The end of the press conference after Leeds United’s defeat to Brighton on Tuesday was more revealing than the press conference itself. “We’re still alive,” David Hockaday said as he left his seat and prepared to leave the room.
Managers and coaches are prone to speaking like that but usually in March when death is creeping or the play-offs lie at arm’s length. Still alive after three games. It’s almost a contradiction in terms.
On Tuesday the comment was quite appropriate. Hockaday let his guard down. It isn’t customary for a coach as new to the job as him to be talking so defensively, and Sami Hyypia did nothing to betray Brighton’s laboured start to the season, but Hockaday felt the need to shield himself. And so did many of us.
For all the holes in his credibility, he’s not a naive man. He knows what’s going on around him and can sense that the balance of support is weighted against him. His throwaway comment on Tuesday was an unwitting appeal for all and sundry – supporters, the press, perhaps the club – to stay with him, and it left you thinking about the unfairness of it all: a coach steadfastly backing himself while the majority around him wait for him to fail.
Leeds as a club are prone to mood swings, something Hockaday says is accentuated by the sheer number of supporters they have. That might be true but only in context. United have a bigger following than many English clubs but size isn’t the issue. The issue is the extent to which that following has been abused, misled and taught to distrust. The consequence is that a coach who feels a softening of attitudes towards him on Saturday can expect to be back in the dog-house and listening to cat-calls by the middle of next week.
It would have helped on Tuesday had Leeds or Hockaday done anything to extend the truce established by their win over Middlesbrough. There might be a day when Elland Road accepts a 70-30 per cent split of possession in favour of the opposition but none of us will be alive to see it. When Hockaday speaks about the “new philosophy” he is implementing, he makes it sound like the innovative, forward-thinking approach that Leeds have been missing for years. But on Tuesday, Hyypia’s tactics looked like football from 2014. United were lost somewhere else and eventually reliant on the intense, overbearing effort that never quite worked for Brian McDermott or Neil Warnock.
Hyypia managed Bayer Leverkusen before he wound up at Brighton so it stands to reason that the German model has influenced him – back-to-front interplay with goalkeeper David Stockdale as a poor man’s Manuel Neuer. Swansea City were the pioneers of this ideal in the Championship a few years ago; rigid in their style but good enough to pull it off. Brendan Rodgers reinvented Dorus De Vries – a keeper without the ball, the equivalent of an outfield player with it – but took care not to neglect his defence. They went up in 2011, as ready for the Premier League as any club promoted since.
Rodgers achieved that in the space of a season so the benefit of time was not really his. What is pertinent, aside from Rodgers’ undisputed talent, is the steady and organised club he inherited at Swansea. Hyypia has his goals at Brighton but Albion have spent the summer flogging their most expensive players and his team is no more finished that Hockaday’s. Every club in the division is “work in progress” but some are starting, others are continuing and a few are finishing off. Where Leeds are concerned they suffered last season from an inferior midfield. The transfer window shuts a week on Monday and at this point the additions to that are of their squad stop at an 18-year-old from AC Milan who apparently isn’t match fit.
Massimo Cellino’s view of the situation at Elland Road is that United’s team isn’t complete. He is more inclined to talk about the players than Hockaday. There is no sense of him pointing the finger at his coach and he argues still that Hockaday will do what he needs him to do, provided he has the resources. It is, on reflection, what an owner should be saying two months after making his choice of head coach.
But the niggle with Cellino is his track record. If anyone in the Championship is going to think again quickly, it’s probably him. And so you have a uneasy combination – an owner who reacts impulsively and a coach who needs strong, unequivocal support from the top. Cellino may have more conviction about Hockaday’s ability than he is given credit for but on the outside, nobody feels it. Hockaday is experiencing what Diego Lopez had at Cagliari last season – a situation where each and every defeat brought questions about how long he had left. Lopez was never able to establish any roots.
To wish the same fate on Hockaday would be nonsensical and counter-intuitive; as the man in the seat, it is in the club’s interest for his appointment to work. But on Tuesday is was apparent that this season won’t settle down until the head coach does too. Hockaday calls football a results business. Isn’t it just.
SACKED from his position as honorary Leeds United president 13 months ago, Ken Bates is due to have his day in court in October.
The case, if it goes that far, stands to cost someone a small fortune.
Leeds took action against Bates over a range of disputed costs, the largest a private jet contract negotiated by the 82-year-old to fly him to games from Monaco.
Bates was dismissed for gross misconduct but denied any wrongdoing and filed a counter-claim for wrongful dismissal. His position carried an annual salary of £250,000 – money Bates agreed to waive provided his three-year tenure as president did not end “other than for a permitted reason.”
The dispute was between Bates and Gulf Finance House, United’s former owner and the Bahraini bank who bought Leeds from him in 2012. Like most of GFH’s legacies, the court case fell into the lap of Massimo Cellino, when he replaced the bank as majority shareholder in April of this year.
A feature of Bates’ time as Leeds chairman was a heavy outlay on court cases. Shaun Harvey, the club’s chief executive for as long as Bates ran United, once said they were costing “a fortune”. But there is expectation that Cellino and Bates will settle amicably and out of court after three meetings between the pair this week. Harvey – now CEO of Football League, the governing body which tried to block Cellino’s takeover – attended at least one of them, for reasons unknown.
In an interview with his new radio venture, Radio Yorkshire, Bates said that in “the dispute between myself and Leeds United, we’re having very constructive discussions and I believe they’ll be resolved sooner rather than later.”
The interesting aspect of an agreement will be the part that the rights for live radio commentary of United’s games plays in it, if any. BBC Radio Leeds is in the second year of the three-year deal it negotiated with GFH in 2013 but the corporation does not bid for exclusive rights. As a public broadcaster, it leaves the door open to other stations to commentate in tandem.
Yorkshire Radio, the now defunct station which Bates established in 2006, commentated exclusively on Leeds’ fixtures for five years from the start of the 2008-09 season. The station folded in the summer of 2013 but Bates launched Radio Yorkshire this year, basing the station directly opposite Elland Road. Several sources claim that if Bates and Cellino shake hands, commentary rights will pass between them. Watch this space.