From his arrival on “Mad Friday” until his exit yesterday, Massimo Cellino’s time at Leeds United was rarely out of the headlines. Here, the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Chief Football writer, Phil Hay, looks back over the Italian’s three-year reign at Elland Road.
A bouquet of flowers appeared through the post in the week after my youngest daughter was born, sent by Leeds United on the instructions of Massimo Cellino.
“A new baby is special,” he said in a text message, explaining an unexpected gift. There was no agenda and nothing asked in return. It just occurred to him that the gesture might be appreciated.
Now and again Cellino broke out of character and left you thinking that even he needed breaks in the madness.
His professional life is fraught and chaotic, under pressure and on the edge, and Leeds United projected those traits in his much of his time as the club’s owner.
Chaos was not introduced by Cellino but his takeover in 2014 elevated historic stress at Elland Road to a higher level. “I’m a player, a man who likes to play,” he said the first time I interviewed him, a euphemism for his ruthless style of management.
Leeds had been warned. Cellino’s 20-plus years as president of Cagliari were a showcase of his personality: an obscene turnover of head coaches, a stadium deteriorating against the backdrop of administrative standoffs and a temporary shift of home fixtures to the northern city of Trieste, 650 miles away.
Football is inherently political but Cellino’s politics ran to excess, in Italy and again in Leeds. His club and his rules for as long as it took for unhappy factions to mobilise against him. “I was raised as a manager, not as a bulls**t president who puts his tie on, eats some roast beef and f***s off home,” he said at the outset.
“I look after everything.”
Slowly, the machinations of English football and the strain of wrestling with Leeds softened that attitude. Cellino once saw chief executives as a waste of space and money, earning a salary for work he thought he could do himself.
By the end of his first season, in 2015, the value of a capable CEO had dawned on him. In recruiting Adam Pearson he felt a weight of pressure lift. Pearson’s resignation a few months later – for health reasons it was claimed – stung Cellino and shook Leeds out of a period of relative calm but little by little it became apparent that the club were better served with him silent and in the background.
His time as a major shareholder ended last night. To many at Elland Road it feels as if the Italian left some time ago.
His first mistake was to acquire control of Leeds from Gulf Finance House via a share purchase agreement which favoured the Bahraini bank implicitly.
Cellino’s failure to conduct adequate due diligence caught up with him quickly and exposed Leeds to financial liabilities. He returned from one meeting with GFH in December 2014 with an Arab headdress and gown and jumped around his Elland Road office shouting ‘Allah is great!’
On that evening he thought the problem of a multi-million pound debt left behind by GFH had been permanently resolved. On the contrary, it has been renegotiated repeatedly since then and was part of the finer details involved in Andrea Radrizzani’s buy-out of Cellino.
Cellino promised promotion to the Premier League by 2016 but quickly realised how rash that timescale was. He promised to buy back Elland Road but did not come close to laying his hands on the deeds.
Leeds are losing less money than they were while GFH was dodging bills and the club have hiked up their turnover to more than £30m but their most recent accounts revealed a loss of £8.9m and the drain on Cellino’s funds showed no sign of ending in the Championship.
His relatives were increasingly reluctant to see more cash burned on a project they regarded as thankless. His immediate family, his wife and three children, moved out of Leeds long ago as the weight of controversy and criticism grew.
There is no defining moment for Cellino, simply because of the nature of a timeline which began with ‘Mad Friday’ in January 2014: the night of Brian McDermott’s aborted sacking which led two club sponsors to withdraw their support.
McDermott, who Cellino at first attempted to replace with former Middlesbrough defender Gianluca Festa, would later become his first managerial casualty and the first of six on Cellino’s watch. It took Garry Monk to break the trend, helped by his own performance and Cellino’s decision to dilute his authority by engaging with Radrizzani.
Monk is Leeds’ longest-serving coach under Cellino. The six before him averaged 16 games in charge. David Hockaday, fresh from a mediocre stint at Forest Green Rovers, ranked as the most inexplicable appointment. Darko Milanic, a quiet and serious Slovenian who paid his way out a stable job at Sturm Graz to come to Elland Road, eclipsed Brian Clough by surviving for 32 days. Milanic’s tenure was so short that the first game attended by his family was also his last.
“He’s negative, he has a losing mentality,” Cellino insisted. That misjudgement came at the cost of paying up a two-year contract which earned Milanic £400,000 a year.
Cellino was prone to tying his own hands in that respect: fighting endlessly to cut costs and kill long-standing legal cases while incurring others of his own making.
Lucy Ward, the club’s former education officer, took Leeds and Cellino to court after her dismissal and won damages. Nigel Gibbs, McDermott’s assistant, did likewise.
Between Elland Road and Thorp Arch, the loss of staff after Cellino’s takeover was heavy and brutal and personalities came and went. Benito Carbone arrived with the remit of perking up the academy in April 2014 but left within three months after Cellino, who had been paying for Carbone’s accommodation, grew tired of him.
Festa sat through a 5-1 win over Huddersfield Town on the weekend of ‘Mad Friday’ and was never seen again. Even Nicola Salerno, a old ally of Cellino’s, left his position of sporting director within a year.
Salerno’s position was made untenable by the suggestion that he had been responsible for the sudden, unexplained sacking of Neil Redfearn’s number two, Steve Thompson, in April 2015.
Cellino was technically absent from Elland Road at that stage, the subject of a four-month Football League ban. It was one of two imposed on him by the governing body, only one of which he served. Latterly, he fell foul of the Football Association’s transfer regulations and still faces a 12-month suspension from the sport over an illegal payment made during the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham three years ago.
When charges of that nature came his way, he would claim to be innocent, ignorant of the rules or the victim of blatant victimisation. He resented the fact that various criminal cases involving him in Italy painted him as “a thief”.
It is true that the organisations who run the English game had no time for him. It is also true that Cellino had a habit of providing them with the ammunition needed to shoot him.
In certain periods, Cellino generated some sympathy in Leeds. The club were, as he put it, “in the s**t” when he bought out GFH amid no credible opposition from other would-be buyers.
His appearance in the away end at Brentford’s Griffin Park, the celebrity guests at Elland Road and his eccentric interviews marked him out as a character. P
hone calls from him came regularly after midnight and he was halfway down a bottle of Chivas Regal when we first spoke at Elland Road. Outspoken comments flowed with it. Most who were present needed a stiff drink when Cellino announced his return from suspension in May 2015 with a bewildering 70-minute press conference at Elland Road.
Pearson sat alongside him and looked shell-shocked and mildly embarrassed. Halfway through, Cellino excused himself for a cigarette break and left Pearson to fight fires.
What patience there was wore thin as the bizarre episodes became more repetitive and tiresome: the sackings, the turnover and questionable recruitment of players, the public battles with Sky TV and other organisations and certain decisions – pie tax and a short-lived restriction on United’s allocations of away tickets – which appeared to achieve nothing more than rile the club’s supporters.
The reaction to Cellino’s first and unsuccessful attempt to sack McDermott in 2014 should have telegraphed the protests which raged against him last season.
More often than not he cut a tired figure. His time and investment at Elland Road was often joyless. As Radrizzani stepped forward and Cellino stepped back, the appeal of a quiet exit seemed to increase and the club’s failure to magic what would have been an unforeseen promotion this season removed any doubt.
The last time I saw Cellino, a couple of months ago, he was chatting to Marco Silvestri at Thorp Arch and smoking by the ‘no smoking’ sign. He sounded relaxed and happy.
Monk he respected “because when he makes a mistake he never makes it again”. Cellino is prone to making comments like that shortly before culling his incumbent head coach but on that afternoon he spoke about Monk like a matter which was no longer his business or his concern.
Time to go.