffer,’ I said, ‘I had a dream last night that I got on.’ ‘Funny that,’ he said, ‘because I had a bloody nightmare that you got on’!”