Hockaday sacked: The Leeds United experiment doomed from the very outset

Dave Hockaday.
Dave Hockaday.
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Seventy days of David Hockaday and still the same question posed on day one: what on earth was that about?

Cheap? Hardly relevant when Leeds United are paying off their head coach after six competitive games.

A yes-man? Likewise. Massimo Cellino might have some rationale for placing a club he calls “the biggest in England” in the hands of a man who made journalists grateful for Wikipedia but the appointment goes down a gross error of judgement; abbaglio, as the Italians say.

A downbeat Cellino came to realise that as he tried to get a few hours sleep on Saturday night.

a few short text messages, he talked of Hockaday’s “limits” and conceded that a few weeks of competitive football had exposed the 56-year-old’s shortcomings. If anyone around Cellino has the courage, they will tell him that it was always fated to end badly for Hockaday. As one staff member said after United’s thrashing at Watford: “Night follows day after all.” The only surprise was that Cellino gave him Wednesday’s League Cup tie at Bradford.

Cellino will remind any critical voices that Hockaday was not his first choice. Eamonn Dolan, the academy manager at Reading, held the Italian’s favour after Brian McDermott left Leeds in May and would have taken the job ahead of Hockaday had Cellino been willing to pay £500,000 in compensation. But Hockaday was Cellino’s pick nonetheless. The pair spoke initially in a hotel in London, a five-hour conversation which earned Hockaday the job, and Cellino gravitated towards him after deciding that Dolan was too expensive.

Precisely how Hockaday came to Cellino’s attention has never been explained - a number of sources claim he was recommended by Pino Pagliara, the Italian agent who has been around Elland Road for many months - but Cellino made the decision freely. There were other candidates and other avenues to follow. “I don’t know him but I think he’s a good coach,” Cellino said in June, somewhat confusingly. “Everyone starts from somewhere.”

Hockaday took the same attitude. Reserved, cautious but quietly confident, he had it in his head that he could make a go of coaching United, unruffled by public bemusement at his appointment and resistant to attacks on his apparent lack of qualifications. If it was fair to ask on June 19 why no other Football League club had ever given him such responsibility, it is even more pertinent to ask again now. Forty years in the professional game did not prepare him for 10 weeks in a goldfish bowl with Leeds and Cellino.

When I first spoke to Hockaday - a tense conversation far back when he made a surprising appearance at the top of the betting for McDermott’s replacement - it was tempting to tell him to think long and hard about what he would be getting himself into here.

More respected coaches have been lost to car crashes at Leeds but it was and is illogical to say that the prior failure of experienced managers justified the employment of a complete unknown. That two Championship title-winners in McDermott and Neil Warnock found the job beyond them was perhaps a reason for bypassing Malky Mackay but in his previous role, Hockaday had failed to pull up trees at Forest Green Rovers. The first result his name brought up on Google was a video of the club’s supporters abusing him.

His assistant, Junior Lewis, came from a coaching role at Hendon - in rung seven of the English pyramid. “Junior gives me everything I need in an assistant 10 times over,” Hockaday said without explaining what that really meant. You wondered if what he actually needed was a second in command who could guide him and cover his back; like Gary McAllister looked for in Sammy Lee when he sought his own assistant at Elland Road in 2008.

In all it was a plot with a guaranteed ending. And yet Hockaday should not go without sympathy. He worked himself hard and he did his best to be affable in the face of the elephant in the room, the lingering question of when he would be sacked. Even this morning, he took training as normal. He shook hands with everyone before each press conference, diffused tension with jokes and answered questions without being unreasonably awkward.

He earned money from this job and has a profile like never before, but to what end? The optimist in him might see the experience as a leg-up. Even last weekend, as word of Cellino’s anger began to spread, he looked like a man who was merely happy to be in the job. But from a different angle, the whole event has been painfully humiliating.

Back in June, Cellino classed Hockaday as a coach who commanded nothing like McDermott’s £750,000 salary and would essentially do his bidding; not be bullied or hopelessly manipulated but tolerate the way Leeds operate. The transfer business this summer was driven by Cellino, a fact which Hockaday did not make much effort to deny. When Hockaday suggested Nile Ranger and Nigel Reo-Coker as potential signings, the names were dismissed out of hand. When he tried to wade in over the fall-out with Ross McCormack, Cellino famously told him to “shut the f*** up.” McDermott found media reports of outbursts like that impossible to live with. Hockaday dutifully sucked them up.

Cellino felt that if he built a good squad, the coach in Hockaday could not fail to get something out of it. It should occur to the Italian that whatever the failings of his first head coach, the club were slow in pulling the squad together. But nothing in Hockaday’s football was groundbreaking or new. He talked about having the “best work ethic in the Championship” which sounded like a throwback to the 1980s. Most players in the division work with the guidance and potential embarrassment of Prozone and its equivalents. A coach whose squad don’t pull a leg is dislodging the bar at a very low height.

“The stats show that we’ve outworked every team in our games so far,” Hockaday said after Saturday’s defeat at Watford. Perhaps. They also showed three points from 12 and a low league position. Cellino was not alone in doubting whether Hockaday could bring the results under control and his decision to resist sacking him last weekend was no vote of confidence.

Cellino’s trust in Hockaday began to crack towards the end of pre-season. Leeds were comfortable in their final friendly at home to Dundee United but their owner called Hockaday in the next day to complain about his formation and tactics. Cellino was everywhere during the defeat to Millwall on August 9 and at half-time of last week’s loss to Brighton, he attempted to call Hockaday to vent about a pitiful first 45 minutes. Either Hockaday’s phone wasn’t to hand or he chose not to answer it.

He leaves Elland Road with Leeds’ 21st in the table and in need of some magic. The upshot of this inexplicable experiment is that Cellino will almost certainly go continental when he picks his next head coach. He might say that he tried the British route with Hockaday - a fairly incredible suggestion - and revert to someone who speaks his language, literally and metaphorically.

Never in all their 70 days was there a sense of Hockaday and Cellino being truly on the same wavelength. It felt more like a forced marriage in which Cellino ruled and Hockaday did his best. Towards the end of Tuesday’s defeat to Brighton, a lone voice from the West Stand turned on Hockaday and shouted “this job’s too big for you.” Indeed it was. Who now has the feet to fill the shoes?


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