Leeds United head coach David Hockaday received a dramatic stay of execution tonight as owner Massimo Cellino abandoned a plan to sack him and said: “I’m to blame.”
In an astonishing turnaround, Cellino confirmed that Hockaday would remain in his job until the the Italian had “a fair chance to judge him” - just 24 hours after a 4-1 defeat at Watford placed Hockaday’s future in serious doubt.
Senior officials around Cellino were told to prepare for Hockaday’s dismissal in the aftermath of a result at Vicarage Road which left Leeds a point above the Championship’s relegation places.
United were expected to announce the 56-year-old’s departure today, just 66 days after naming him as head coach, but Cellino backtracked suddenly after talks with Hockaday around 6pm.
Speaking to the YEP, the Cellino said the defeat at Watford had come down to a “s*** mistake” by new signing Giuseppe Bellusci, a 58th-minute blunder which led to the defender’s dismissal and gifted Watford a penalty with the game level at 1-1.
Cellino also admitted that a summer in which 11 players have arrived at Leeds had been “harder than I thought” and claimed the dismissal of Hockaday would have punished the head coach for United’s failure to complete their squad before the start of the season.
“Yes, at Watford I decided to sack him,” Cellino said. “I said ‘he’s finished.’ I wasn’t happy. I was ashamed of the performance and it (sacking Hockaday) was what I wanted to do.
“But in my life I’ve learned that with your decisions, take 24 hours. Why should I blame the coach? The squad isn’t finished and that is my fault. Signings players has been harder than I thought so if I fire anyone, I should fire myself or else I’m a coward. I have to control my ego.
“This coach, he might not be a good coach, but sacking him now is not fair. I cannot say if he is good or not. When the squad is finished, I’ll see what he does then. But for now you blame me for the results. I blame myself because the fault is mine.”
Hockaday faced chants against him from an away crowd of 2,100 at Vicarage Road and Cellino’s initial plan to sack him after only five competitive games in charge appeared to reflect the mood of a large section of the travelling support.
But Hockaday defended himself and the performance of his team afterwards, saying Bellusci’s red card - shown for a trip on Fernando Forestieri inside United’s box - had dictated the course of an otherwise even match.
Troy Deeney converted the resulting penalty and further goals from Forestieri and Daniel Pudil sealed Watford’s win. Leeds were reduced to nine men in injury-time when Sam Byram was dismissed for an alleged headbutt on Pudil, a decision which United could appeal today.
Bellusci, 24, joined Leeds on loan from Catania a fortnight ago but Leeds paid more than £1.5m to make the move permanent last week, a deal agreed before Bellusci made his first-team debut.
Cellino said: “Bellusci is a good defender and what he did yesterday was a s*** mistake. We lost because of his mistake. I see that now. I didn’t see it yesterday.
“If he didn’t f*** up and we win the game, would I be firing the coach? No. So it’s wrong to blame the coach for the results. We are missing four or five players still. We are not good enough. I am the president so I should only sack myself, not Hockaday.
“I want to do everything too fast - I want 15 new players, I want to be in the Premier League, I don’t want the old coach, I want a new one. I want to build Rome in 12 hours but it doesn’t happen. If another coach comes in and we have the same problems, we are back in the s***. So I’ll wait.”
Leeds are close to their 12th signing of the summer after agreeing the terms of a three-year deal with Aarhus midfielder Casper Sloth on Friday evening.
The Elland Road club will pay around £600,000 to complete the deal.
Flamengo midfielder Adryan - currently on loan at Cagliari - remains a target and discussions aimed at cancelling his deal in Sardinia and bringing him to Elland Road will continue in the days ahead.