From the outset, the idea that Massimo Cellino would let David Hockaday loose as manager of Leeds United was almost too obscure to be wrong. Amid the coaches tipped to replace Brian McDermott, Hockaday was the rank outsider: a candidate whose managerial experience was limited to four years in charge of Forest Green Rovers.
Other periods of his career had taken well above non-league, including a stint as Watford’s number two during their rise under Aidy Boothroyd, but Cellino’s willingness to consider him struck most as bizarre. The Italian never explained how Hockaday appeared on his radar and Hockaday refused to discuss the details of their coming-together but a lengthy meeting at a London hotel resulted in Hockaday taking charge of Leeds three years ago today.
Cellino’s opinion of Hockaday was that his simple, unflashy style would give Leeds what they needed: a manager who would coach the players without engaging in politics or seeking attention. The press conference called to unveil Hockaday at Elland Road made the point. Cellino dominated it for half-an-hour before walking out and leaving his manager to speak.
Why Hockaday, Cellino was asked. “He’s a good looking guy,” Cellino joked. “Someone told me about him and we met in a hotel one month ago in London. We talked for five hours about football and I didn’t realise that – five hours talking.
“I got the impression he knows what he’s talking about. I was looking for someone that can teach the players how to play better and work on the field. More specialised – to work with the players and not speak with journalists. Today, coaches worry more about the journalists than to play soccer.”
Hockaday for his part was forced to defend his appointment. In his first season at Forest Green, the club avoided relegation from the Conference by virtue of financial irregularities at Salisbury City. In his second, Rovers survived on goal difference alone. He was reputed to have one of the biggest budgets in the division but left in 2013 after failing to challenge for promotion.
Hockaday, nonetheless, fought his corner and insisted he and assistant Junior Lewis were up to the job at Elland Road. “I wasn’t surprised to get the call,” he said. “I played for 20 years in over 650 senior games. I’ve coached at every level in every league, from the Premier League to the Conference.
“I’ve come here to work hard, to coach and improve. That’s what I do and that’s what I will do. I’ve been given a great opportunity. I’ve got a great work ethic.
“As the president said, we met up, we talked football, the day just flew by and he asked me to be his coach – to coach the players, to pick the team and manage the team on a match day. That’s it, players, coaching, end of story. It’s what I do, it’s my passion. Hand in a glove.”
With a difficult pre-season behind them, Leeds were soundly beaten at Millwall on the first day of the 2014-15 term and a 1-0 win at home to Middlesbrough was a blip in an otherwise disappointing month of August. Cellino was already beginning to question Hockaday’s position after a midweek loss at home to Brighton and he thought seriously about sacking his manager following a 4-1 defeat at Watford on August 23.
Cellino relented initially, saying: “Yes, at Watford I decided to sack him. I said ‘he’s finished’. I wasn’t happy. But in my life I’ve learned that with your decisions, take 24 hours. Why should I blame the coach?”
Hockaday’s stay of execution allowed him to take charge of a League Cup tie at Bradford City five days later but Leeds, after the dismissal of Luke Murphy, were beaten 2-1.
“I’m not a quitter, I’m a fighter,” said a defiant Hockaday.
Cellino sacked him the following afternoon after six games in the job.