Just three league games into the new campaign, however, and the mood music has changed markedly, with the head coach now feeling the wrath of the Easter Road faithful after a string of unconvincing performances this summer.
Despite losing only one game out of eight in all competitions, and sitting in the top half of the fledgling Ladbrokes Premiership table, there has been no shortage of ire coming Heckingbottom’s way of late. The decision to substitute fans’ favourite Scott Allan, allied to the concession of a 94th-minute equaliser against St Johnstone last weekend, cranked up the heat on the Yorkshireman following a 6-1 demolition away to Rangers and a nervy extra-time win over Morton in the previous two matches.
However, the head coach insists his four years in management have steeled him for backlashes such as this. “You have that pressure all the time,” he said. “In this job, it comes with the territory. I’m not trying to give what people write or what the fans say less importance, but when you are winning games you are never as good as folk say, and when you’re losing you are never as bad as they say.
“You’ve just got to keep everything in perspective and focus. When you’re winning, you’ve still got to get better and when you’re losing you’ve got to get better. You can never think that you’ve cracked it or you’ll get a kick in the proverbials. You have to ignore it. It can’t be a part of your daily life. There’s that much said and written you wouldn’t have time to go through it all anyway. You’ve just got to focus on your job and the players. You get used to it. You get used to it as a player as well because there’s always someone judging you.
“It’s different for a manager because the criticism is more personal and that’s why it’s not for everyone. I never set out to be a manager, it was never in my mind to be a manager. I wanted to work with young players and help develop them but then I got the opportunity to manage and when I stepped up to it, I really enjoyed it and thought ‘yeah, it is for me’.
“Lots of people want to be managers and then try it and think ‘no, it’s not for me’, but you’ve still got people like me who maybe aren’t so sure but then go the other way. I love it. Saturday - as frustrating it was to concede that goal when we did and knowing you’re sending the fans home unhappy - was not nice, but where else would you get that feeling of pressure and responsibility? When I was off in the summer, that’s what you miss. You can easily go and watch football or do a bit of coaching but I like the responsibility of management.”
Heckingbottom echoed the view expressed by his Hearts counterpart Craig Levein recently when he said that the impact of social media has cranked up the pressure on managers. “In the four years I’ve been doing it, I’ve seen it change a hell of a lot,” said Heckingbottom. “Most of it’s around social media. Everyone’s got a platform now to say what they want, what they think. It actually adds more weight (to an opinion) when it’s written down somewhere because someone else will comment back and it all snowballs. That then influences behaviour in the stadium because the same conversations people are having on social media are then being had when they’re chatting amongst friends when they go for a beer or when they come to the stadium. That is the evolution of the football fan now. It’s totally different.
“Everybody wants things in the here and now. Not everyone’s going to get that. We’ve got an approach here where we’re determined to improve year on year, window on window. It will have to be thoughtful and planned if we’re to compete with the clubs with bigger budgets.
“We know we’re on the right path and pushing the right way, but we also know there will be ups and downs, wins and losses along the way. There will be more kicks in the teeth like last weekend, but likewise I look forward to when we score in the 94th minute and get the win. If we do that against Motherwell this weekend, even if we play worse than we did last week, everyone’s happy and it’s a totally different vibe.
“As daft as it sounds, last weekend we were ten seconds away from being fourth and in the quarter-final of the cup. It’s different isn’t it? How things can change. The linesman putting his flag up and disallowing that St Johnstone goal, it wouldn’t have made us play any better. I’d still have been speaking to the players the same, we’d have done the same things well and not so well, but we’d have three points instead of one. That’s where you have to ignore certain things.”