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Paul Heckingbottom interview: My personal ambitions align with Hibernian
Hibernian manager wants to take the club into Europe
Last Updated: 21/06/19 4:21pm
Hibernian manager Paul Heckingbottom has been linked with a return to English football but in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, he tells Adam Bate that he is learning so much from his time north of the border...
Hibernian players were back in for training this Thursday but they returned amid speculation about their manager's future. Reports have linked Paul Heckingbottom with a move back down south to Hull, but the English coach who helped to lift the club following Neil Lennon's departure remains focused on the job at hand - winning trophies with Hibs.
"There is nothing in it as far as I know," Heckingbottom tells Sky Sports. "I am pleased that I took this job. It was a good decision and it still excites me. I wanted a good club, somewhere that I had a chance of being successful. I thought that would be the case here and I still think that because we will have a better squad next season and I cannot wait to get started.
"We have lost 11 players through loans and those who were out of contract but, to be honest, I am not too bothered about that. It gives us a chance to start building something if we improve the squad this window and every window from now on. The job is to start making Hibs better. That's the aim. I see no reason why it can't be a good season."
Heckingbottom arrived in February with Hibs languishing down in eighth but proceeded to win five of his first six league games, drawing the other against Rangers. He went on to take points off eventual champions Celtic and secured Hibs first win away to rivals Hearts in six years. Not bad considering the club was suffering an injury crisis at the time.
"There were not many players available so we had a core group who were the only ones training," Heckingbottom recalls. "The good thing about it taking a bit of time to complete my deal was that I got to have a good look at the players beforehand and knew exactly who I wanted to play and what team we were going to put out.
"That was good because it allowed me to hit the ground running and know what information I had to give to each player. The players responded really well too. They were really honest, a good group who wanted to do well. So it was just a case of drip-feeding bits of information and gradually the performances got better and better."
Heckingbottom had been identified as one of the more promising young coaches in English football during his time at Barnsley having won promotion and a cup in his first season in charge before taking the team to a mid-table finish in the Championship. That earned him a crack at the Leeds job but he lasted only 16 games there before being sacked.
It offered an opportunity to take stock and it's clear that he believes the move to Scotland is already helping to make him a better manager. As well as the experience of learning how to work in a new league, he is being tested in new ways, tactically and on the training ground.
"It sounds daft but I always fancied working abroad one day and this feels like a bit of a stepping stone towards that because it is totally different," he explains. "The way the fans are with the team is different, the way the game is refereed is different, and the structure of the league is different. There are lots of different styles of play, for example.
"You go from playing Celtic to playing a team at the bottom who are really direct and physical. It is a totally different game. That's a big variation so you have to learn how to overcome very different styles. In the Championship, it will just be little tactical changes but there is real variation in Scotland, which is a new experience for me.
"The biggest thing operationally that affects your job is how spread out the games are. The Championship is relentless but fewer games here means more a lot time on the training ground doing physical work and having the ball on the grass. You can actually work on things rather than just do video and recovery, which at times in the Championship is all it is really."
The finances in England are such that it has become customary for the second tier south of the border to be seen as a more appealing option than the Scottish Premiership but there are signs of that changing. Steve Clarke's renaissance at Kilmarnock has been rewarded with the Scotland job, while Lennon's time at Hibs helped to facilitate his Celtic return.
Heckingbottom is also hopeful that the opportunities presented by top-flight management could help to elevate his own career. The rewards of success at Hibernian are obvious.
"If we do well, there is the prospect of European football," he says. "Obviously, you don't have that in the Championship, so because it is a top league it does bring that added appeal. I remember the very first conversations that I had with the club, I came away from those meetings thinking, you know what, the Europa League would be fantastic."
He goes on to speak warmly of the infrastructure at Hibs and the importance of player development, reflecting his background in youth coaching. "People say players are good enough or they are not but you have to create opportunities for them," he explains. "They need a system that gives them a chance and we are looking at ways to improve that."Perhaps Heckingbottom will return to England one day. But he will do so a better manager - and hopefully having secured some silverware first. "I would love to win a major domestic cup and I would love to qualify for the Europa League," he adds. "This is one of the top clubs in the country. Yes, I have my own personal ambitions but they align with Hibs."