David Hockaday’s appointment has been heavily criticised by fans but he insists he is the right man for Leeds United. Phil Hay reports.
When the obvious question came, asking David Hockaday whether he could live with the strain of managing Leeds United’s senior squad, he answered with one word. “Yeah.”
The club’s new head coach did not need telling that public opinion was against his appointment but at his unveiling yesterday he refused to be bullied – resistant to attempts to elicit an admission that he was punching above his weight at Elland Road.
Would players as recognised as Ross McCormack respect a coach whose last job was in non-league? “Ask them after the first day of training,” he said. “Ask them after they’ve seen me coach.” Did the offer of the job at Leeds surprise him? “It wasn’t surprising.” And what could he say to justify his selection? “I’ll say I got promotion as a player five times,” he said. “I got promoted from the Championship as a coach with Watford. You can draw whatever conclusions you like but I’m the sum of everything I’ve done, the sum of all my experiences. That’s what I’ll bring to the table.”
Appointed on a two-year contract, Hockaday came safely through his first examination – or his first since he convinced Massimo Cellino to name him as United’s head coach. Junior Lewis, his new assistant at Leeds, sat quietly in thought as Hockaday and Cellino outlined their blueprint but Hockaday was unwilling to yield to suggestions that he might be straying out of his depth.
Forest Green Rovers was his last job, a job he lost back in October. On that basis alone but combined with Hockaday’s low profile, Cellino’s choice of replacement for Brian McDermott is causing much consternation. The 56-year-old did not deny that this role is his biggest to date – “of course it is, by far” – but he returned repeatedly to his career history, a footballing resume of almost 40 years.
“I played for 20 years, over 650 senior games,” he said. “I’ve coached at every level, in every league from the Premier League to the Conference. That’s what I’m about. All of that has relevance.
“I didn’t just take the job here because it was Leeds United. I took it because with the president (Cellino’s) help I believe that this is the right job for me.
“For all the rhetoric, for everything I could say and all the talk there might be about what system I’m going to play, I’ve got a great work ethic and I’m going to work hard. The evidence of that will be seen on the pitch.”
Hockaday visited Thorp Arch yesterday morning with United’s dormant training ground about to reopen again but he will not meet his squad until pre-season starts next Thursday. A couple of days of fitness work will be followed by a two-week training camp in Italy. Hockaday has exactly 49 days until the new Championship season starts away at Millwall on August 9.
The former Watford assistant was asked about Nigel Gibbs – McDermott’s number two – and said Gibbs would be part of the coaching staff next season. The pair know each other from several years together at Vicarage Road. Leeds have other backroom members besides Gibbs – development squad coach Neil Redfearn, Under-18s coach Richard Naylor and Benito Carbone, their technical advisor who has already indicated his desire to run the Under-21s at Thorp Arch.
“I’ve got to determine with the president as to who slots in where,” Hockaday said. “But we’ll all work together and we want a really tight unit. We won’t have massive numbers of staff but we’ll be very tight, watch each other’s backs and work hard. We’ll show the same hunger if not more than we expect from our players.”
Lewis, the former Hull City midfielder, was coaching at non-league Hendon until his summons to Elland Road. Now 40, he has been pursuing a coaching career for four or five years. “What I want from an assistant, Junior gives me 10 times over,” Hockaday said.
Early on in yesterday’s press conference, Hockaday made a point of saying that he would choose his own teams, pick his own tactics and play his own way.
How far Cellino’s influence will extend when the season is in motion remains to be seen. Cellino said that “my way to work is to be very close with whoever coaches the team. We have a lot of problems at this club but the most important thing for us is playing football.”
“I’ll pick the team,” Hockaday said when the subject arose. “All the footballing matters are with me, all the financial stuff is with the president.
“We’re going to play good football and anybody who has seen any of my teams will know we get the ball down and pass.”
Hockaday claimed Cellino’s preference “in an ideal world” would be to recruit British players alone but the Italian’s lack of experience in England and the cheaper price of foreign footballers was leading the club to look to the continent.
“We’ve talked about identifying key areas where we need to improve,” Hockaday said.
“Between us – and it will be between us – we’ll bring players in.
“But if you’ve done your homework, you’ll know that the president has a fabulous record (at Cagliari) of picking players and getting them to play for him and be loyal to him.”
Employment at Leeds began for Hockaday yesterday but the critical work starts next week with the resumption of training. Cellino made no public demands of Hockaday yesterday but is not known for tolerating under-performance.
“My job will be to re-educate a lot of the players,” Hockaday said. “What we do is going to be about hard work.
“My challenge to them is that I don’t want to play any team that works harder than us or wants or needs to win more than us. We’re going to have the best work and team ethic in the league. That’s doable and it’s my first challenge.”