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leeds united 2 – 0 dundee united: learning to love again

leeds united 2 – 0 dundee united: learning to love again

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Some people are hard to love. Some are even hard to tolerate. Sometimes that is in spite of their best efforts; they try all they can think of to be likeable, but it just doesn’t take.

Others seem to go out of their way to make it hard to warm to them. Dave Hockaday could have had a much easier time from the fans so far if, in his very first answer to the very first question in his very first interview with LUTV, he hadn’t acted as if he was the natural born successor to Revie and Wilkinson, come across like a spoiled first-born, born to rule. If he had only been a little gracious, a little humble, a little humorous, we might have warmed to him, instead of wondering just who this arrogant jumped-up non-league jerk thought he was.

It wasn’t a mistake you can put down to first day nerves; he said pretty much the same thing at the press conference the next day. The president knows football, so he knows I’m the right man for the job, so no, no I’m not surprised to be here. Bleurgh. The president didn’t even know you existed until some agent stuck your name on a list, mate. And I’m yet to be convinced that wasn’t a practical joke.

The game against Dundee United began under another “What’s Dave said now?” cloud. Hockaday had made another awkward impression, insisting that a journalist shake his hand twice at the end of an interview – “when we shake hands at the end, he insists that we repeat it and that, this time, I make what he considers to be proper eye contact. ‘I always tell my players to make eye contact,’ he says with a slightly unnerving stare” – guaranteeing that moment its place an otherwise positive article. The journalist had actually done a good job of wringing some positivity out of the material he was given; according to Hockaday, his four years of failure at Forest Green Rovers have to be understood in the context that his side played “the best football ever seen in that league.”

Some boast. Now here we were, at a quarter-filled Elland Road for the first time with Hockaday, Lewis (but not Carbone) and the president and Salerno’s players, to see what the man responsible for the best, least effective football the Conference has ever seen can bring to Leeds United.

The answer was, more than he brought at Guiseley two weeks ago, when I last saw Leeds; and more than reports suggested was brought at Mansfield, Chesterfield and Swindon in between. Game on game improvement, and that’s a good thing; because Guiseley had been pretty dire.

Some of the reasons for that could be seen in the performance of Souleymane Doukara. A deadweight at Guiseley, after a few games and a few training sessions his weight became an asset against Dundee. Big and strong, his flicks may have owed a lot to luck – he can tap a ball over a defender’s head, but it’ll usually glance off the defender’s shoulder on its way over – but they were effective, putting defenders on the back foot and into panic mode. The one worry with Doukara is that, despite playing as the central striker, I haven’t found anyone who thinks he looks like scoring in double figures this season; but scoring at all would be an upgrade on Hunt, so there’s hope yet.

Tommaso Bianchi was another who made a positive impression, woken up from the deep-lying midfielder who at Guiseley seemed to look for Killock and Lees with every pass. Now he was pressing forward, matching Tonge’s run with a direct through ball that led to the opening goal; crashing a volley off the crossbar.

That opening goal was scored very early on by Steve Morison, another figure with some character-correction to work on. After arguing with fans at Guiseley, he was jeered off at Chesterfield, and this is on top of being Becchio’s replacement, his ridiculous wages and spending more time with Millwall than with us since he joined. Since Chesterfield he has now scored twice; more significantly, against Dundee, he was even tracking back and making tackles in his own box.

He’s still needlessly half-arsed at times. After herding the ball away from an attacker and out for a goal kick, he could have rolled the ball to Silvestri; instead he wandered away upfield, leaving our new keeper with a thirty yard round-trip to retrieve the ball – ballboys seem to have been a victim of the cost cutting at Elland Road this summer.

Morison is also going to completely suck on the left wing until Hockaday snaps out of that idea. On the two occasions when Morison faced up to Dundee’s right back, he just tapped the ball uselessly with his right foot until it was easily taken from him. He plainly has no idea what to do in that position, and I have no idea why Hockaday is playing him there.

That Morison was also only in that position twice raised another red flag about the team’s emerging new style. The passing, even with Rudy Austin in the team, was neat and tidy, but as at Guiseley Leeds were far from incisive. They’re setting out to play patient, passing football, which is a change from hoofball, but it means we spend far too much time in our own half while the opposition stands and watches. Howard Wilkinson always denied that his teams played long-ball, but did admit to being direct – because the other end is where the goal is. At times on Saturday I longed for Tom Lees to come rushing back from Sheffield and just welly the ball upfield and break the endless cycle of Tonge to Austin to Bianchi to Murphy to Tonge to Austin to Bianchi to Murphy…

Comments from Forest Green Rovers fans when Hockaday was confirmed suggested this might be what we were in for. They warned of ‘crabbing’ across the pitch, and bemoaned the number of times their defenders and keeper used to get the ball; “Plan A of passing sideways 20 times before the CB hoofed it forward was hardly a genius ploy to begin with,” wrote one; “Passing the ball back when we needed to attack in losing positions was one of the biggest problems,” wrote another. Remember, these fans were watching the best football ever seen at that level.

Better players might get more out of his beliefs, thought the FGR fans, and Bianchi looks more than capable of producing something; whether he’ll get the time to produce it in the Championship is another thing. Bianchi’s best moment came when he was able to steady himself on the edge of the box and fire off a volley; if he tries that against Millwall, he’ll be clattered. On another occasion, set up by a pull back from Doukara, Bianchi did dither in the D and the chance soon disappeared. The improvement between the games against Guiseley and Dundee United is to be applauded, but another level needs to be found in the next week, because Millwall – and the Championship season – is going to be a different beast entirely.

The lack of preparation might be Hockaday’s biggest battle in the opening weeks. Doukara and Bianchi have shown how much could improve over time, but while results have overall been better than last pre-season, the lack of time could cancel out that benefit. Putting the Italian trip aside, as the 16–0 and the game against ourselves can’t count as much more than training sessions, the team has played five proper friendlies this summer rather than last season’s seven; more significantly, half the players we’ve been promised, and are still being promised, haven’t turned up yet. That Doukara struggled against Guiseley was fine, because it was his first game in England and it was pre-season; Benedicic, Sorenson, Dalort and whoever else might be coming won’t have that luxury when thrown in against Millwall, Middlesbrough or whoever.

It’s hard to believe in all this, much as I want to; just as it’s hard to love Hockaday. What we’ve seen so far is a team that is getting better, but it’s a team and a squad that still doesn’t look good enough for the Championship. It’s also a team that doesn’t have a lot of time left to get good enough.

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