Watford v Leeds United: Diagouraga debt to Hockaday as he returns to sink the Hornets

Leeds Uniteds Toumani Diagouraga (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).
Leeds Uniteds Toumani Diagouraga (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).
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DAVE HOCKADAY. Even now, almost 19 months on from his brief reign as Leeds United head coach, a name to elicit only a puzzled shake of the head among supporters and the question: ‘What the hell was that all about?’

Many, many bewildering decisions have been taken since then by United, be it the introduction of ‘pie-tax’, a threat to lock Sky’s cameras out of Elland Road or even simply the number of head coaches that have passed through the Championship club.

None, though, have surely been as left-field as Massimo Cellino handing the reins to a man whose only previous experience of management had been at non-League Forest Green Rovers. Predictably, the experiment lasted just six games before Hockaday was gone.

Leeds fans may look back with puzzlement at Hockaday’s 70 days but at least one member of the Elland Road squad will always owe a debt of gratitude to the club’s former head coach.

Toumani Diagouraga was a teenager living in Paris when Hockaday, in his role as a scout for Watford, spotted his potential and set the midfielder on a career path that today will take him and United to Vicarage Road in the FA Cup fifth round.

“It was Dave Hockaday who found me in Paris,” said the 28-year-old to The Yorkshire Post ahead of his return to a club where he spent three years on the staff.

“He was working for Watford at the time and recommended me. The club had been recommended a lot of players so they staged a trial match for all of us and I was invited along.

“There were lots of players there and I was put in the Under-17s game. But, after 20 minutes, they told me to come off and go join the Under-19s instead.

“I played in a more attacking role than I do now – and I can’t remember if I scored or not. But things did go well and I was invited to Watford for two months. After that, they offered me scholarship forms. It was a proud moment.”

Born in Paris to Malian parents, Diagouraga settled quickly in England. His progress at Watford’s Academy was swift, Chelsea even being alerted to the midfielder’s potential at one stage during a run to the FA Youth Cup quarter-finals.

The Vicarage Road first team, however, proved a tougher nut to crack. The Hornets, under Aidy Boothroyd, winning promotion to the Premier League by beating Leeds in the 2006 play-offs final did not help his chances of making that breakthrough, as it meant competition became even fiercer.

By the time Diagouraga left Vicarage Road in 2008, his tally of appearances stood at just six. Nevertheless, the Leeds midfielder looks back fondly on his time in Hertfordshire.

“I didn’t know a lot about England when I first came to live here,” he said. “But, as a fan of football, it was the place to be and it was great to get my chance in the country.

“Watford were very good to me. They looked after me really well and helped me settle in a different country. I really enjoyed it there and it was why I was happy with the Cup draw.

“I went there last year with Brentford (in a 2-1 defeat) so I know what to expect. They are a good team and it will be a big, big test for us.

“This season has gone well for Watford. They won’t go down so I am sure they will want to do well in the Cup. At this stage of the competition, no-one wants to play a weaker team so I expect they will play all the main players. That will make it tough.

“But this is the cup. Anything can happen. Every season, Premier League teams lose so why can’t that happen at Watford?

“Every team has a dream at this stage so we will have to try and win. There is the magic of the Cup, when teams get surprise results.

“We would all have liked to have a big team at home in front of our fans but this is a big game for us.”

Diagouraga has settled quickly at Elland Road, as was underlined by his man-of-the-match display in last Monday’s goalless draw with promotion-chasing Middlesbrough. Now, he is determined to help United banish what has been a hugely disappointing time in the Cups of late.

The last two campaign have brought third round exits in the FA Cup, while League One opposition accounted for Leeds in the League Cup both this season (Doncaster Rovers) and last term (Bradford City).

That makes the current run to the last 16 under Steve Evans a welcome change of fortune, with Championship opposition in the form of Rotherham United and Bolton Wanderers having already been dispatched.

Diagouraga scored what proved to be the decisive goal in the last round against the Trotters, his first time on the scoresheet for a little under three years.

For the defensive midfielder, that goal against Bolton was a rare highlight of playing in the Cups during a career that, after Watford, took him to Hereford United and Peterborough United in permanent transfers before spending six years at Griffin Park.

“I have not really had a big run in the Cup,” admitted Diagouraga. “Though we did draw 2-2 with Chelsea a few years ago when I was at Brentford.

“We were 2-1 in front with five minutes to go but they hit back to get a replay. Playing at Stamford Bridge was special. It was a great occasion for the club and all the players. But we were knocked out so the night was not a good one.

“We really should have beaten Chelsea at home. It was such a big game with both teams from west London and just 10 to 15 minutes apart. So, it was a big disappointment to go so close.

“Once you give a team like Chelsea a second chance, it is very difficult and that is how it worked out. I am just hoping we can get the right result at Watford. Getting to the quarter-finals would give everyone a big lift.”

Luke Ayling

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