With Massimo Cellino, there has always been a third way. It does not have to be a straight choice between him ploughing on blindly at Leeds United or selling his shares in the blink of an eye.
In the middle there must be some room for compromise; for Cellino to bring about a truce of sorts by swallowing some of the objection towards him. Goodwill usually breeds goodwill, as parts of last summer proved. It was proven again more recently by season-ticket prices which touched on two areas of legitimate complaint: the club’s sub-standard performances in the Championship and the lack of a proactive strategy to engage United’s youngest fans.
The structure for next season identified those shortcomings and was understandably well received.
Tolerance of Cellino’s methods and personality has worn thin in certain circles, and this newspaper has made its view on much of his management clear, but the end of the season brings us to an undeniable conclusion: that Cellino, or his UK company Eleonora Sport Ltd, will have the summer ahead. Unless he has an advanced sale up his sleeve, the transfer window will be upon us before any takeover is. And a takeover won’t enter his mind until the disciplinary arms of the Football Association and the Football League do their work, if indeed they ever will.
Last Tuesday marked six months since Cellino’s 223-day ban as a director of Leeds was formally announced by the Football League. Or 189 days, to calculate it another way. His suspension is still pending, caught in a system of arbitration which the Football Association won’t comment on and an appeal which the Football League cannot give a timescale for. English football likes to pretend that it is strict and particular about who can run its clubs but Cellino is running rings around the Owners and Directors Test in a way that no-one else has ever done. However this ends for him, the test is left looking unfit for purpose by virtue of the League’s struggle to impose it.
It is risky, then, to assume that this blacked-out pursuit of Cellino will provide Leeds with a silver bullet. So far, each step through the rules of the governing bodies has offered less clarity than the last. And it is naive to think that the success of next season is down to anyone other than him. Even if the League enforces a ban, Cellino has the freedom to depart temporarily as he did last year. Should he choose to sell up, a sensible buyer would need time to join the dots. In the short window when supporters group Leeds Fans United looked at a full takeover, the group estimated that full and responsible due diligence would take three months.
So, in fairness to Cellino, this is his time. And the beauty of the summer is that you can rate a club and it’s owner on actions, rather than promises or assumptions. They said – we said – this time last season that Cellino would never get it together but helped by the presence of an experienced chief executive, a blueprint fell into place by August. It fell apart before long and this season was lost, underlining the fact that sustainability is one of Cellino’s biggest weaknesses. People who work for him say the Italian is at his most volatile when the emotion of football comes into play. But there were times last summer when so much more seemed possible.
This year it must start with a qualified head of recruitment and a quick decision on the position of head coach. Cellino might not think he owes Steve Evans a contract but he certainly owes him an answer and a word of appreciation for his performance. Evans has been trapped for too long in that grey area where neither he nor his players know how much longer he has left. It does not do anything for his confidence or his authority.
United’s boss protected Giuseppe Bellusci last weekend by saying the defender’s omission from the squad at Hull City was a tactical decision but three people who were at Thorp Arch on Friday have told the YEP separately that Bellusci was left out for disciplinary reasons.
The defender is understood to have walked off the training pitch after learning that he was not included in Evans’ starting line-up for Hull. United’s staff assumed at first that he was carrying an injury and had gone to seek treatment but were instead met with complaints from the centre-back about his non-selection. He was told later that he would not be making the trip to Hull, though it is likely that Bellusci will make the 18 at home to Charlton Athletic on Saturday.
The irony of that fall-out is that the squad at Leeds seem to be in a good place, both mentally and in terms of results. They are playing as well as they have all season and showing no sign of downing tools for the summer. There is an argument to say that in comparison Evans’ strongest 18-man squad is better and more suited to the Championship than that which finished last season. A look back to the bench on the last day of 2015-16 finds names like Brian Montenegro, Gboly Ariyibi and Aidan White. The starting line-up contained six recognised defenders: Sam Byram, Sol Bamba, Gaetano Berardi, Charlie Taylor, Scott Wootton and Liam Cooper. Some surprise that a 0-0 draw with Rotherham United ensued.
A good close-season would make something of the existing group of players. A club with anything about them would know where Leeds are well served and where the team needs invasive work. And a sensible club would be ready to get going with it all when the curtain comes down next Saturday. Cellino is constantly judged on his actions and deservedly so. He’s an example of why football club owners should be held to account. But by the same standards it would be remiss to second-guess this summer before he has started playing his hand.