They say that Massimo Cellino was everywhere at Millwall – on the touchline before kick-off, in the tunnel at half-time and back down there at the end of the game.
He is hopeless at sitting on his hands, which is pretty much what Leeds United did the last time their season began with such a dig in the ribs. Under-resourced and under-prepared: Millwall on Saturday was 2011 revisited.
If you were at Southampton on the first day of that feeble season, you’ll remember it being worse. Even Simon Grayson described a 3-1 defeat as shameful. The team was inadequate and the thinking confused – Darren O’Dea signed quickly from Celtic and played at left-back, Ross McCormack used alone and invisibly up front. The game ended with an impromptu protest against Ken Bates.
So what did the club do? Allowed the transfer window to close with barely another signing and sold Max Gradel on the day that it closed. O’Dea was one of five new players on top of Michael Brown, Andy Lonergan, Paul Rachubka and Andy Keogh. Chief executive Shaun Harvey said the window was “ugly” and waded into a damage-limitation exercise involving Mikael Forssell, Mika Vayrynen and Danny Pugh. All the kings horses and all the kings men.
Cellino won’t know that story and won’t have seen the bad blood it produced but it is true to say that Leeds’ post-Southampton were depressingly ordinary but not in jeopardy. They had Snodgrass, Becchio, Clayton and Howson for half the season. Relegation didn’t come into it.
What Cellino saw at Millwall was a shell of a team losing comprehensively to a Championship club who are not, for all Ian Holloway’s protestations, a big player in the division. This suddenly became a critical week for Leeds – the last week before the transfer window descended into the usual bunfight leading up to deadline day.
In Italy they see Cellino as an owner who refuses to suffer humiliation gladly and has a low pain threshold when it comes to humiliation itself. One Italian football writer said the reason Cellino ate through so many coaches at Cagliari was not because he enjoyed the role of executioner but because he struggled to tolerate anyone who was vaguely letting him down. Cagliari was his club and the success or failure of his club reflected on him before anyone. He had a profile to think about and a reputation, employed for a short time the vice president of the Italian Football League.
Most of the transfers to Elland Road this week have ticked along nicely, devoid of the politics which ruined others and dragged down talks with Kieran Agard yesterday, but that is not to say Leeds planned to act so urgently before Millwall gave them a shock and a shake.
Cellino was selling Leeds short with the squad as it was and the performance at The Den convinced him of that. It is a sharp change of philosophy for United to spot those deficiencies and act on them. In previous transfer windows, the club were prone to dressing their squad in the emperor’s new clothes; refusing to see how little was there despite the evidence around them.
Business has been hasty, as business in August usually is, and Leeds have taken gambles alongside safer buys like Billy Sharp.
Liam Cooper at £600,000 is a big leap and the club’s failed bid for Agard – more expensive again – was an offer for a goalscorer who has never seen the Championship before. But they are young, on a recent upward curve and within a certain budget. They are signings a club can only gamble on if they are willing to pay for them first. Agard was judged fairly or unfairly as a risk too far.
The telling aspect of the deals with Sharp, Cooper and Giuseppe Bellusci was that they all required a degree of backtracking or re-analysis. Bellusci’s opportunity to come to Leeds blew up last month after a disagreement over wages. Cellino called him “spoiled” and told him to stay in Italy. Sharp was seen as too old by the Italian – a debatable opinion at 28 – and Cooper was considered too expensive at anything over half-a-million pounds. This time last week there were other avenues to explore. You could call the about-turns weakness or panic on Cellino’s part. You could equally call them pragmatic. Leeds decided to bid again for Cooper within hours of talks with Frederik Sorensen collapsing.
Bellusci was on a plane from Rome by noon on Tuesday and signed that night. Pride swallowed, deals done and the squad reinforced for a head coach in David Hockaday who is now engaged in a fairer test of his talent. In refusing to cover any cracks, Millwall was a tipping point – and very much the right result.