The choice was Massimo Cellino’s in the beginning and he had it to make again on Saturday: to stick with this experiment and the head coach he plucked from nowhere or to back away from a long-odds gamble and take a different view.
The Italian’s next move was all but assured as he drove home livid after Leeds United’s defeat to Watford. It seemed cruel that questions about David Hockaday were rife and legitimate after four league games but this is football and this is Cellino; hard, reactive, unforgiving. Yet the Italian showed a forgiving side and by yesterday evening Hockaday was safe. From the sack to a second chance in 24 hours.
Cellino stuck his neck out when he introduced Leeds to an unknown coach whose last job earned him a wage in the Conference, and it stood to reason that in the midst of scepticism Cellino’s own faith would be tested eventually. A 4-1 loss at Vicarage Road, tainted further by the collateral damage of two red cards, did exactly that. Hockaday survived but only just, and who knows for how much longer.
There are several ways to outline United’s position but one of them is this: lose to Bolton Wanderers this weekend and the club will spend the season’s first international break inside the Championship’s relegation places. These are early days but critical ones, days in which direction is usually set. “I strongly believe that with the players I’ve got I’m doing a good job,” Hockaday said as he broached the subject of his future on Saturday. “I see lots of green shoots.”
He might have thought so but opinion around him differs. Sources close to Cellino say he “went crazy” at the end of Watford’s win, despite the result owing much to a red card in the second half, and promised that Hockaday was finished. More criticism poured from the away end, during and after the match. Hockaday claimed to have heard none of it, saying: “This isn’t me being deaf or dumb but as a coach I totally focus in on the game. I genuinely don’t hear anything. You can tell me what was said and that’s fine. People are welcome to their views. All I know is that the fans were excellent in general.”
Impatience and ire on social media is one thing but dissent from those paying to be present is a bigger, more unavoidable worry – something Cellino cannot kill. United’s away support were the last to abandon Brian McDermott, long after Twitter sided against him, but Hockaday is alone after five competitive games. He can call for restraint and ask for time but thousands of minds are already made up. Thousands made up their minds when Cellino appointed him in June. His only means of ingratiating himself was through results of a standard above what even Cellino demanded this season. They have not materialised and after four Championship fixtures, Leeds lie 21st with three points – above three beleaguered clubs in Fulham, Blackpool and Bolton. Cellino conceded last week that Hockaday was working without a complete squad but his head coach is struggling to make the best of it.
Watford have problems of their own, or so it is said, but Leeds are a club who provide respite for the Championship’s divided and unhappy lot. Vicarage Road is awash with talk of infighting and arguments between their coach, Beppe Sannino, and certain players in his squad, and they played with reticence until the dismissal of Giuseppe Bellusci invited them to massacre Leeds. But the massacre came all the same. Bellusci was 58 minutes into an orderly debut and the game level at 1-1 when he attempted to float the ball out of defence and paid for a flashy pass by slicing it horribly into the path of Fernando Forestieri. Bellusci chased the striker and clipped his heels 12 yards from goal, incurring a red card and conceding a penalty. Troy Deeney took it and dispatched a shot low to the right of goalkeeper Marco Silvestri.
“It went wrong for us in whatever minute the penalty was awarded,” Hockaday said. “The momentum swings. You’re a goal down and a man down. I’ve spoken (to Bellusci) about it in no uncertain terms and he’s apologised to the team, for what it’s worth. It’s something I can’t legislate for. We’re trying to turn a big ship round here and moments like that don’t help.
“Up until then I thought we looked very comfortable. We were passing the ball well. Watford were getting animated and agitated on their bench and I thought we’d come here and done a very good job.”
His assessment was not unreasonable. Watford scored in the 20th minute when Deeney and Gianni Munari worked a corner to Forestieri who drove a shot against Silvestri’s arms and then nodded the rebound into the net but Leeds equalised 12 minutes later. Mirco Antenucci, their new signing from Ternana, played Billy Sharp into space on the right wing and Sharp’s fierce cross caught the leg of Gabriel Tamas before flying past Heurelho Gomes. Leeds’ midfield – the same diamond midfield tormented by Brighton last Tuesday – found encouragement in that and began to flood Watford’s. Sannino’s team became static and passive, detached from Deeney and Forestieri up front. United’s ability to disrupt is their best weapon under Hockaday, as it was against Middlesbrough, but their creativity was nil and their chances few; four efforts in all over 90 minutes. When Bellusci went, the heads did too. Deeney put away his penalty and Hockaday moved to replace Sharp with centre-back Liam Cooper. The withdrawal of a likely goalscorer prompted audible cries of “you don’t know what you’re doing.” Forestieri made the change irrelevant on 67 minutes when he danced through several half-hearted tackles and screwed the ball past Silvestri off the inside of a post. The away end responded by telling Hockaday he’d be sacked in the morning.
“Bringing Billy Sharp off was tactical,” Hockaday said. “He’s put in a few shifts and Antenucci had fresher legs. We tried to contain it but at 3-1, the game’s gone.”
Sadly for Hockaday, it wasn’t over. In injury-time Daniel Pudil beat Silvestri with a free-kick from 30 yards. Pudil milked the crowd as a snooker trick-shot specialist might. As the seconds ticked down, he and Sam Byram squared up off the ball and referee James Linington sent Byram off. A headbutt was blamed but even the officials seemed a little unsure. “The linesman said he saw something,” Hockaday said. “I’d like something a bit more specific than that.”
A three-match suspension will be Byram’s punishment unless Leeds choose to back up his angry protests with an appeal to the FA. None of that was likely to be Hockaday’s concern until Cellino drew breath and resolved to spare his coach the bullet. “It’s out of my hands,” Hockaday replied, when asked how much time he thought he had left. Of that there is no doubt.
Watford: Gomes, Tamas, Angella, Hoban, Paredes (Anya 55), Abdi (Andrews 81), Tozser, Munari, Pudil, Deeney, Forestieri (Ighalo 76). Subs (not used): Bond, Doyley, Fabbrini, Vydra.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Bellusci, Pearce, Warnock, Austin, Murphy, Bianchi, Tonge (Poleon 76), Sharp (Cooper 62), Antenucci (Smith 81). Subs (not used): S Taylor, Wootton, Cook, Norris.