Former Leeds United boss Dave Hockaday has revealed how Massimo Cellino turned down Virgil van Dijk and ‘rung me every day at weird times’.
Hockaday was Cellino’s first Leeds appointment in the summer of 2014, despite having no experience of League football, but lasted just 70 days in the job.
“I was going into Championship games blind – it was crazy,” the 61-year-old told the Guardian.
“I’ve seen [Marcelo] Bielsa going on about all this data, but we had nothing. We had just one match analyst, one strength and conditioning coach and it just felt unprofessional
“I was thrown to the dogs, just scrambling to get information on the opposition by phoning up other managers who had played the teams. I went in at ground zero. There was virtually nothing.
“It was just surreal, so cloak-and-dagger. I knew his record with managers [Cellino sacked 36 in 22 years at Cagliari] and I was thinking: ‘Does he want to get an Italian-based manager in and get somebody who knows the English game to support him as the first-team Coach? Or does he want an under-23s Coach to bring through players, which is really what I’m about.
“But he said: ‘I want you to be my head Coach.’ I said: ‘What, like your manager?’ And he said: ‘Yes, I want you to be my Coach.’ I was like: ‘OK, interesting,’ and I was sort of playing poker. I said: ‘I can handle the coaching, that’s not a problem,’ but said: ‘There’s a few things we need to talk about.’
“He said: ‘You can recommend players but I will have the final say.’ He said: ‘You pick the team, you train them and I don’t interfere with that,’ and, to be fair, he never ever did.
“I basically had an under-23s team and a lot of disenchanted senior players. It was the most dysfunctional squad I’ve ever played with, trained with, coached – whatever. It was a terrible environment.
“I don’t know what they are doing with the swimming pool at Thorp Arch [Leeds’ training ground] now but you know when you see the westerns with all the tumbleweed? It was like that, because none of it was being used. It was a massive facility ‘too expensive to run’.
“I found out quite quickly that the Italians reported back to the President … I had a phone call from Cellino to say: ‘Get yourself down to Elland Road.’ I get in there and he says: ‘What are you doing, embarrassing my goalkeeper?’
“I said: ‘Right, hang on a minute, what’s he like with the ball at his feet?’ He went: ‘He’s not that good.’ I said: ‘Does he need to work on it?’ He said: ‘Yeah.’
“I said: ‘Do you know what we’ve done? We’ve taken him to another field and worked on it.’ He said: ‘Good work, well done.’ That sort of thing went on every day.”
“He [Cellino] used to ring me every day, and at weird times – at midnight, 1am, all sorts – and, at that time, I used to pick up every call, which was a bit silly of me. He said: ‘Coach.’ I said: ‘Yes, Mr President.’ And he went: ‘You’re not a good English Coach…’
“But then he said: ‘You’re a good Italian Coach, three times [training] a day. I love it! Keep it going.’
“He had spies and they were reporting back to him … I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity so I was always going to swallow some of what he was going to throw at me.
“He wanted a vulnerable, if you like, good Coach. He told me he’d let me down and I have talked to him a couple of times since, when he has phoned, out of the blue.”
Hockaday then explained how the Brescia owner preferred to recruit players from Italy over the likes of Van Dijk – then of Celtic but now the world’s most expensive defender at Liverpool.
“He said: ‘Go and get me a young, unproven striker that will score goals and we can sell on.’
“I said: ‘[Watford striker] Andre Gray.’ A few days later, he said: ‘No, I’ve spoken to him and his agent, he’s too much.’ I said: ‘From Luton to Leeds United, and he’s too much?’ Later into the season, he goes and gets [Mirco] Antenucci for millions of pounds.
“Don’t make me cry [referring to Van Dijk]… I was scratching my head being told ‘no’ about those I had recommended while we were getting in these Italian-based players who were nowhere near it. That’s what killed me.”