Leeds United: Cellino is due credit for taking back seat

Massimo Cellino.
Massimo Cellino.
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Joined up thinking has been key to uwe rosler’s pre-season and will be key come the campaign. Phil Hay reports.

At the end of a neat and tidy close season they will ask where Massimo Cellino’s critics have gone. What happened to the people who spent last year questioning whether Leeds United’s owner could ever hold it together?

The truth is that they are still out there and present in numbers but only the churlish would deny Cellino credit where credit is due. In and amongst a few awkward moments, the sea-change at Elland Road this summer has been the equivalent of someone flicking a switch. Cellino seems calmer and so do the club. The new season starts with the sense that Leeds saw it coming.

The past three months have been everything that the close season of 2014 was not and an answer to much of what incited criticism of Cellino: the appointment of a credible head coach with a backroom team extending beyond an assistant from Hendon; logical recruitment in specific areas of the squad, not least the signing of a genuine winger; and the employment of a de facto chief executive who knows the club, knows the workings of English football and knows how to do his job without having to learn on it. Even the new kit is popular.

Cellino has long required boardroom support but the Italian could not bring himself to yield authority last season, or not until the Football League ordered him to take a sabbatical. “I don’t need a chief executive,” he used to say. “I’m the chief executive here.” Yet last month, at the launch of the club’s home kit, he admitted that the delegation of duties to Pearson, the former owner of Hull City, had done him good. He looked relaxed and said he was “happy”. This from a man who never says that.

Leeds have still endured the odd Cellino saga, as if to remind the world that he has a certain style about him. His Apocalypse Now press conference in May – marking the end of his ownership ban – left some of those closest to him shaking their heads and questioning their own sanity in working for him. The demise of Neil Redfearn was ugly and poisonous and is likely to cost the club money. Legal cases at Elland Road are still stacked to the ceiling but crises appear more isolated and Cellino no longer talks of a club who were “in the s**t” – his own words – ad nauseam last season.

Attention, too, is less fixated on him. Incessant rumours of takeovers and investment have died down and even his recent conviction for tax evasion in Italy looks less problematic than his last. The Football League is yet to receive the paperwork from his case in Cagliari but the general view is that the penalty imposed on him for failing to pay tax on an imported Range Rover might not be severe enough to merit another disqualification. Other cases await him, naturally, but United’s owner is barely the image of a man besieged. His confidence shows in a more purposeful club.

The choice of Uwe Rosler as United’s head coach also helped to create that impression. The German is neither the illogical punt that Dave Hockaday was nor the stab in the dark that Darko Milanic became. Redfearn had widespread support as head coach, including from this newspaper, but by the time Cellino took the job from him the bad blood between them and the factions in United’s dressing room made a change inevitable. Redfearn could see the writing on the wall from the start of April onwards.

Sol Bamba talks in today’s YEP about Rosler installing “new rules” at Thorp Arch, conceding that stricter discipline is needed. The defender speaks as someone who backed Redfearn quite openly last season. Rosler has the reputation of a disciplinarian but it might be fairer to say that the German is a coach who likes to keep control. He and his coaching staff of Rob Kelly, Julian Darby and Richard Hartis are a close, insular and meticulous group. Rosler’s organisation was seen in a pre-season programme which held together even after Athletic Bilbao pulled out of a friendly in Austria at short notice.

Pre-season 12 months ago was an unmitigated shambles. During a week in Italy, United were unable to muster anything more meaningful than a meeting with a village team and a friendly against a Romanian club who failed to turn up. Between that and pictures of players sitting in a gushing river – a substitute for ice baths – Hockaday’s reputation had no chance. Rosler was so on top of his summer that after two days of testing players at Thorp Arch he rewrote his schedule and factored in additional conditioning sessions. “It had to be done,” the 46-year-old said, “but it wasn’t a problem.” Cellino has not been a problem either.

It tempts you to think that this season could be different; that Rosler could reach the end of it without falling foul of rash decisions from above and that Leeds will be prepared for a division which found them out during the first half of last season. There is no effort on the part of anyone at United to pretend that their squad has been spectacularly upgraded or injected with the sort of money that Middlesbrough are trying to spend but with a winger in the building at last, Rosler sounds satisfied. The absence of width and a lack of depth in wide areas – cover for Sam Byram, for example – was precisely where his resources fell short.

Rosler, at the same time, found a goalscorer in Chris Wood and a focal point for his preferred formation. That transfer depended entirely on Cellino pushing the button at short notice. He has a youthful group of players who he can mould in his image and signings who have seen the Championship before. Little by little, the average age of the squad is falling. His approach worked at Brentford – a missed penalty short of promotion in 2013 – but it went wrong for him in the end at Wigan. Rosler seems reluctant to explain that failure but there is a clear distinction to be drawn between the clubs. Brentford under owner Matthew Benham have a plan and are financing it consistently. Wigan last season fell apart completely. It stands to reason that Wigan’s collapse was the result of more than Rosler’s input alone.

At Leeds, then, his success might hinge on those old, fundamental requirements: stable management, joined-up thinking and a refusal by Cellino to tear it all up on a whim. Promotion is not really up for discussion at Elland Road but there is a commitment to keeping United much closer to the high end of the Championship. Rosler says top 10 is feasible and Cellino would probably settle for that. As progress goes, a full season in that section of the table would be the sort of step forward that normal clubs try to take. And through hell, high water and the arrival of Rosler’s heavy metal, Leeds have found themselves acting like a normal club.