Leeds’ owner says he won’t boast about the future – but he does want to get to the Champions League. Phil Hay reports.
Three games. Or three league games. That short window – ending on August 19 – is all Massimo Cellino thinks it will take for him to know if a squad built with foreign pieces is tailor-made for England’s second division.
His knowledge of the English game is limited and his understanding of the Championship must be similarly patchy but the start of the new season should show the division in all its forms: the rumble in the jungle of Millwall away, a match against a Middlesbrough side whose coach prides himself on continental football and a visit from a Brighton team whose consistency and defensive record took them to the play-offs in May.
A month before that, when Cellino bought Leeds United, he promised promotion by the summer of 2016. “In 2015-16, if we don’t go into the Premier League then you can tell me I’ve failed,” he said, a few days after completing his takeover. You can see in him now, the tentative hope that 2015 might give Leeds what they’ve craved for 10 years but most of those thoughts he keeps to himself. And his mood fluctuates. Last Saturday’s friendly win over Dundee United frustrated and annoyed him, lacking the structure and style he wanted. His head coach, David Hockaday, was summoned for a meeting the following day.
“We are not there yet, not good enough,” Cellino said. “Promotion – I will know for sure after the first three games if we can do it. Ask me then. But at the moment, I think not.”
The 58-year-old talks over and over about teaching United “humility”. He says it “p***es me off” to remember the way in which Leeds’ previous owner, Gulf Finance House, made noises about promotion, stability and future growth at the same time as the club lost millions of pounds and built up a debt which Cellino agreed to service. Leeds finished 15th in the Championship last season; badly bruised and very grateful for the mass of points accumulated before Christmas.
“The season is coming fast,” Cellino said, “but I want to sell humility here. I don’t want to sell bulls**t to the people. It’s too easy to do that.
“I’m working here, trying to do my best, and it’s better to think it will take us three years to get to the Premier League and then perhaps find ourselves there after one. If I say ‘we go up next year’, we could end up in League One.
“In football, all you do is work day-by-day. First we think about staying in the Championship because to get to 80 points you must get to 50 first. Last year we bulls*****d the people – always saying ‘Premier League, Premier League, Premier League’ – but if I hadn’t come here this club would have gone bankrupt.”
Elland Road was that sort of battleground in April; the scene of unpaid wages, winding-up petitions and bitter internal disputes. Cellino imposed himself by implementing a mass of changes, some of them ruthless, some highly unpopular but all designed to rearrange the club in his image. Ken Bates, the former Leeds owner, once said: ‘The Romans didn’t build a great empire by organising meetings. They did it by killing anyone who got in their way.’
In four months at Elland Road, Cellino has taken few prisoners. The appointment of Hockaday as United’s head coach is the best example of his singular approach. It is a long time since the employment of an English boss by a prominent Championship club required such heavy use of Wikipedia. As Brian McDermott’s replacement, Hockaday was a peculiar, leftfield choice – out of work since his sacking by Forest Green Rovers and in no way an obvious candidate. The same could be said of several of the signings made by Leeds during a summer in which Cellino has openly dictated the club’s transfer policy.
United’s first recruit, goalkeeper Stuart Taylor, was as conventional a signing as Championship sides make but most since then have been obscure footballers with comparative traits: relatively young, taken from Italy and seen by Cellino as assets with significant future value.
Cellino says his strategy has the Champions League in mind, as wildly ambitious as that sounds. His plan is that Leeds will reach the Premier League with the calibre of squad needed to thrive and progress quickly. In his view, players like goalkeeper Marco Silvestri, signed for four years from Chievo, should make the transition without difficulty. “When Leeds go to the Premier League, we’ll go there because we want to, not because we must get there to pay debts and wages,” Cellino said. “If it takes one year, good, if it takes two years...(shrugs shoulders). But when we get there we want to go to the Champions League too. That’s why we have to buy good players for the future. The players we’re signing are going to be top players.
“I started with the goalkeeper (Silvestri) and 100 per cent, we have a top goalkeeper – the best goalkeeper we have had at Leeds, I’m telling you.”
The big loss this summer was Ross McCormack, sold to Fulham for £11m. United’s owner resented the way in which that transfer materialised but did not allow his criticism of McCormack to lower his opinion of striker who scored 29 goals last season and did more than anyone to keep relegation at arm’s length. For additions forwards, he looked to the transfer market while also looking closer to home. He extended his hand to Noel Hunt, who failed to score once during his first season with United, and also promised to use Steve Morison, who spent last term on loan at Millwall.
“Hunt has the skills,” Cellino said. “He’s a good guy. Morison is a character – a bullet – but a bloody good player with skills also. If he wants, if he really wants, he can be a big player here. This is not mathematics. It’s football. And football is strange. Hunt, he never scored last year but maybe this year he will make 35 goals. You never know.”
That is true of Leeds all over. In this of all seasons, the potential of United’s squad, their suitability for the Championship and Hockaday’s ability to hold it all together is a matter of opinion. Even Cellino is waiting for the season to start before deciding his own level of optimism. “For now, humility,” he said. “When I came here I was worrying that the club was going down. The club was talking s**t, not paying debts but saying ‘we’re going to the Premier League.’ We were going to League One! So let’s start by keeping it in the Championship. Humility.
“When I hear people say ‘I’m 85 years old and I saw us beat Manchester United’ I’m not interested. I want to see us play Manchester United now, to beat them three to nothing. That’s my dream.”
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