David Hockaday is focused on preparing team as he attempts to consign events of the weekend to history. Phil Hay reports.
As a player David Hockaday saw his share of dressing-room breakdowns. The usual aggro: smashed crockery, fights between team-mates, words said in haste and regretted at leisure.
It was Ossie Ardilles, the coach of Swindon Town in the late 1980s, who taught Hockaday that silence was a virtue at full-time. “He was calm and considered and he wouldn’t say anything after a game,” Hockaday recalls.
“He’d talk about it when everyone had time to reflect – in the cold light of day. That’s what I do, right or wrong.” Former Leeds United players say much the same of Don Revie.
Twenty-four hours of reflection saved Hockaday’s job at Leeds on Sunday. In the minutes after Saturday’s defeat to Watford, the 56-year-old was as good as sacked as owner Massimo Cellino “went crazy” and told all around him that his gamble on a little-known coach had been a mistake.
The dismissal of Hockaday was due to be announced on Sunday afternoon but having taken time to think, the notoriously unpredictable Cellino stayed his hand. He and Hockaday spoke on the phone for two hours and Cellino’s tune changed.
“In life I’ve learned that with your decisions, take 24 hours,” Cellino told the YEP. “Why should I blame the coach? The squad isn’t finished and that’s my fault.”
His job intact, Hockaday says he was never party to any plan to sack him – which puts him in the minority at Elland Road. His Sunday was spent analysing the loss at Watford and preparing for tonight’s League Cup tie at Bradford City, a match he will control from the dug-out after surviving an astonishing weekend.
In their lengthy phone call, he and Cellino discussed the result at Watford and the second-half dismissal of Giuseppe Bellusci which essentially threw the game. “I asked the president how he felt before that,” Hockaday says, “and he said he felt good.” They spoke about the squad, new signings and the implications of three defeats from four league games but not, Hockaday insists, his future as head coach.
“It was a calm conversation,” Hockaday says. “I didn’t feel I had to justify anything or to defend myself. That’s the truth. I don’t do social media and I don’t read newspapers. I know when I’ve done a good job and I know when I haven’t.
“I totally believe I’m a good coach and I totally believe I’m getting as much out of these players as anyone could. But however well I think I’m doing, I need to crank things up because we’re not winning enough games.
“I’m aware of the stories you’re talking about but on Sunday I was looking at the game and making notes. I got a phone call and had a two-hour conversation with the president. Then I arrived (at United’s training ground) on Monday. It sounds glib, like I’m straight batting, but that’s all I know. That’s what happened with me.”
Cellino said on Sunday that he blamed himself for failing to recruit new players quickly enough this summer – 12 have arrived and others will come before the transfer window closes on Monday – and also for looking for unrealistic progress too soon. He talked of “controlling my ego” and an urge to see Rome “built in 12 hours.”
Hockaday’s team have struggled in the first month of the season, taking three points from 12 and dropping to 21st place in the Championship. “You’ll see all the great managers on TV extolling their virtues but away from the cameras, every manager will tell you that it’s about players,” Hockaday says.
“My job is to get the players fit and organised but at the end of the day, a good player knows when to make the right decisions. They make the decisions on the park, not me, and I’ll stand and fall by those decisions. My job is to help them as much as I can.
“We need to get better players in to help the group we’ve got – Championship quality players. But this group aren’t far away. If people hand-on-heart take away the emotion and look at the games, we’re not far off. I’ve got some really good players. But everyone knows we’ve got to strengthen. We’re not scoring goals.”
There were shades of Brian McDermott about Hockaday at Thorp Arch yesterday – a boss who was to all intents and purposes fired over the weekend, back in work and behind the microphones a few days later.
Was it humiliating for him and would he have taken the job in June had he known that it would be like this? As a man who says he “did his homework” on Leeds before beginning work as head coach, he must have had his suspicions?
“Of course (he’d have taken it),” Hockaday says. “How many people would love to be in my position?
“Maybe I’m a sadist or a masochist but I enjoy this. It isn’t easy, it’s a tough job for anyone, but I’m proud to have the reins and I’m comfortable with the reins. It would be better for us if we could win a game, rather than losing it.
“If I believed everything I read or heard I would be in the eye of a storm. But then I’m lost and the team’s lost. If the head coach loses his head, we’re all doomed.
“I’ve been in much worse situations than this and I’m honoured to be here. I’m working incredibly hard. I’ll give blood for this club and I’ll keep my dignity.
“But however he’s portrayed, the president is unbelievably passionate. I’m not just saying it – this guy wants Leeds to be in the Champions League. I believe that over time it’ll happen. It’s inevitable.
“The timescale of that I don’t know but I want to be part of the journey, a big part. I’ll fight tooth and nail to be part of it.”
It is some projection when Leeds lie a place above the Championship’s bottom three. That said, it is also Cellino’s stated aim – to build a squad with players who can cut it not only in the Championship and the Premier League but in European competitions too.
Hockaday argues his squad have been hindered by injuries to players like Souleymane Doukara, Steve Morison and Aidan White.
The gist of Cellino’s comments over the weekend was that Hockaday will be judged when the transfer window closes and the Leeds squad is complete. Monday’s deadline – also the start of a two-week international break – could therefore be seen as the moment when a line in the sand is drawn, provided results tonight and against Bolton on Saturday do not push Cellino over the edge. “We’ve got time left to strengthen” Hockaday says. “I think it would be very fair to say ‘judge me then.’”
Be sure that Cellino will.