Rumours about Massimo Cellino selling off Leeds United to Red Bull have irked the club’s forthright president. Phil Hay reports.
The heat on Massimo Cellino is coming from all sides. He looked tired when we met on Tuesday afternoon and said that he was suffering from sleepless nights.
He has much to ponder in the early hours of the morning: the planned repurchase of Elland Road which won’t be completed on schedule and talk of him selling Leeds United to Red Bull, something Cellino would deny with his last breath. The threat from the Football League has not gone away and football itself is causing him stress.
Another head coach was sacked last month, earning United’s owner some incoming fire, and seven league games without a win were making him “depressed”. “I wish the day was 48 hours long instead of 24,” he said. “Lately, the results on the field don’t help me face problems.
“When you’ve won a game, you wake up in the morning, go into the office and face everything in a positive way. You feel strong. But seven games without winning, you feel so weak and miserable. Every problem becomes bigger.”
Cellino promised to buy United’s stadium this month but by his own admission, that target won’t be met. The Italian claims he has the money to fund the £16m buy-back but is unwilling to do so until he and former owner Gulf Finance House find a way to alter the Share Purchase Agreement they signed when he bought the club in April. GFH does not deny that Cellino is attempting to revise those terms but it refuses to take any blame for the delay in purchasing the ground. The bank and Cellino will continue to argue while Leeds continue to pay their rent.
The Red Bull link has irked Cellino too. It is clear that he met with representatives of the firm as recently as last Thursday and sources close to Red Bull say it intends to bid for United in the next three or four weeks. A statement from Red Bull on Monday, however, categorically ruled out a takeover offer. “Thank God they said that publicly,” Cellino said. “Then it’s not just me saying ‘no’.
“I wish everything here was beautiful and I’m trying, working, facing problems every day. Then one day I wake up in the morning and read ‘Red Bull is buying Leeds’. What?
“It’s a problem for everyone because at this club they’re used to changing owners every 15 days. Someone new coming in all the time. But I’m different – I didn’t buy this club to sell it again. How can you say it doesn’t hurt us when someone writes (about Red Bull’s interest)? It shows that nothing is changing – that Cellino is like the others, he’s come here to sell the club. But it’s not true. I meet 10, 20 people a week. They talk about publicity, advertising, sponsoring, partnerships. Someone comes to sell me a cup of coffee? Ah, Levazza is buying Leeds. If someone comes to sell me steak the butcher is buying Leeds. I don’t know. If someone comes to sell me beer, I’m buying beer. I’m not selling Leeds.”
The distractions at Leeds are plentiful. Cellino said they were diluting the time he was able to devote to thinking about football. United are 17th in the Championship and already onto their third head coach of the season. Neil Redfearn took the job last week after Darko Milanic went the way of David Hockaday – sacked by Cellino after six games in charge.
There is risk involved for Redfearn who knows Cellino’s reputation as an owner who fires coaches. He left a safe job in Leeds’ academy to take the head coach’s position, albeit on a contract which should allow him to return to his old role if his running of the first team goes wrong. Cellino thinks it won’t; he thinks that Redfearn can run the course.
“I don’t hope he’s here for the rest of the season,” Cellino said. “I hope he’s going to stay at Leeds for the next 10 years.
“Why should the chairman of a club wish to change the coach? Tell me the reason. Am I a masochist? No. Every chairman, president or owner would wish to have someone here as long as (Sir Alex) Ferguson. Every time we change coach it’s not good.
“I never take a coach and say ‘he’s good for three months but then I’ll change him’. I get along with Neil. When Darko was here, I’d go to the training ground and I talked with Neil because I get along with him, I like him. He’s a nice guy and he belongs to Leeds. He knows more about the players than anyone – the positives and the negatives.”
United’s training ground at Thorp Arch is an intriguing topic of conversation. Leeds have a lease on the facility until 2029 but, unlike Elland Road, no option to buy it outright. It costs £600,000 a year to rent and Cellino is all but decided that United will quit Thorp Arch for a custom-built complex in Leeds, taking their academy with them. Breaking the lease is his main obstacle.
“One thing that is wrong at this club is having the academy at Thorp Arch,” he said. “The academy is 30 miles away and that doesn’t help Leeds kids to go and train there. It doesn’t help Leeds to grow homegrown players. It doesn’t allow less wealthy families to take their boys to training.
“We need the training ground in the middle of Leeds. At Thorp Arch you feel like you’re in a different place. Leeds used to be at Elland Road with the training pitch was just by the ground (on Fullerton Park). That’s a beautiful thing.”
He would, nonetheless, be uprooting an academy which holds category-two status and has earned no end of credit. Its work was plain to see on Tuesday night as two sweet goals from teenager Alex Mowatt earned a 2-2 draw with Charlton. Redfearn’s squad had five self-produced players in it, including England Under-17 international Lewis Cook.
“The academy could do better,” Cellino said. “They’ve done good, and good enough when you think about what they’ve been through in the last 12 years. But the potential of the academy is 10 times more if its done right.”
Leeds have and will lean heavily on their academy products this season. The youth of those players, combined with the acclimatisation of numerous foreign imports, has delivered a predictably unpredictable season.
Is Cellino worried about the league position? “When you change something, you could win three games in a row or lose three games in a row,” he said. “We don’t know yet what kind of team we’ve got. We’re still building a team. In a couple of months, after 12 or 13 years of a big mess, it’s not so easy to make a difference. But I think I’ve done a lot.”
He wants that message to reach the Football League. The governing body remains silent about Cellino’s future in English football and its appetite for fighting him again but the tax evasion conviction which threatened his buy-out of Leeds in April could yet be used against him again.
The Italian is appealing the conviction and claims he has not seen a copy of the judge’s written verdict, the document on which another attempt by the Football League to disqualify him as owner hangs.
The League wants a copy and is believed to be considering bringing misconduct charges against Cellino if he fails to produce one.
“I know I’m not dishonest,” Cellino said. “I know I’m a clean person. The books of Leeds and what I’ve done since I’ve arrived, it’s there for anyone. They can look. I’m proud of what I’ve done so I’m worried about nothing. I’m at peace with myself.
“It’s easy for people to keep Leeds in the s**t like before. People out there, they don’t care. Leeds is a big club. If it becomes healthy and strong again then it’s a club who others are worried about. They don’t want us to stand up because if we do, we’ll start giving back what we’ve been taking. Everyone wants to push Leeds down. They should show this club more respect.”