The Width of a Post’s Midweek ‘Player Focus – Close Season Special’ series continues with a look back at the very difficult 2003/04 season, as Jason McKeown remembers Paul Heckingbottom.
“Heckingshocking” was what my wife Rachel nicknamed Paul Heckingbottom as he struggled through a difficult second period at Bradford City between 2007 and 2009.
An American who moved to the UK when we married in December 2004, and who started supporting the Bantams from that point, Rach had not been witness to Heckingbottom’s impressive first spell as a Bantam, which was crowned with the Player of the Season award for the 2003/04 campaign. She and others new to City in-between Paul’s departure and his return must have bemused why the rest of us had been excited to see him re-sign in the summer of 2007. “Player of the season, this guy? Must have been a very poor season!”
And, to be fair, it was. 2003/04 must rank as one of the lowest years we’ve ever experienced as City fans. Defeat after defeat, the misery of relegation and then the even greater fear of the club going out of business forever as Administration 2 began mid-season. That May we exited Division One – now the Championship – after putting up a relatively feeble fight. Second bottom, with only the even bigger basket case, Wimbledon, to lord it over (and even then, they beat us home and away that season).
There was not exactly a queue of outstanding candidates to rival Heckingbottom when it came to voting for player of the season. Some players had performed well at certain periods of the season for sure, but it was a patchy picture at best. Patchy apart from Heckingbottom, who let no one down.
Let no one down by being a decent if not spectacular player. Arriving at the club the previous summer from Norwich City, Heckingbottom was one of a very few – if not the only – successful close season signings made by Nicky Law, who had been instructed by chairman Gordon Gibb that he could not buy anyone on a contract worth more than £750 a week. The cost cutting measures that were required to meet the difficult financial challenges of the day made that a necessity, but with hindsight you could argue it meant the club was doomed to relegation before a ball was kicked. Law signed many players who made no impact and have been quickly forgotten – Gareth Edds, Luke Cornwall, Robert Wolleaston and Frazer McHugh for starters – but Heckingbottom at least helped to improve the defence.
He was consistently good, week in week out. A 7 out of 10 type of player. Occasionally dipping below or climbing above that, but usually notable only by the fact he was doing his job so well we barely noticed him. While injuries disrupted other parts of the team, Heckingbottom played more times than anyone else (43 appearances). If only we had a few more players of his ilk, to make up for deficiencies elsewhere.
City ended the season staring directly at the black hole of financial implosion, and in such circumstances it was no surprise that Heckingbottom chose to move on rather than stay and face the uncertainty of whether he would be paid each month and of the likely struggles City would face rebuilding the team. He moved to Sheffield Wednesday, then in League One like City, and made a quick return to Valley Parade in October 2004. That day he was not booed nor cheered, but largely ignored. It probably said much about the quiet impact he made at City, despite the Player of the Season trophy he was at the time still the holder of.
Two years playing in the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley followed for Paul, before Stuart McCall returned to Valley Parade as manager in 2007 and made Heckingbottom his third summer signing. We, those who had seen him during his first spell, were excited. The memories that he was a good player were stronger than any actual memories of why he was a good player, in truth. “He was quite reliable wasn’t he?” – just what you want in your left back.
Heckingbottom’s second spell saw him undo much of the strong reputation and warm regard he was held in at BD8. Playing behind Omar Daley, with his infamous lack of tracking back, is a test of any full back; but at times Paul was a shadow of the player of before and would be caught out too easily and too often. His passing was also dreadful, which contributed to the ball coming back at City too often. At his best (and he was okay at times) he was barely noticed, a bit like last time around. But the suspicion grew that he and City had evolved to the point where he was notably weaker, rather than obviously stronger, than the rest of his team mates.
Luke O’Brien burst onto the scene in October 2008, after Heckingbottom was injured, and we never saw Paul in a City shirt again. He was not missed, in truth – evidenced by O’Brien emulating his Player of the Season achievement the following May. Heckingbottom departed to Mansfield at the same time, spent the season after at Gateshead and was turning out for Harrogate Town last year. He is still only 34, which is worth contemplating when you consider City signed a 35-year-old midfielder last week.
Just like many other City players of recent years who excelled, Heckingbottom is slightly unfortunate that his positive contributions to the club came during difficult times. For those reasons it’s difficult to look back upon him with great fondness, and to recall any great games or memorable moments he provided along the way. He was rightly recognised for what he did for us, but we had enough on our plate during that period to be able to have found the time to miss him.
That and he was Heckingshocking second time around.
The Midweek Player Focus – Close Season Special series