Massimo Cellino knew little of David Hockaday and Darko Milanic when he employed them. That can’t be said of his relationship with Neil Redfearn. Phil Hay reports.
Five hours in a hotel with David Hockaday. It sounds like a programme on Living TV. Those were the circumstances in which he and Massimo Cellino made their acquaintance and sized each other up.
Cellino was no more familiar with Darko Milanic until they met in Leeds one Sunday night. He knew Milanic’s record but not the man, which begs the question of how the Slovenian entered the running for the head coach’s job at Leeds United. “A mate of Nicola Salerno’s,” is how someone at Elland Road described him, and that description fits. It was United’s sporting director, rather than Cellino, who sat with Milanic at his first press conference.
Effusive though he was at the outset, Cellino lumped on men he had no relationship with. Their character he learned about on the job. Hockaday soon looked out of his depth and unsuited to the pressure. Milanic struck Cellino as a nervous coach who nullified teams instead of annihilating them.
It was not what he wanted and not what he paid for, even though the warnings were out there. Coaches don’t survive long under Cellino. That much is true. But the reason for the death-toll cannot be so simple as an in-built taste for sacking people. Where is the pleasure in going through the employment process ad nauseam and forking out compensation every time? Cellino must find it as tiresome and wasteful as the rest of us. Neil Redfearn might have come closer to the truth when he discussed Cellino on Thursday. “He knows what he wants,” Redfearn said. Which suggests that the trick is reading his mind.
There is undeniably a limited pool of coaches in this world who could work with Cellino. Even those who think they can don’t know how they’ll fare until the job is theirs. The long list of Cagliari bosses during Cellino’s time as president of the club tells a story of its own: a spate of former Cagliari players and countless other men who jumped into bed with Cellino for the first time.
The ex-pros he held in high esteem but the owner-player dynamic is nowhere near as intense or essential as the relationship between an owner and a coach. As a whole, many of Cellino’s choices were unprepared for the heat. “Cellino understands football,” Roberto Donadoni said after his dismissal in 2011, “but at times he can be extremely cruel.” Nobody thought to warn him.
So on a personal level, Neil Redfearn is different. Different to Hockaday and Milanic and different to so many of the names – high-profile or otherwise – who fell on Cellino’s sword in Italy. Between them, he and Cellino have been close enough to know what they are getting from this partnership. Redfearn has coached the first team to Cellino’s satisfaction and seems to have found the gumption to handle his boss. It could go wrong, they might fall out, but there should not be a situation in 32 days’ time where Cellino – or Redfearn for that matter – throws up his hands, looks to the sky and shouts ‘who the f*** is this guy?’
Redfearn has been in harm’s way since Cellino’s takeover in April. Make no mistake about that. He was asked by Cellino for guidance about the first-team squad in the summer (at a time when Brian McDermott was waiting for a settlement) and he’s worked as the manager of an academy which had its expenditure and productivity closely reviewed. Amid dismissals aplenty, never once was his job under threat.
Even on Wednesday, when he and Cellino were trying to thrash out a contract and confirm his appointment as head coach, Redfearn stood his ground and made explicit demands. Cellino has a preference for incentivised deals. Hockaday drew a modest salary but stood to earn around £500,000 if Leeds won promotion under him. There are players at Thorp Arch who command typical Championship wages but benefit from hefty goal bonuses. Cellino did not intend to hike up Redfearn’s pay but Redfearn wanted a contract which reflected his new position. And in the end, he got it.
In exchange for the money and the prestige of the post, Cellino is entitled to expect something in return. It is not solely a matter of results with him. He was complimentary about a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday last month but annoyed by the same result at Norwich, mainly because Leeds saw so little of the ball. A club like this needs standards, but standards pitched at the right level. You forget now that this season was never about promotion. Next season, Cellino promised. Yet the impulsive vibe at Elland Road makes it feel like now-or-never, which is not how even Cellino sees it. Perhaps he is wary of relegation, the one thing he cannot possibly countenance. Or perhaps he is just reactionary; a man who thinks like supporters do. Passion is easy to admire but the main players at Leeds need to occupy the middle ground. That’s where Redfearn is: a fan as a boy and head coach now.
As Andy Ritchie said yesterday, Redfearn’s success depends on more than talent. It’s reliant on trust – something Cellino and Donadoni lost – and primarily Cellino’s ability to trust in Redfearn’s integrity and intentions. To trust that coaches aren’t playing Stephen Warnock to spite him or holding back Adryan to make a mockery of his transfer policy. And to trust that everyone wants the same thing. Promotion, ultimately.
But here and now some calm, cohesion and progression would do.
All quiet on the Elland Road front as the deadline set by Massimo Cellino for buying Leeds United’s stadium draws near.
That deadline is his own, rather than a contractual stipulation.
United have the right to repurchase their rented ground for a set fee at any time before November 2029 so the buy-back provision is not at stake in the way that it was with Thorp Arch five years ago.
Cellino, nonetheless, wanted to exercise the clause this month, to free Leeds from the cost of leasing Elland Road and the increase in recent they face each year. The figures are always worth repeating: £1.6m for the lease, rising by three per cent every November.
As recently as the middle October, Cellino was insistent about the need to push the repurchase through before the rent climbs again. No-one has ever revealed precisely when the lease is due to go up but Elland Road was sold by Gerald Krasner’s (left) board on November 12, 2004. That date is 11 days away, falling in the next international break.
At the moment, very little is being said about the state of play. A source close to Cellino described the situation as “challenging” but intimated that Cellino still intended to pull the repurchase off. A meeting with Jacob Adler, the property developer who bought the stadium in 2004, was planned for this week with time ticking on.
Cellino claimed a few months ago that he had enough money to cover the £16m buy-back fee one way or another but his preferred method of repurchasing the ground was by marrying the fee raised from Ross McCormack’s (right) sale to Fulham (£10.75m minus 15 per cent paid to Cardiff City via a sell-on clause) with a bank loan – a mortgage – of around £7.5m.
As this column noted a few weeks ago, Leeds are a borrowing risk after many years of financial instability. People who work for Cellino say his ability to acquire a mortgage has been compromised further by suggestions that the Football League will attempt to ban him as owner of United on the basis of his recent tax conviction in Italy.
That situation, like the repurchase of Elland Road itself, is muted at present.
We await news.