Phil Hay: Cellino is at Leeds United for the long haul

Massimo Cellino
Massimo Cellino
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All the work being done at Elland Road by the whites’ Italian owner suggests he will be staying at the club for the foreseeable future.

David Hockaday calls it mischief-making but with Leeds United the mischief is there to be made.

The media don’t have to work for most of it. Massimo Cellino once claimed that journalists “write a lot of s**t about me” before quietly admitting in his next breath that “quite a lot of it is true.”

After 10 minutes of last weekend’s friendly against Dundee United, it occurred to Cellino that nobody had remembered to organise any ball-boys.

Later on he was heard recounting a story about how he’d found his office at Elland Road locked and been forced to climb in through the window.

You’d make these stories up if you had to but this is Leeds as we’re coming to know it.

The summer offers enough time to dwell on redundancies, in-fighting, idiosyncrasies and the rest but in the end, a club’s reputation among the people closest to it comes back to the same thing: the football.

Get the football right and there is nothing that can’t be forgiven, or virtually nothing. The game is Cellino’s ticket at Elland Road; his way of showing that the politics around him is not where the real story lies.

And so to the football. Leeds start the new season with seven new signings – sadly not eight after the collapse of Frederik Sorensen’s loan from Juventus – and will make a couple more before the month ends.

Parts of the squad are loaded and other areas seem light: not enough centre-backs and too few goals, unless someone discovers hidden goalscoring ability (which, in fairness, someone at Leeds usually does).

But the extent to which United thrive on this window of recruitment is not so much about names or numbers. It’s dependent on what Cellino is trying to do.

Call this summer chaotic but the club’s policy in the transfer market has been deliberate and very obvious.

Take Stuart Taylor out of the equation – a veteran goalkeeper who is here for 12 months as cover for Marco Silvestri – and the average age of their signings is 22.

Two of them hold four-year contracts and most of the others are season-long loanees with the option to buy in a year’s time. Gaetano Berardi, on a two-year deal, is the only player who Leeds have met in a halfway house.

The right to take Zan Benedicic and Souleymane Doukara permanently next summer is in United’s favour - as it would have been with Sorensen - but not binding.

Leeds can (and probably will) back out if Benedicic or Doukara look out of their depth but Cellino spent much time negotiating redemption clauses so his intention is clear enough. On the basis that he wants them beyond the end of this season, it might be that the mixture of loans and permanent transfers is his way of spreading the cost. It’s often the Italian way.

Other players who travelled far down the line with Leeds but failed to sign – Federico Viviani, Giuseppe Bellusci – were of an identical ilk: early 20s and a long way below their peak.

Put the pieces together and little of what we’ve seeing in the transfer market is being done for this season. In context, it’s an attempt at empire-building: a plan of attack which Cellino thinks will gradually create a hard core of able players, something United have not had since 2011.

There is resistance on Cellino’s part to potential signings who in his mind have gone beyond the point of improvement or appreciation in value.

A few weeks ago Leeds were rumoured to be chasing Robert Acquafresca, a former Inter Milan striker. He turns 27 next month and has been around the block, loaned out by Italian clubs again and again.

Cellino dismissed the reports and called Acquafresca an “ex-footballer”. Hockaday, meanwhile, likes Billy Sharp – the new Alan Smith, fated to be linked to United each and every transfer window – but Sharp is 28 and Cellino wants a younger forward.

Even presented with an obvious target like that, the Italian’s policy is fairly rigid.

The concept of Cellino picking players takes some getting used to.

Much as English football has seen a global and continental invasion, it has never adjusted to the idea of boardroom influence on the playing side of things.

Transfers have always been the manager’s domain, even if fees and contracts were not. Coaches accept a difficult arrangement in Italy but in England, Cellino’s way is unnatural.

There is, all the same, something to be said for the signings at Leeds being Cellino’s players.

He is in the process of moving his family to the city and is clearly bedding in for years at Elland Road. His turnover of coaches is legendary and he cannot marry a tendency to sack at will with a transfer policy in which his coach dictates everything.

Even before Cellino got involved, United had a problem. Many of Simon Grayson’s players weren’t wanted by Neil Warnock and many of Warnock’s players weren’t wanted by Brian McDermott.

Leeds were churning through a manager a year and becoming a rest-home for the terminally unappreciated.

Strange as it sounds, Cellino’s opinion of the squad at Elland Road matters far more than Hockaday’s because Hockaday’s lifespan as head coach will be infinitely shorter than Cellino’s reign as owner. As and when change comes, faces should still fit.

Cellino’s approach is reliant on a couple of things: that the players he rates are actually good enough for the Championship and that enough pieces from the transfer market fall into place.

Few of us have seen the Danish defender Sorensen play but I’ve read enough about him and spoken to enough Italian journalists to think that he’s a centre-back with pedigree, experience and a game that can improve.

In the midst of this project, it was a signing that needed to happen.

Viviani would have been welcome too. He had the makings of a cute investment, a round peg in a vacant round hole.

You win some and lose some, which is how the new season is likely to go for Leeds, and promotion won’t come this year. Deep down we all know that.

But look through the mischief and there is more to United’s squad than fly-by-night transfers.

The deals done today are being done for tomorrow and if it works for Cellino, it won’t be by chance.

FINE FINISH: Kalvin Phillips fires home Leeds United's second goal during Saturday's 3-2 win against Ipswich Town. Picture by Simon Hulme.

Phil Hay’s Verdict: Leeds United and Christiansen relishing pressure in pole position