watford 4 – 1 leeds united: pressure on, pressure offBack
We joked; and there’s our first mistake. This is Leeds United. Don’t tell jokes. At least, don’t tell jokes that might come back as truth.
Anyway, we joked about how we’d need somebody new to blame now Tom Lees has gone. Whose fault would this all be now? Continuing to blame Tom Lees, like a new gypsy curse, was one option. Blaming Dave Hockaday has been another popular choice. We could always blame Massimo Cellino, but he’s blaming himself, so I’m not sure that works.
Maybe it would be easier to stop joking and just blame Tom Lees.
In the end, though, it was all Giuseppe Bellusci’s fault. And on this occasion you could, superficially, say that’s right. Leeds were in the game against Watford until The Warrior let a high Watford hoof bounce under his foot, and then gave away a penalty as he tried to make amends. A man down and a goal down, and everything was different; especially for Dave Hockaday.
We’ve all tried before to work out exactly what Hockaday’s job is at Leeds: is he manager? Coach? Puppet? Does he have a say in transfers? Does he even pick the team? At the moment his job seems to be keeping hold of his job for as long as possible, and that’s it; three points, one point or nil points, if Dave is still employed on Monday he’s had a successful weekend.
For nearly an hour at Vicarage Road it looked like being a very successful weekend indeed, at least for Dave and his lowered expectations. Lost amid his post-match interviews were some comments that have been typical of Hockaday lately: Leeds “worked harder than the opposition, and frustrated the hell out of a good Watford team,” and apparently that’s enough now; to frustrate the opposition and nick a point thanks to an own goal, and for Dave to keep his job. Job done.
Reading the comments by Cellino on Sunday night, it was job over in the next half an hour. “Yes, at Watford I decided to sack him,” he told Phil Hay of the YEP. “I said ‘he’s finished.’”
If Massimo had stuck with his first instinct and sacked Hockaday, Dave would have had Bellusci to thank for making the mistake that cost him his job. Instead, Massimo changed his mind, and now Hockaday has Bellusci to thank for saving his job.
“Bellusci is a good defender and what he did yesterday was a s— mistake,” said Cellino. “We lost because of his mistake. I see that now. I didn’t see it yesterday. If he didn’t f— up and we win the game, would I be firing the coach? No. So it’s wrong to blame the coach for the results.” Don’t blame it on the coach; blame it on Bellusci.
Of course, the story isn’t quite that simple. No coach or manager should lose their job because of one mistake by one player in one moment, but by deflecting all the blame for the defeat onto that one moment and onto Bellusci, Cellino is missing quite a few mistakes and quite a few moments that might have helped him answer a question he was still struggling with on Sunday night: “This coach, he might not be a good coach, but sacking him now is not fair. I cannot say if he is good or not.”
This coach made the decision to play Giuseppe Bellusci in the first place, of course. Liam Cooper impressed everybody in his first two games, and while moving Jason Pearce to the right side might have unsettled the captain, nobody was complaining about the defence when it kept a clean sheet against Middlesbrough, or blaming it for the two goals conceded to Brighton on Tuesday. Bellusci might turn out to be a good player for Leeds, but his introduction was a change that didn’t need to be made at debut-heavy Leeds right now.
It was a similar story up front. Nicky Ajose has looked bright if ineffectual so far, but disappeared completely from the squad; Mathieu Smith was dropped to the bench after nobody gave him the ball for 45 minutes against Brighton. Mirco Antenucci came straight into the side alongside Billy Sharp, after flying into Leeds for the first time on Wednesday.
The one solution Cellino seems to have – that isn’t sacking Hockaday – is signing player after player and chucking them all at him, but Hockaday needs to think harder about how to integrate them into the side. After the game Hockaday bemoaned his lack of players with Football League experience; Smith, meanwhile, had been kept on the bench until there were only nine minutes left.
By that time, in probably the most baffling decision of the day, a player with masses of English league experience had left the pitch. Yes, after a defender is sent off a team often has to sacrifice a forward. Yes, Billy Sharp is short of match-fitness and might have been tired. But no, taking him off so Liam Cooper could come on was not the right decision.
The right decision would have been to leave Billy Sharp on the pitch and let him show that his long-awaited chance to play for Leeds United means more to him than one goal and a tops-off celebration; the right decision would have been to keep Sharp on and let him test his fitness against his commitment and his desire. I don’t think he would have been found wanting; and I don’t think Leeds would have had to bring on first Poleon and then Smith in an effort to restore the attacking threat that left with Billy.
The effort may well have knacked Sharp so much he’d have to miss the Bradford game to recover, but so what? As it is we’re going to suffer a net loss, because there is no way Sharp can be rested for the Bradford game now; taking Billy off at Watford was the first step towards putting the pressure on at Bradford. Hockaday said after the Middlesbrough game, apparently with a straight face, that “pressure is my middle name”; that shouldn’t mean that he courts it where it isn’t necessary, though.
It also doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s any good at dealing with it. Some people have more than one middle name and who’s to say Dave’s others aren’t ‘Crumbles’ ‘Under’ and ‘The’. The decision to take off the experienced and committed Sharp and leave on the unknown Antenucci was a mistake made under pressure, pure and simple. “[Watford] were getting very frustrated and animated on their bench, they were changing things,” Hockaday said with pride after the game, but it looks like the Watford bench, though frustrated, were changing the right things. The Leeds bench, scrambling for a solution after the red card, got their changes wrong.
The constant lambasting of Hockaday does need some balance, although we’ve not even mentioned yet that despite all his drilling Leeds are no less vulnerable to set pieces than against Millwall on the opening day. In his defence we can say that the Leeds midfield was performing better than it did against Brighton up until the sending off, despite the surprising decision to stay with the same culpable quartet. There. Well done Dave.
But Hockaday doesn’t need defending when it seems the one thing he can do is defend himself. “I’m comfortable I’m getting more out of these players than anyone else could,” he told the BBC after the game; then on Sunday he somehow convinced his president to blame not only Bellusci, but himself.
Cellino says he was going to sack Hockaday on Sunday, but then he spoke to him, and changed his mind. "I was ashamed of the performance and it [sacking Hockaday] was what I wanted to do.
“But in my life I’ve learned that with your decisions, take 24 hours. Why should I blame the coach? The squad isn’t finished and that is my fault. Signing players has been harder than I thought so if I fire anyone, I should fire myself or else I’m a coward. I have to control my ego.”
Yes, that’s Massimo Cellino there, talking about firing himself and trying to control his ego. He wasn’t finished. “We are missing four or five players still. We are not good enough. I am the president so I should only sack myself, not Hockaday.”
It’s an odd way to express confidence in your coach; to speak as if your own confidence is completely broken, when everyone is used to you being the most confident man in the room. But this is, actually, what Cellino promised to Hockaday at the outset.
“The President is here to take the pressure off my back,” Hockaday said in his first interview at Leeds. “Those are his words. He’s here to run everything, I’m here to look after the players, the team. So no pressure is going to be applied on me.”
I wonder if that’s what Dave reminded Cellino of on Sunday afternoon as he pleaded his case; that Dave “Pressure” Hockaday is here to manage without pressure; that all the pressure is to be the burden of his president. That was the deal, Mr President, even if it has been forgotten over the last 24 hours, when Cellino made it plain to the press, the staff, to everyone around him that Hockaday was a goner. Reminded of his promise on Sunday, and while making a mental note to check the contracts later, perhaps Massimo agreed that, after all, he should be as good as word.
For now. Not losing his job this weekend might be the worst possible outcome for Hockaday. Cellino’s word only stretches as far as he wants it to stretch, and he has other words for when the first word will no longer do. Cellino’s word also cannot defy nature, or the natural laws of football.
“No pressure is going to be applied on me,” said Dave Hockaday, upon taking the job of head coach of Leeds United in June 2014. Even with the assurances of his president fresh in his ears, it sounded like a naive statement then, and it sounds like a stupid one now. It’ll sound like downright gibberish if we lose to Bradford on Wednesday, when there will be nobody else left to blame.