Leeds United: Cellino’s way can be the only way

Elland Road.
Elland Road.
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Whites President Massimo cellino does things his way at Elland Road and does not brook dissent. Phil Hay reports.

Cagliari no longer belongs to Massimo Cellino but the bones of his Italian footballing empire are buried at Elland Road. All that he did at Cagliari and all that he learned came with him when Leeds United drew his attention from the Rossoblu.

Archived articles in the Italian press from 1992 onwards show a certain correlation between the club he bought then and the club he owns now. For the privilege of running Cagliari, Cellino reportedly paid the equivalent of £12m up front – part of the money a straightforward fee, part of it used to service debts and the rest channelled into the business. The cost of Leeds was not so different.

He sold Daniel Fonseca, the feted Uruguayan striker, in his first summer as Cagliari’s owner and at, the age of 35, showed an appetite for unilateral control. The influence of Carmine Longo, Cagliari’s busy sporting director, helped Cellino learn the ropes in Serie A but led rapidly to conflict. Longo and Cellino have been enemies for years.

England will never work as Italy does and Cellino learned as much when the Football League used the weight of its rules to obstruct his takeover of United in February, but in four months as owner there has been an overwhelming sense of Leeds adapting to his methods rather than Cellino adapting to Leeds. His outlandish nature, his single-minded attitude and his aggressive control begs two questions of Cagliari in West Yorkshire – can it work and will it work?

If England has struggled to get a handle on Cellino, the 58-year-old has struggled with equal measure to understand things about the English game.

When he first picked through the accounts of United’s academy, he asked why Cagliari’s youth development centre – a productive scheme in its own right – was able to run at a quarter of the cost. Before long, he began cutting hard and deep into the staff at Thorp Arch. The club’s wage bill amazed him, close to £20m last season, and so too did the ability of managers in England to heavily influence transfers, contracts and other matters which Cellino saw as his responsibility. He quickly drew a line in the sand.

The club have narrowed their expenditure in unsentimental fashion and the chain of command at Elland Road is as short as it was when Cellino held sway over Cagliari. With a token chairman in Salah Nooruddin and no chief executive, United were the only side without a representative at the Football League’s AGM in June after Cellino chose to miss the gathering.

Club presidents who hold ceremonial roles and no real power are as alien to him as delegated authority. “I was raised as a manager, not as a bulls**t president who puts his tie on, eats roast beef and f***s off home,” Cellino said during an interview with the YEP in April. “I look after everything.”

Comments like that – uniquely outspoken – have thawed the relationship between Cellino and United’s clued-in support. Where once they threatened to lynch him on the steps of Elland Road, there is now an urge to see Cellino play the ownership game as well as he talks it. Many like him or like his style. Before long, they will judge him on substance.

He has a frenzied air about him, a snapping bark in the middle of relaxed and jovial interviews, but an infectious public persona. Much as Cellino’s restructuring of the club has cost jobs and sacrificed good, capable staff, the average fan seems to have warmed to him. And Cellino for his part has tried to be one of them – sat in the same pubs or in the middle of a small crowd at Guiseley, happy in the company of ordinary people. There is more chance of a fans’ forum with him at the top table than there ever was with Gulf Finance House.

Four months ago, Cellino took on a club and a fanbase who ache more than ever for someone capable of breaking the cycle of calamity. The passing of bland Football League seasons has created a resigned and self-deprecating mood in Leeds but hope never dies. It’s the hope that kills. The city has heard it all before: promises from owners, promises from managers, promises from players. Cellino says he hates bulls**t but Leeds United have been full of it for years. If he is more trustworthy, he will win a lot of friends. If not, he will wage the same wars fought by others before him.

He has already placed one pin in his roadmap – the repurchase of Elland Road by November at the latest, and with straight cash if necessary. Cellino says the money is there, and so is the opportunity to demonstrate the strength of his word. The deadline he set will be registered and remembered.

Some still complain about his original promise to buy back the stadium within days of his takeover. Common sense said that a deal so quick was unfeasible and rash, a plan uttered in the heat of the moment, but the promise was there in black and white and nothing passes a watchful support by.

They will look, for example, to see whether Cellino’s appointment of David Hockaday as United’s head coach is a product of the Italian’s vision or a product of his eccentricity. It is on that point – the subject of Hockaday’s employment – that a generally enthusiastic crowd are struggling to see eye-to-eye with Cellino.

Hockaday has been belittled and ridiculed and, as a matter of decency, needs time and space to answer back but he is working without the luxury of a honeymoon period. All Cellino can say in his defence is that obscure coaches did good things for him at Cagliari, albeit without lasting long. At Cagliari, certain appointments like Hockaday’s worked.

So too did a transfer policy which, by all accounts, Cellino dictated. Supporters of Cagliari argue bitterly over the credibility of his 22 years as owner but they were a Serie A club for most of it. In the few seasons when relegation came calling, he never allowed the rot to fester.

He has driven United’s transfers throughout the summer, falling back on what he knows – the Italian leagues and Italian players, or those who have played there for years – and he is playing a long game. Marco Silvestri and Tommaso Bianchi were signed for four years and Cellino’s loans have all been negotiated with options to make those deals permanent. Most are young, raw and malleable, and their relative obscurity defies predictions. The bookmakers think Leeds will skirt with the Championship’s bottom three, concluding that a squad who under-performed last season, minus Ross McCormack and swollen by a clutch of unfamiliar names will toil. But even they are guessing.

Cellino, too, is trusting his gut. He does not know the division or how little it forgives, especially after Christmas. But the Italian is a night-owl who works and plays into the early hours of the morning. It is not uncommon for him to call you long after midnight, happy and willing to speak at length. Like many football club owners, you sense that his life would be empty without the thrill of the sport and the smell of the boardroom but the stress, the time, the money and the aggravation: not even a man as off-the-wall as Cellino would offer that up in return for nothing.

So fast and furious has this summer been that it is pointless predicting when or if his strategy will take Leeds out of the Championship and cure the paranoia of a club who always await the next crisis. But when he says he will die trying, he might not be joking.

IMPRESSIVE: Leeds United's Luke Ayling is challenged by Tristan Nydam as part of another fine display for the Whites. Picture by Simon Hulme.

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