The 42-year-old from Royston, who was last in charge of Scottish club Hibernian in 2019, was in the Oakwell hotseat for exactly two years between 2016 and 2018 before he left for Leeds United weeks after the current owners Chien Lee and Paul Conway bought the club from Patrick Cryne. Barnsley’s owners and board have received criticism from fans and pundits for selling several of Daniel Stendel’s promotion stars of the 2018/19 season and replacing them with extremely young players who had very little experience of the Championship. The Reds are now bottom of the division.
Heckingbottom told the Chronicle: “There is a lot more to it than just the age and experience which a lot of people talk about. When we first went up (in 2016), we had to sign young but there was a big, big difference. There has been a lot of money spent this season by Barnsley on transfer fees and wages. The playing budget now is a hell of lot more than when we went up. That’s really good for the club and I am looking at it thinking ‘I would have loved to have had that money to spend.’ But it has to be spent on things that will improve your team.
"When we went up we soon lost 12 of the 20 who were in the play-off final squad and we had to do a massive, massive rebuild while signing young players and spending a pittance. But at least we could try to work together to sign a player who we knew could get in the team and do well, rather than just any player who is young. It has to be joined up. You have to know those players will play, develop and contribute to the team. You can’t just look for the attributes of ‘quick’ and ‘young’, there’s more to it than that. You have to look at the kind of players you need in the squad and their characteristics.
“If that money had have been spent wisely and with more input probably from Daniel, then of course you have a better chance of staying up. From the outside looking in, there have been steps forwards in how much money there is to spend, but there have been steps backwards in the thinking. Everything we learned over a few years seems to have been forgotten after they went back to square one with the change of ownership.”
Heckingbottom regularly watches Barnsley games but a return to Oakwell as a coach is not something he is thinking about. He said: “You never say never but I am happy to support the team as a fan. That’s what I enjoy doing. I go with my friends and my kids and I have a good day out. It’s like when I used to go there as a fan 20 years ago.
"I would love to still be there but things come to an end. I could have said lots of things about why I left but why would I do that to my club? I had my reasons for leaving, it was time to go and, whichever club would have approached at that point, I would have gone regardless. That’s the way I was feeling at that point. I knew it would get to that point when I got the job.”
Heckingbottom admits the chances of survival look slim, with the Reds seven points adrift with nine games remaining. He said: “I went to the home games against Hull, West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday. They should have won all three. I have seen them play on TV as well. I thought they were going to be strong enough to get out of it before the last couple of games made it look tough, but I still hope they can do it. I think this Barnsley team would be a nightmare to play against because they have so much energy. But they have been let down by too many mistakes.”
The season is currently paused due to the coronavirus, with discussions underway as to whether and how it will be completed. Heckingbottom said: “For me, the season has to finish. For the integrity of the game, you just can’t void the season. Teams who deserve to win titles should win them and teams that deserve to go down should go down. If next season has to be halved, if there is a next season, then at least everyone knows that before it starts. Things will come back in stages across the country, not just in sport. I think we will see football back behind closed doors. Once they can be confident that they won’t cause the virus to spread more, they can be confident to go back into training then start games again. Season ticket holders can get the games on TV for free.
“Football isn’t football without the fans but everyone knows the circumstances. At first, all the managers were against behind-closed-doors games but, if you ask them in a few months, they will just want to get the season finished. Otherwise we will never move forward. If you are not going to finish until it is safe to have fans in, then football will be the last thing to get back to normal because of how many fans are crammed into so many stadiums across the country on matchdays.”