In the first of a two-part exclusive interview with Phil Hay, United’s new owner Massimo Cellino talks frankly about the club.
Massimo Cellino’s first day at the office involved a lunchtime pint at The Old Peacock, the pub on Elland Road which became an emblem of conflict between a previous owner of Leeds United and supporters of the club.
Ken Bates never drank there and for all the money it spent on PR, Gulf Finance House failed to spot the photo opportunity. Cellino’s publicity is neither planned nor contrived; if you phone him he’ll speak. If he wants a beer he’ll cross the street. By closing time on Wednesday he had been pictured all over town, smiling and happy.
The Italian is a rich man, albeit with unquantified wealth. His fortune is reported to be in the hundreds of millions – higher if you calculate in euros – but no-one is really sure. Cellino says he has no time to count money but presumably he had enough to buy regulars in The Old Peacock a drink? “I buy the club,” he says.
Cellino calls himself “a player, a man who likes to play” but Leeds United are a world of work. When we met to speak on Wednesday, Daniel Arty – a director of Eleonora Sport and a member of Cellino’s inner circle – was busy alongside him, settling a tax bill of over £500,000. Next on the list was payment of wages owed to the playing staff for the past two weeks. “It’ll all get paid,” Arty says. “We just have to check what it is we’re being asked to pay.”
Life is like that at Elland Road: financial claims in every delivery of post. For Cellino, the situation is alien. He has an old conviction for false accounting and a more recent conviction for tax evasion but Cagliari, the Italian team he bought in 1992, are tightly run. Whatever people think of him, his businesses do not go bust.
“I pay what I have to pay,” Cellino says. “The difference between Leeds and Cagliari is that at Cagliari we pay the wages and we pay everyone. At Leeds they pretend. They pretend to pay people. And now there’s a pile of s**t.
“I’m not a man who earns money at night and spends it in the morning. I respect money, and not just mine. People try to say I’m a thief but I tell you I’m not. I never will be. Not because I can’t steal but because I choose not to. I pay what I owe.”
Cellino’s reputation and record was the reason why his takeover of Leeds took two-and-a-half months to complete. He agreed to buy a 75 per cent stake from Gulf Finance House on January 31 but did not do so officially until Monday night. Even yesterday, the Football League’s board devoted time to discussing whether his successful appeal against an attempt to disqualify him from buying United should go unanswered. The board eventually cleared Cellino to become a director at Elland Road but the tax conviction which almost snookered him lingers in the background still.
The 57-year-old hopes the League will leave him be. He does not fear another courtroom exchange. “That’s not a problem for me or Leeds,” he says. “Ask the League, I cannot answer that. But believe me I don’t care. I’m here.
“The League were really tricky, they made trouble at a time when I couldn’t walk away and I submitted myself to a trial, a humiliation – public humiliation. I don’t want to be here if the Football League don’t want me but who are they anyway?
“They are acting for what’s right, the principles, the ideals. Me, I sort out the f****** problems at Leeds. I prefer to play by the rules, not to cheat.”
Cellino says he was told two months ago, by United director David Haigh, Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey and others, that his takeover would proceed easily. “They didn’t tell me there was a problem,” he says. “If they’d told me that at the very beginning, I wouldn’t buy the club.
“Would I would have got involved with GFH, paid them money, lent money to the club? No. I’m not a stupid man. It’s not just my personal money, it’s money of my family, other people. I bought a house in Leeds and then suddenly they say ‘sorry, we don’t want you.’
“This wasn’t my club. If I’m not welcome, I’m not welcome. I go away and you never see me again. The Football League, I think, didn’t want to see me again.
“And for two-and-a-half months, the club hurt a lot. We lost a lot of games and a lot of money. We spend money with lawyers when we are not in a position to throw it from the window. But I’m not angry. I can’t waste one gram of energy on hating people. I need positive energy here.”
His energy is frightening. In print, Cellino’s words don’t convey his vigour or the speed at which he winds himself up. He hammers the table when he speaks and jumps off his chair at particularly animated moments. Five minutes of the interview were spent pacing around in the open air as Cellino smoked a cigarette and looked out over the pitch from Elland Road’s East Stand.
“I have a stadium,” he shouts. “Never in my life have I had this. Twenty three years at Cagliari and the stadium is falling apart. They won’t let me build a new one. Now I have a stadium with supporters. What more do you want? The rest we can fix. We’ll fix the rest.”
Cellino knows he has the public vote, or a large proportion of it. How much of that is down to GFH’s woeful, absent management of Leeds is a matter of debate but Cellino feels wanted. It has been some journey since a group of fans chased his taxi around Elland Road on the evening in January when he stoked their ire by attempting to sack manager Brian McDermott.
“I don’t care about that,” he says. “I can feel it, they believe in me.
“They give me trust like I’ve never had in my life. The supporters here are loveable, passionate. They will enjoy this, I promise.”
Four years ago Cellino tried to buy West Ham United but was beaten to the punch by the two Davids, Sullivan and Gold. “I was used,” he said. “Back then they used me to show the real buyer that someone else wanted to buy the club.
“At Leeds, no-one is buying this club. They say that people want to buy it but I don’t see them. Problems? You ask me too much. Ask me again in a couple of weeks and I will know for sure. There are big problems to solve.
“The people who were engaged here before me were spending money on this, this and this. They shouldn’t have done that. It’s all wrong. You can see what’s been happening here – it’s been done by people who knew they weren’t staying. And now I have to clean up the s**t.”
For many months, GFH acted in the manner of a departing owner with no desire to spend any more money at Elland Road. The non-payment of a tax bill at the end of March led to a winding-up petition from HMRC, the second Leeds have faced this year. But GFH is not pulling out completely. It retains a 10 per cent stake in Leeds and minority shareholders will hold a total of 25 per cent.
“I have 75 per cent, my company has 75 per cent,” Cellino says. “We control everything. GFH is a partner but tomorrow I want to know ‘are you partners or just shareholders?’ Because there’s a difference. GFH, they made mistakes but everything can be solved, just as sickness can be solved. GFH made big mistakes but not on purpose. That’s why I don’t go against them for the moment. But the men who were here in GFH’s name did a really, really bad job. That’s not GFH fault. They trust people they shouldn’t.”
Haigh was here in GFH’s name and was employed by the Bahraini bank until last month. United’s managing director was supposed to become chief executive under Cellino but Cellino vowed to fire him last weekend and Haigh has no easy way back. Rumours suggest that his security pass for Elland Road was taken from him this week.
“He’s not my problem,” Cellino says. “He’s a problem for GFH. He was their employee, he works for them. I came here with the members of my company, employees and people, and I control them. I don’t control David Haigh.”
But does GFH have any power to oppose his decisions, as it seemed to do when Cellino tried and failed to sack McDermott? “Twenty-three years at Cagliari and I never ask people what to do,” he says. “People never tell me what to do.
“At Leeds, don’t tell me what to do. If you don’t like it you can go. People can leave. Nobody gives you responsibility, my friend. You take it by yourself.”
His attention divided, Cellino intends to sell Cagliari and has been trying to do so for months. One agreed sale, he says, fell through because the prospective buyers wanted him to stay and run the Serie A club. Sections of Cagliari’s support are demoralised and graffiti splashed on the side of the club’s decaying ground this week called for him to go.
“I could run 25 clubs,” Cellino says, “but in what way? For the kind of working man I am, I cannot run two clubs. That’s true.
“But at this moment, Cagliari is much better organised than Leeds. It’s got a positive income, it doesn’t have one penny of debt, it’s got money in the bank and it pays everything. It’s got the right number of employees who do the right job. It can stay with Massimo Cellino part time.”
I ask him about Elland Road and the prospect of repurchasing United’s stadium from its private owners, thereby ridding Leeds of punishing annual rent. “That’s the first expensive investment we have to make,” he says. “Principle one.” When will it happen? “In 2014,” he replies. “It has to be done.”
Promotion from the Championship is a longer goal. Cellino says that in two seasons’ time, he expects to be in charge of a Premier League club. “Leeds are not ready for a lot reasons,” he says. “There’s no structure, it’s just expensive and we’re wasting money on rubbish. Next season, I think not. But in 2015-16, if we don’t go into the Premier League then I’ve failed. You can tell me I’ve failed.
“The fans of Leeds, they’re tired of eating s**t and shutting their mouths. They accept me with enthusiasm and that gives me a lot of responsibility. I’m the richest man in the world with these fans and I can challenge anyone, everyone.” He’s already begun.