Leeds United left-back Stephen Warnock has defended David Hockaday’s short reign as head coach, saying Hockaday “won the dressing room” and still had the support of the club’s players before his sacking last week.
Warnock claimed the 56-year-old was moving on with his “head held high”, despite surviving for just 70 days at Elland Road and leaving United 21st in the Championship after three defeats from four league games.
The club’s mediocre form in the first month of the season panicked owner Massimo Cellino into abandoning his experiment with Hockaday, an obscure choice for the job at Elland Road after Leeds and former manager Brian McDermott parted company in May.
Hockaday took up the position eight months after leaving his previous post at non-league Forest Green Rovers and named Junior Lewis, the former Hull City midfield player and coach of Hendon, as his assistant.
The pair took United’s squad on their pre-season tour of Italy and retained Cellino’s faith coming into the new Championship term but the Italian ended their reign last Thursday, less than 24 hours after a League Cup defeat at Bradford City.
The players at Leeds responded to his dismissal with a 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, a win secured by Warnock’s 18th-minute goal and with academy boss Neil Redfearn in caretaker charge.
Asked about Hockaday’s time at Elland Road, the experienced Warnock said: “He came in as a bit of an unknown but he won the dressing room over in Italy and that’s no mean feat.
“He did very well with that and within two weeks, him and Junior had got the lads onside.
“We understood the way he wanted to play and we were buying into what he wanted to do. I think you could tell that by our performances.
“There was never anyone who didn’t run or challenge and we all put our bodies on the line for him.
“He was unlucky in certain games and sendings-off cost us. So, from that side of it, he can go out with his head held high.”
Leeds signed 15 new players in the summer transfer window, three of whom joined the club in the aftermath of Hockaday’s dismissal, and Warnock said: “You look at who’s come in and it’s going to take time.
“That was one of the things we knew at the beginning of the season – that we might not gel straightaway.
“But the game has changed now and if people don’t get results, sometimes there’s a little bit of pressure and other people want change. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what goes on.
“Twenty years ago, you maybe knew you had a manager for a season or two seasons. That’s changed and you have to adapt to new managers coming in. We all have to adapt now.”
Warnock revealed that Hockaday came back to Thorp Arch last Friday, the day after his dismissal, to speak with the squad for the final time.
“We heard the news on Thursday but he came in on Friday to say his goodbyes,” said Warnock.
“I think he wanted to thank the lads for their efforts and we wanted to thank him for what he did for us as well. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do.”
Cellino initially resolved to make a quick decision on Hockaday’s replacement.
The 58-year-old spoke with former West Bromwich Albion boss Steve Clarke last week and then identified Oscar Garcia as his preferred choice following talks with the Spaniard’s agent.
Garcia was available after leaving Maccabi Tel Aviv but Cellino’s plan to appoint him was ruined by Beppe Sannino’s resignation at Watford late on Sunday night.
Watford approached Garcia immediately and named him as their new head coach on Tuesday morning.
Cellino, who is currently in Miami, is reconsidering his options after that setback. Redfearn has taken training all week and was due to handle today’s session at Thorp Arch.
Cellino is understood to be thinking seriously about giving Redfearn a chance in the head coach’s job with Garcia gone and Clarke unwilling to rush into filling the vacancy at Elland Road. United’s owner has been flooded with applications for the job, however, and received more than 20 on Wednesday alone.
Speaking to the BBC, he admitted to feeling “confused” about how best to replace Hockaday.
Warnock insisted he had no preference in the hunt for Hockaday’s successor, saying: “That’s got nothing to do with me. I’ve got no say at all.
“We just wait for someone to come in, see how they are and try to buy into what they want to do. Hopefully, the results will pay off.”
Saturday’s win over Bolton lifted the mood around Elland Road, putting daylight between Leeds and the Championship’s relegation places before the first international break.
Cellino had hoped to name a new head coach before he flew to America but he was adamant on the day of Hockaday’s dismissal that an appointment should be made before Leeds play again at Birmingham City a week tomorrow.
Warnock said: “The win (against Bolton) is a bit of a springboard and getting a good result keeps the togetherness of the boys. Sometimes if you lose another game, things go a bit flat. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
“The quality has always been there but it’s about trying to bring it out and give the players confidence. That’s one of the biggest things (Hockaday) tried to do – to instil that confidence. It’s not as easy as people think.
“You can say you should go on the pitch and be confident but when you’ve lost a couple of games, you’ve got to build the confidence back up.
“You don’t want to be looking up the table and you don’t want to fall away. You want to be in and around it.
“We’ve got good lads here who battle for each other. Hopefully the fans can see that and understand there is a lot of hope for the season.”