Leeds United coach David Hockaday says he and his players will ‘sweat and bleed’ for the white shirt. Phil Hay reports.
It would be wrong to describe David Hockaday as maligned or misunderstood.
Overlooked is closer to the mark. He says himself that people are oblivious to his 40-or-so years in football, a fact which says something about Hockaday’s ability to make the world notice him.
His predecessor at Leeds United, Brian McDermott, used to admit to a chronic image problem. He would joke about his need for greater charisma or suave, Mourinho-like features. But behind the self-deprecation, McDermott had a reputation: promotion on his CV and the stamp of the Premier League. When it came to image, there was no problem at all.
Hockaday’s appointment as head coach at Elland Road was more of a PR minefield.
United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, said the 56-year-old sold himself during a five-hour meeting at a hotel in London, talking football, football, football.
Regardless, others looked at Hockaday and saw a man who, when typed into Google, brought up first a video of Forest Green Rovers’ supporters calling for him to be sacked. Forest Green was Hockaday’s last job but the Conference club are not the sum of his record.
“I spent the last four years there,” he says, “but that’s four years out of 40 I’ve had in the game. It’s important for me to point that out.
“If you’re looking at the whole picture, you’ve got to factor in my time coaching in the Premier League, and the Championship and Leagues One and Two. I’m not a big name, I accept that, but I know I can coach and it doesn’t really matter if you come from Planet Zog – produce a good, winning team and people will have you.”
In Leeds, they will. But producing a good, winning team at Leeds United has been a miracle too far for several managers.
McDermott spoke many times about his Championship win-ratio at Reading – 50 per cent or thereabouts – but will be less inclined in future to dig up his statistics at Elland Road.
Neil Warnock’s “record eighth promotion” was also a whimsical notion, never once on the cards.
Warnock managed Leeds in the vicious current of Gulf Finance House’s buy-out of Ken Bates, and McDermott lost control during Cellino’s complicated buy-out of United. In his favour, Hockaday has clear water in front of him and an owner who already seems to be bedding in for years.
He was, without question, Cellino’s choice, as surprising as that choice proved to be.
Hockaday’s appointment in June was a return to employment eight months after he and Forest Green parted company in diplomatic fashion and by mutual consent.
“When I left Forest Green I was desperate to get back into the Football League,” he says. “In six months I must have watched over 100 games at every level.
“I was blessed to be invited into a lot of clubs, and a lot of clubs in the Championship. I went to watch training and I was allowed to put on one or two little sessions. I talked to people, kept my hand in. It was a crash course of learning.
“Mainly, you learn about things you could have done better in previous roles but you also pick up new techniques, new practices.
“Because of that, I’m well aware of who plays where in the Championship and how other clubs and managers work. I’m not a novice and I haven’t come into this job blind.
“It’s true that I’m not a name, that people might not really know who I am or what my background is, but I feel I’m qualified to give it a good go.”
The question from the outset was one of authority: how much would Hockaday have? It is not a secret – or even unfair to assume – that Cellino has dictated United’s transfers this summer but Hockaday says he was consulted on all of those made from abroad. “Look, they weren’t lads I was familiar with,” he says, “but the way it works is I look at the positions where we need strengthening, the president will often suggest a name and say ‘go and do your homework on him.’ I do that and we see what we think.
“It’s not like I’m having players dumped on me. We both have our say and take a view but obviously he has the final say because he’s paying the money and signing the contracts.”
Hockaday is adamant too that tactics, formations and the nuts and bolts of coaching have been left to him entirely. It was a point Hockaday made firmly on the day of his unveiling – that he would pick the team and do what managers traditionally do.
“I manage the team and pick the team,” he says. “The other things, I leave to the president.
“He’s welcome to it. He’s an expert negotiator of contracts and I’m most certainly not so I wouldn’t ever expect to have a say in that.”
The players who have been at Thorp Arch this summer and who travelled to Italy for a two-week tour say pre-season has been more physical than any other they can remember.
The Italian programme included up to three sessions a day and ice baths in a river.
Nonetheless, Hockaday admits that Leeds were “playing catch-up” when they returned to England having destroyed a local amateur team and seeing a more credible friendly against a Romanian Premier League club cancelled at short notice.
“Italy came at a good time,” he says. It came literally four days after he was appointed. “There were a lot of downcast faces here after a summer of bad news, or perceived bad news, so we got away and into a bubble. We needed that. It was like breaking away from everything.
“I’d done my homework so I knew what I was coming into and if I’m being honest, it’s better here than I thought it might be.
“Financially the club seems to have sorted itself out very quickly and wherever I’ve gone the fans have been good with me. They really have.
“I understand that people have misgivings and doubts, and that’s fine. This is a big club and the supporters want to know that it’s in the right hands. Quite right. I need to earn their respect.
“I said that on day one but I can only see one way to earn their respect and that’s through the football and results. I can’t affect what people think of me now, I can’t change that. But I can do my job and do it well, and turn this into a footballing team.”
Knowing the Championship, as Hockaday says he does, is half of the battle.
The other half – the more complex half – is the creation of a team at Elland Road who sit comfortably within it.
The club finished 15th last season and were no better than that.
Cellino feared that they’d be relegated when he first began pushing his takeover in January.
Hockaday says the flamboyant Italian has asked only for “visible progress” this season. “He wants to see a philosophy here, the green shoots of recovery.”
Promotion in Cellino’s mind is set for 2016.
“We’ll sweat and bleed for the white shirt,” Hockaday says. “As a starting point, I can absolutely guarantee honest performances.”
In Leeds they say that supporters will settle for that but honesty is no long-term substitute for tangible achievements, and honest failure is wearing thin. PR is no substitute for ability either.
McDermott talked about image problems but football is not a beauty contest; it’s game where the best players and managers compare medals.
What honours Hockaday holds are largely hidden beneath a bush.
He was promoted five times as a player and has coached at the likes of Southampton, Watford, Leicester City and MK Dons.
Watford gave him the experience of coaching in the Premier League.
Hockaday is credited in part with driving the creation of academies in England but he is still a man who can arrive at a pre-season friendly against Guiseley, only to be told by the waiting steward that the car park is full and he’d be better off round the corner.
And yet, he has a quiet confidence about him.
He doesn’t accept that his appointment is the gamble so many perceive it to be.
He doesn’t accept either that scepticism of him will complicate the season ahead.
“You control the controllable,” he says. “Certain things you can’t control so you don’t try.
“I can’t talk people who are sceptical about me into believing in me overnight. Words can be quite empty but coaching, winning games – that I can do.”