The manager behind Watford’s promotion from the Championship in 2006 was known for a while as ‘Aidy Who?’ The sound of head-scratching accompanied Aidy Boothroyd’s appointment at Vicarage Road but Watford’s punt was vindicated in the end.
Dave Hockaday worked with Boothroyd in that same season, a year when Leeds United were beaten by Watford in the play-off final, and any lessons he learned from Boothroyd will be coming back to him. For the past two weeks, the 56-year-old has been ‘Dave Who?’ – the most obscure candidate for the job of running Leeds’ senior squad. Hockaday travelled to Yorkshire by train yesterday with the expectation of becoming Massimo Cellino’s first head coach, or the first to be employed at Elland Road with the Italian’s blessing. United’s owner never warmed to Brian McDermott – too expensive, too tied up in matters away from the training ground, unsuited to Cellino’s model of ownership – but Hockaday is Cellino’s man; albeit his second choice.
Associates of Cellino say his tendency to change his mind overnight is a fundamental trait of the man but all around him were as convinced as they could be that Hockaday’s appointment would be finalised this week. He was recommended to Cellino by one of several agents advising United’s president but the decision asks questions of Cellino’s own rationale. Confusion abounds about Hockaday’s pedigree, his qualifications and his suitability for a post which has eaten far bigger names than him.
When Cellino began looking for McDermott’s replacement, his specification was a coach rather than a manager. At a stroke, that distinction ruled out anyone who saw management as a role overseeing every aspect of a club. Cellino wanted someone to look after his squad, train them and stop at that. The fact that United have been assessing potential signings all summer is adequate evidence that Cellino is averse to the employment of a coach who needs or demands full control over the transfer policy at Elland Road. Eamonn Dolan is a coach – the long-serving academy manager at Reading – which is why he came to Cellino’s attention earlier this month. Cellino warmed to Dolan’s credentials and spoke with his brother Pat, the agent who negotiated McDermott’s severance from Leeds. Contact was also made with Reading but Reading’s board were resistant to the idea of losing Dolan. In the view of one of Cellino’s inner circle, the Berkshire club “overplayed their hand” by setting the level of compensation too high and scaring Cellino off at a stroke. Dolan would have cost around £500,000.
Amid those manoeuvres Hockaday was never forgotten. He was a serious option in Cellino’s eyes from the day McDermott left, though Cellino was annoyed to hear of heavy betting on Hockaday in the 24 hours after McDermott’s departure. It was only because of those wagers that Hockaday’s name appeared among the odds and slipped into the press. Google became the media’s friend and his Wikipedia page took a hammering. As a right-back, Hockaday spent most of his playing career at Blackpool and Swindon. As a coach, he applied himself initially to youth development. Graham Taylor appointed him as Watford’s Under-18s coach in 2000 and Hockaday was promoted to the position of first-team coach in 2005, one of Boothroyd’s right-hand men. Nigel Gibbs, Leeds’ existing assistant boss, was also part of that coaching team but did not survive for long under Boothroyd, or not as long as Hockaday. Gibbs’ association with Watford had spanned 24 years and his sacking was a deeply unpopular move. Gibbs is still employed by United, despite McDermott’s exit, but he was not responsible for recommending of Hockaday to Cellino. Much as Cellino wants Gibbs to remain at Elland Road, it is less than certain that he and Hockaday would be a compatible partnership.
The YEP was told yesterday that Junior Lewis, a coach at non-league Hendon, is a likely addition to United’s backroom team if Hockaday becomes head coach. Both appointments would be as unpredictable as each other, gambles by a club who are used to piling everything on black and losing.
Hockaday’s last job was as manager of Forest Green Rovers, the Conference club based in Gloucestershire. He was rumoured to have one of the biggest budgets in the division but between 2009 and 2013, his squad finished no higher than 10th. They were relegated in 2010 but later reinstated after Salisbury City’s demotion for breaching Conference rules. Last October, Hockaday and Forest Green parted company after seven defeats from eight games. It would not have occurred to him then that Leeds might pick up his CV and run with it. Hockaday is said to be an ambitious and self-confident man. It takes a certain level of self-confidence to step into the job Cellino is offering him. The social media implosion on Tuesday was much as it might have been had Twitter existed when Watford took the plunge with Boothroyd. Presenters on Sky Sports News chuckled as the story broke. Hockaday is not an expensive choice but Cellino’s credibility will be heavily invested in him.
For United’s owner, appointing Hockaday ticks a box. That might come as a relief to him when he considers that at the start of this week, Leeds had no head coach, no new signings announced, no pre-season games confirmed and their bank account frozen. But any willingness among the club’s support to be patient with Hockaday and let him crack on is being tempered by the question of why he of all people is coming here; why Cellino sees in Hockaday the top-level potential that few other Football League clubs have identified. “I won’t make the wrong choice,” Cellino told the YEP last week. “We need to start playing soccer, proper soccer, and we need a coach to make that happen.”
If Hockaday does the trick, you can only conclude that Cellino knows far more about this game than any of us.