Phil Hay: A raft of changes but same old Leeds United

David Hockaday
David Hockaday
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Chief football writer Phil Hay looks at five key things we’ve learned about Leeds United in the first month of the new skybet championship season.

English football won’t change Cellino.

He says he needs to learn about the game in this country – and also the players – but the Cagliari mindset is ingrained in Cellino. Five months at Leeds United have made no difference to his traits or his methods. In Sardinia they recognise him as the same man who ran Cagliari for 22 years: the tub-thumping, the unpredictability, the outright dominance of everything.

Cellino proved on Thursday that his penchant for sacking coaches is neither mythical nor exaggerated. The top job at Elland Road will always be precarious while he pays the salary. His preferences can be matched with those seen at Cagliari too – an inexpensive coach who knows his place and holds no great profile; signings taken from Italy and South America, two markets United sporting director Nicola Salerno knows well.

The transfers themselves have a familiar feel. In Italy, Cellino developed a habit of signing players on loan while negotiating the terms of a permanent move further down the line. Adryan joined Cagliari on those terms in January. Whether it makes complicated deals possible or simply delays full payment until a later date, Cellino likes that arrangement. In England he merely needs to avoid breaching the Football League’s rules on loans.

Beyond his business practices, he has shown himself to be outspoken in a way which makes Ken Bates look like a diplomat. Cellino’s experience of life in the English media bubble hasn’t deterred him from confessing to a plan to sack David Hockaday before it came to pass, or from singling out individual players for “s**t mistakes” and “f*** ups”. He will criticise tactics and he will influence the football. He’ll do what he wants when he wants. At an executive-free club, there is no-one to keep him in line except Cellino himself. “I have to control my ego,” he said on Sunday. If you like his style, you’ll enjoy much more of it. If you don’t, it’s best to accept that Cellino is set in his ways – and hope that those ways work.

With no public support, David Hockaday was always doomed.

Managers usually meet their end after a loss of patience on the terraces. The crowd did not chase Simon Grayson out of Leeds but when his time came he went without protest. Neil Warnock’s star dipped after seven or eight months, at which point abuse of him became rife. And Brian McDermott got the silent treatment – a swathe of supporters who declined to butcher him but were nonetheless disillusioned with so much that happened last season. However harsh their dismissals were, all three were flavour-of-the-month of a while.

With Hockaday, the vitriol towards him was almost unprecedented in terms of the time it took to spew out. There were chants against him at Watford last Saturday and again at Bradford on Wednesday. He lost the hardcore before he even started. Coaching Leeds is difficult enough when the going is good.

The job is worse than impossible when a head coach is abandoned after three leagues games. You felt for Hockaday, you really did, but the combination of laboured performances and an awkward atmosphere posed a very stark question – how could it ever work? Even Dennis Wise got a few weeks of peace.

A lack of pace is United’s biggest weakness.

Players with exceptional skill stand out in the Championship but one thing that separates a strong side from a weak side is pace at the front end of a team. Watford have it and so do Brighton. Even Millwall got a bit of change out of Martyn Woolford and Magaye Gueye.

The phrase ‘one-paced’ has been used to describe Leeds this season and it’s a fair analysis of the line-ups fielded by Hockaday.

There was no issue with their effort or their fitness and there is no need for Leeds to have the best 11 players in the league, but pace creates a threat and pace gives you width. As ex-professionals say, possession is one thing. Positive possession is another.

Cellino loves a striker.

Twelve signings so far in this window and 14 if Adryan and the geographically-named Brian Montenegro (real name Brian Guillermo Montenegro Martinez) join Leeds before 11pm on Monday. The breakdown of the transfers is as follows: two goalkeepers, three defenders, four midfielders and five forwards. The spread of goals at Leeds was poor last season and the sale of Ross McCormack threatened to make it worse but United have packed their forward line like no other area of their team.

Added to a squad that already contained Steve Morison, Matt Smith, Noel Hunt and Dominic Poleon, the club have no fewer than nine forwards available – and 10 when Lewis Walters returns from knee surgery. Time for a few of them to go.

The Championship is going to be as ridiculous as ever.

Fulham bottom. All perfect records gone after three games. The first managerial sacking on the opening weekend and Nottingham Forest top of the league despite a bit of in-fighting. Chelsea are 7/5 to win the Premier League.

No club in the Championship are shorter than 13/2 for the title. You really can’t make it up.

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Former Baggies boss appeals to United owner Cellino but not before he tries to offer the job to former Leeds coach Gibbs

For now, the plan at Elland Road is to go British again. The failure of David Hockaday’s time as Leeds United head coach has not dissuaded Massimo Cellino from looking for a domestic replacement – or not yet, anyway

Cellino is understood to like Steve Clarke and thinks the former West Bromwich Albion manager would tick a lot of boxes. He would also command a far bigger salary, be less subservient than Hockaday and look for Kevin Keen to work as his assistant too. But in considering Clarke, United’s owner is in the right ballpark.

He also admires Gianfranco Zola and is said to see the Italian as something close to the perfect option. Zola is not British but all of his experience as a coach was gained in the English leagues. He played for Cellino at Cagliari and was an integral member of the squad who won promotion to Serie A in 2004 but their relationship broke down some time ago and Zola’s agent made it clear during the summer that a job at Leeds – and employment under Cellino – was not for him.

There are options aplenty for Cellino and the hunt for Hockaday’s successor is an open field in which most bets are off. The process is likely to pick up next week once the club enter the first international break of the season. It would help Leeds if their search for a new head coach was targeted and orderly; but to judge by a remarkable occurrence last weekend, you have to wonder.

In the hours after United’s defeat at Watford, Hockaday was as good as sacked – even though Cellino later changed his mind and delayed the dismissal for another five days.

On Saturday night, the YEP understands that Cellino phoned Nigel Gibbs, of all people, to ask him to take up the job as head coach full-time.

Gibbs, left, was assistant manager at Leeds from April 2013 onwards and someone Cellino rated. Last month Gibbs resigned from his job and began legal proceedings against the club, claiming constructive dismissal after a summer in which he was effectively left without a specified role.

In a statement issued shortly after his departure, Gibbs said: “I have terminated my employment with Leeds United in response to the way I have been treated by the club, which amounts to a breach of contract. “I have put the matter in the hands of my legal advisors and in those circumstances it is inappropriate for me to make any further comment.”

Cellino, right, responded by saying that Gibbs wanted to the leave Elland Road but had asked for too much money to settle his contract. He also accused Gibbs of refusing to work for Hockaday.

Despite the conflict, the two men spoke at length on Saturday but Gibbs appears to have rejected the invitation to return. Cellino then decided to sit tight and leave Hockaday in charge for one more game, away to Bradford City. Gibbs was unavailable for comment and the legal case between him and Leeds continues.

Matthew Pennington.

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