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the square ball week: taking a chance on chances

the square ball week: taking a chance on chances

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It isn’t about club size, or name size, or past reputations or past glories, or about giving an unknown a chance.

At Leeds United we don’t have the stature we once had, and we can’t expect to take our pick of top-name managers anymore. Recently sacked by a Premier League club and still highly regarded within the game, when we appointed Brian McDermott we were arguably punching above our weight, reputation-wise – maybe for the last time.

But relative anonymity could, in fact, have worked in our new manager’s favour. Sorry, new Head Coach’s favour. The job title is just one of many new things we have to get used to now that Massimo Cellino owns the club – sorry, now that the President owns the club – and if we’re going to start fresh, there’s a good argument for starting really fresh with someone we’ve never heard of before, something we’ve never tried.

Eamonn Dolan fitted that bill perfectly. 46 years old, he has followed a brief spell as Exeter City manager – where he turned them round after relegation from the league and almost got them into the Conference play-offs – with a decade as manager of Reading’s academy. His record is good, his standing in the game is high, his trajectory is upward.

Very few of us had heard of him before he was linked with the Leeds job, but that was okay; because when we looked into him, and did our research, he sounded good. On the evidence available, Eamonn Dolan was one unknown who looked like he’d be worth a shot.

And so to Dave Hockaday. The most supportive thing anybody can find to say about his appointment as Head Coach is that it’s worth giving him a chance. ‘We hadn’t even heard of him a month ago – we can’t write him off until we know more about him.’

That’s a view Hockaday would certainly share. “My journey has not just involved Forest Green,” he told LUTV in his confident first interview. “I’ve been at other clubs and I’m sure you’ll do your homework.”

That invitation came a bit late – Wikipedia was analysed as soon as Hockaday’s name appeared in the betting a month ago, Forest Green Rovers forums and YouTube videos were scoured for evidence. The results of that homework aren’t particularly pretty.

The positives include setting up the first non-professional American style youth academy in the country at Cirencester college; developing a successful youth side at Watford, and being part of the coaching team that won promotion to the Premier League; and that’s about it.

The negatives are that three of his four other coaching jobs were given to him by notorious basket case Martin Allen; the other, as youth coach at Southampton, ended with Hockaday on gardening leave for reasons unknown; and that in his only managerial job, at Forest Green Rovers, they finished in the relegation places of the Conference Premier the first season (Salisbury City’s implosion saving them), avoided going down on goal difference the next, then finished 10th and 10th again, all with a budget and players described as worthy of League One.

Since leaving Forest Green in October, Hockaday has been out of work, and now he’s the Head Coach of Leeds United.

Dave might think otherwise, but however you wish to present it, this is not the CV of someone who should have the senior football management role at Leeds United. He has seemed keen, in his LUTV interview and at yesterday’s Press Cellinoference, to minimise the attention paid to his time at Forest Green – when Bryn Law of Sky Sports asked how, if things didn’t go well at Forest Green in the Conference, he can expect things to go well in the Championship, Dave pointed elsewhere: “Well, I got promotion as a player five times, I got promoted from the Championship with Watford. You can draw whatever you want, I am the sum of everything I’ve done, of all my experiences.”

Of all those experiences, though, the Forest Green job is more relevant than a playing career that ended in 1994. You can make any distinction you like between the jobs of manager and coach: from listening to Hockaday and Cellino there shouldn’t be any confusion about the role of Head Coach at Leeds. Hockaday is the manager of the football team in all but title, and that lack of title is to allow for Cellino’s interference. Hockaday will train the players and work with them every day, pick the team, decide the tactics and manage the team from the dugout, exactly as he did at Forest Green Rovers.

The only differences between that job and this are the presence of Cellino and the fact that this is Leeds United, and so Leeds fans have every right to look at Hockaday’s record at Forest Green and decide that no, he isn’t some unknown who deserves a chance, some fresh talent hungry for success, but a 56 year old PE teacher who spent four years failing when he tried to do this job at a considerably lower level.

Dave Hockaday, Leeds United

“I’m not daft,” said Hockaday, when recognising the relative sizes of himself and the job he’s been given. But neither is he humble. Was he surprised to get the call from Leeds? “I wasn’t surprised to get the call, because I’ve talked to lots of people,” he said. “And when I met the President, and we talked, it was very obvious that he knew what he was talking about.” Here Hockaday shrugged, as if to say, isn’t it obvious? The President knows his football, so who else would he give the job to? Out of the camera shot at the other end of the table one assumes Junior Lewis, who has left his job at Hendon to become Hockaday’s assistant at Leeds, was nodding in agreement. If you know your football, you know why we’re here.

The contrast with Brian McDermott is fairly striking. From his first day to his last day, McDermott spoke with reverent awe about Leeds United, and seemed absolutely genuine about the delight and pride he took in being Leeds manager. The pre-match wave idea might have fizzled out fairly quickly, but it said a lot about McDermott’s attitude towards the job: as well as seeing what he could bring to the club, he was trying to work out what the club could bring to itself, to lever some advantage out of the high regard he had for Leeds United as an entity.

Hockaday, on the other hand, merely shrugs, and insists that he’s the obvious choice for the job despite being nobody’s choice, and that his track record has earned him the right to be here. “I’m up for this. I’ve coached – this is my fortieth year in pro football. Forty years. Man and boy. So I’m up for this, I’m ready for it, yeah,” said the former Swindon Town full back.

In fairness, the other comparison to draw at this point is that Brian McDermott’s approach didn’t work on the pitch – although it kept the fans on his side for longer than they might otherwise have been, a lesson Hockaday might want to consider. But that doesn’t mean the polar opposite strategy is the right one to take, and certainly not in these circumstances.

Whether he likes it or not, and whether he thinks so or not, Dave Hockaday is in a job where everyone thinks he is out of his depth, where people with much more impressive records than his have acknowledged the size of the task in front of them. Ignoring that, and making an insistent point about “five promotions,” doesn’t comes across with the confident manner Hockaday is obviously trying to present. It smacks more of Napoleonism, of a cockiness that far outstrips his stature, of an assumption that his achievements in the game, such as they are, should be automatically respected, even as he pays lip service to the idea that respect should be earned.

“I’ll earn their respect, and they’ll have to earn mine,” said Hockaday of the players, perhaps underestimating what arseholes footballers can be above Conference level. Mistaking that estimation was apparently one of his major failings at Forest Green, where his poor relationships with the senior players contributed to his, and their, downfall, and Dave ought to think carefully before walking into the dressing room at Elland Road and lecturing confidently about the seven games he played on loan in Stoke’s promotion from the third tier in 1993.

Hockaday should also think carefully about his relationship with Cellino, aka The President. In the first place, you have to look askance at any coach or manager who would willingly take a job with Italy’s ‘manager-eater’. This will be an ever-present factor for Leeds fans for as long as Cellino is the boss – we’ll have to question the sanity of anybody who comes to work for him.

More than that, the disparity between Hockaday’s confident self-assertiveness and Cellino’s obvious rule is jarring. For 95% of the press conference yesterday, Cellino did the talking. About everything. And the underlying suspicion about the President/Coach model is that it would be more accurate to say President/Puppet. Hockaday looked cool and confident in his solo interview with LUTV; he was cowed and subservient whenever Cellino interrupted him – and he frequently interrupted him – at the press conference.

Where I would actually want a coach to be talking about his five promotions and his technical knowledge would be in his office, as he shows the interfering President the way back to the executive lounge so he can get on with coaching the team. The one place it won’t work, though, is right there with Massimo. Fackin’ Swindan? You talk to me about Swindan? What is this Swindan?

Somehow, while talking about Ross McCormack yesterday, Cellino managed to lay out his own medals on the table: “I know Maradona personally, I know van Basten, Gullit, I know all these people, that is my life.” That’s Massimo’s life, and yet Hockaday is his coach. There’s no point in questioning who will win the arguments about the finer points of football between the guy who’s life is Maradona, van Basten, Gullit, and the guy whose life is Aidy Boothroyd and Junior Lewis.

People might be calling on the fans to give this unknown a chance, but one of the loudest alarm bells ringing is the one alerting us to the fact that it’s the President that won’t be giving him a chance. That alarm is next to another, marked ‘Remember That Massimo is a Cynical Old Bastard,’ and that among several damn good reasons to question why an unknown with a demonstrably poor record has landed the Leeds United job is the glaring answer: Because Massimo wants it that way.

Hockaday might think he’s earned the right to be here, but he’ll only have that right for as long as Cellino allows. Hockaday might think the players will have to earn his respect, but they won’t respect him if they think he’s the President’s mouthpiece. Hockaday might think this is a great opportunity for success, but we’ll see how much glory Cellino allows him should, by some miracle, this all work out; he might have told LUTV that “The President is here to take the pressure off my back,” but we’ll see where the pressure comes from should things start to go wrong.

Maybe we should give Hockaday a chance. I was willing to, for as long as it took for me to get the impression from his first interview that he didn’t give a toss about the fans of Leeds United, which wasn’t long. But just like his appointment isn’t up to us, his future won’t be up to us either, but up to The President. The worry for us is about the damage that could be done while Hockaday and Lewis are here.

“You can have the best coach in the world, but if you don’t have good players… he can’t do magic,” said Cellino yesterday. Likewise, you can have the best players in the world, but if you don’t have a good coach, they can’t do magic either. Massimo says he has a good feeling about Dave Hockaday, that he’s trusting his instincts. By hiring Hockaday and Lewis, Cellino is aligning his instincts with those of the chairmen of Forest Green Rovers and Hendon FC. And the first of those thought twice.

It’s all very well giving Dave Hockaday a chance, but he’s not the one with everything at risk.

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