Leeds United’s colourful owner Massimo Cellino talks to Phil Hay about his first 101 days in charge of the Elland Road club.
This is Leeds and in the words of Massimo Cellino, it’s his town now. Leeds United’s owner is buying a house in the north of the city and his wife intends to move in from Miami. His daughter has chosen to leave university in New York to continue her studies in the north of England.
“The town has a new sheriff,” Cellino says, and in the case of Leeds United he’s right. It is months and years since the city’s only professional football club was run with the authority the Italian exerts. Cellino’s way has shed tears and jobs, deconstructing the business he bought in April, but this way is his and his alone.
And so, 101 days on from his takeover, Cellino thinks he can see “light coming from the sky.” The relief is understandable. Of all the cost-cutting carried out through the summer, no saving mattered more than the deal reached in the past few weeks with Gulf Finance House, the Bahraini bank who sold Leeds to Cellino shortly before the end of last season.
On top of a purchase price of £11m, Cellino agreed to service a debt of £24m built up during GFH’s time as majority shareholder at Elland Road. Much of the money was owed to GFH itself or associates of the bank. Cellino took issue with that debt when the state of the club became clear and his message to the bank’s officials was simple – either compromise or prepare for a fight.
Under the terms of a new agreement between them, GFH is understood to be willing to wipe out half of the debt immediately and take repayment of the remaining money if and when Leeds are promoted to the Premier League. It effectively frees United and Cellino of scheduled lump sums originally due to be paid by December 2017, one as high as £6.5m. GFH remains as a minority shareholder with Cellino’s blessing, a potential point of conflict resolved for now.
“We’ve fixed the past with GFH,” Cellino says. “They understand now that their 25 per cent is worth something and they understand too that they have to do something here.
“I told them: ‘I don’t want to fight with you but are we partners or not?’ They’ve realised that we’re partners. I’ll take my money, they take theirs, we start again. I’m very happy.
“With GFH I was ready to fight them but they didn’t want to fight because they’re happy with my work. We found a way to get peace and we’ll work for Leeds. There’s no issue.”
They said at Cagliari, the Serie A club which Cellino owned for 22 years, that he always got his way in the end. Or more truthfully, he always followed his own mind. Leeds have seen the same attitude and the same single-mindedness.
Cellino was briefly rattled by the reaction to his attempt to sack former manager Brian McDermott in January – “supporters wanted to kick my arse but we were going down and I wanted to shake the place up” – but he has rarely allowed himself to be swayed since: dismissing staff, temporarily closing United’s training ground, appointing the little-known David Hockaday as head coach (an appointment made in the face of fierce scepticism) and looking to the continent for most of his signings.
In all it amounts to major procedural change at a club where Cellino felt change was essential. At the time of his buy-out, he says Leeds were costing £125,000 a day to run, of which £70,000 was essentially losses. A reduced wage bill and substantial cuts are starting to reign the expenditure in.
“This club is going to have more quiet time and less problems now,” Cellino says. “And the people who used to rip the club off, they’re going to stop. I’ll protect the club from everyone – including myself.
“For the first time in 12 years, this club wants to go to the Premier League but it doesn’t need to go to the Premier League. That’s my message. We might have to suffer a little bit but in my life I never saw anything good or important without hard work.
“We have to work hard and face pain to get to the Premier League but we don’t need to go there to pay wages or debts. We’re not plagued with that desperation. The debts are paid, or they’re going to be paid.”
Over the weeks, Cellino has counted his victories. In only one situation has he been forced to concede defeat – the sale of club captain Ross McCormack – and even then he succeeded in pulling in a huge sum from Fulham. Cellino says the fee for McCormack was £10.75m and will be put towards the repurchase of Elland Road, rather than new players for a Championship season which starts on August 9.
“We already had our budget for players,” he says. “We had a £15m budget to buy players and we’re doing that. The money from Ross is not for that. It’s for Elland Road. McCormack’s money, we mustn’t waste. If we buy a few players more because I suddenly feel rich then I can’t buy the stadium anymore. No – we buy the stadium. I’ll buy players anyway.”
Cellino maintains that McCormack was an asset he wanted to keep. At the very least, he wanted to avoid selling him to another Championship club – “15 goals a season to one of our competitors.”
“I’m still p***ed off about McCormack,” Cellino says. “If I was working just for Massimo Cellino, believe me, I would not have sold for one billion pounds.
“For a while I was keeping him for my satisfaction, to show him I was stronger than him. Then someone asked me ‘are you not selling him for the good of Leeds or just to show that you’re stronger than him?’ I had to do what was right for Leeds. So I told Fulham ‘okay, you say £10m, I say £11m.’ And we sold.”
The fee raised from McCormack’s departure, minus 15 per cent owed to Cardiff through a sell-on clause, equates to around two thirds of the cost of repurchasing Elland Road. The buy-back clause which Leeds hold over the stadium – and which increases annually – currently stands at £16m. Cellino says he will exercise the clause by November, via a mortgage if a bank will lend to him or in straight cash if not.
“If we have a mortgage, instead of paying £1.6m a year in rent we pay £600,000 on the mortgage,” he says. “But there is no bank in Leeds that will give us a mortgage. What’s the risk? If we’re paying £1.6m in rent, how can we not afford £600,000 a year?
“The money we have we might need to renovate the stadium, to make a new stand, to clean it up or do something else nice. But by November, we’ll buy the stadium. If we have to pay cash then we will. The money is there. And I won’t go to the city of Manchester for a mortgage. I won’t give them the money. I’d prefer to pay cash. Because I’m Leeds, Leeds, Leeds.”
His commitment to owning Elland Road is not shared with Thorp Arch, United’s training ground near Wetherby. Cellino says he has spoken to the local council in Leeds about two or three different pieces of land which could house a new complex in future.
He is rumoured to be looking at an area on Kirkstall Road, a stone’s throw from Elland Road. On one hand, he wants the players closer to home. On the other, he wants to free the club of the £600,000 rent United pay each year to use Thorp Arch. To sit with Cellino is to watch a man juggling countless balls. He has advisors around him – financier Andrew Umbers and Graham Bean, formerly of the FA but no chief executive or managing director. Besides core business matters, he is in the thick of United’s transfer dealings and keenly aware of Hockaday’s day-to-day work. He went to Italy last week to watch the second game of United’s pre-season tour – a game which was cancelled at short notice – and has sharp, personal views on each of head coach Hockaday’s first team players.
“I didn’t buy a big club here,” Cellino says. “I bought the biggest club in England. You understand? This club has been 12 years in the s**t but I have this chance to do something good. I’m going to die but I’m going to do something good as well. You know how many people have come here asking to buy this club in the last 40 days? Four. Big companies. I told them I wouldn’t sell for 100 billion. They said ‘for 1 billion, you will.’
“I tried to explain to them, what is going to change if I sell for one billion? I don’t have time to drink a glass of water so if I have one billion, so what? One kilo of caviar, 100 kilos of caviar...I’ll work for my soul and the satisfaction of bringing this club back. How much is that worth? There’s no price.”