MASSIMO CELLINO chose to put himself squarely in the spotlight and outline his plans for the future at Leeds United at a specially arranged press conference on Thursday afternoon. Phil Hay was there to watch it all unfold ...
IT WAS all going wrong long before Massimo Cellino nipped out for a smoke, leaving a startled Adam Pearson - three days as a director of Leeds United and counting - to take the wheel at a car crash of a press conference.
Cellino reappeared a few minutes later - “a beautiful cigarette,” he quipped - and reminded the assembled journalists that Pearson could not be expected to deal with questions about intimate matters at Elland Road. “He’s just arrived,” Cellino said. Ironically enough, Pearson had as many answers as him.
He might regret it with hindsight but United’s eccentric owner did not call yesterday’s media gathering under duress. He told staff at Elland Road to begin preparing for it last Friday and he wanted to speak. Fresh from a Football League disqualification, it was his way of putting himself front and centre and - in theory - his chance to address the many, many loose ends at Leeds.
“Before now I didn’t have time to talk,” he said. “But I’m here if you’ve got questions.” Questions there were, though Cellino’s meandering monologues did not offer much scope to pose them. Forty minutes in, the Italian wandered out with cigarettes in hand. Half-an-hour later, as a messy briefing neared its end, he summed up his mood by aiming a light-hearted kick at a reporter on the front row.
Exchanges with Cellino are always gruelling. The unveiling of David Hockaday as head coach last summer went on for almost an hour, a small portion of it devoted to Hockaday and a single question aimed at his assistant, Junior Lewis, but Cellino’s attendance yesterday exposed him to the dissent which grew around the club during his three-month ban.
There was no soft loosener. Straight off, Cellino was asked whether Neil Redfearn would be his head coach next season. “Do you have reserve questions?” Cellino replied, politely suggesting that he would rather ease himself in before dealing with the explosives.
He welcomed Pearson and set out by employing the sleeping-giant analogy, saying Leeds were “awake but not fit” after the mayhem of his first year as owner. He wasted no time in promising to sell the club if it was not “fixed” and back in the Premier League by 2017. It sounded familiar. Twelve months ago that target was 2016. “In 2015-16 if we don’t go into the Premier League then I’ve failed,” he said a few days after his takeover. Not any more.
In the meantime, Cellino said, he wanted no reports or rumours about third parties bidding to buy United or him trying to sell. “This club is not for sale. It’s never been for sale.” Fair enough. As for the Football League, future bans from future court cases were a hypothetical subject. “If I work and think that everything can happen tomorrow, I don’t work any more.” Italy’s justice system took its usual hammering.
But all of that mattered less than the here and now. The conversation turned again and again to Redfearn as Cellino was asked to explain why his head coach was out on a limb, with a contract which expires next month and broken lines of communication to Elland Road.
Pearson for his part admitted that he had not spoken to Redfearn. That figured. The 50-year-old only joined the board at Elland Road on Monday and, for all his experience and nous, he was horribly exposed when Cellino briefly abandoned him and asked him to hold court.
Pearson conceded that he was not aware of contact between Cellino and Redfearn either. “He (Cellino) is only just back in the country,” Pearson said. He was promptly reminded that Cellino had completed his Football League ban almost two weeks ago. “I just ask that perhaps he needs a little bit more time,” Pearson said. “It will be sorted out.”
In the circumstances, Cellino would have been nowhere without his new director’s common sense and safe bat. Pearson’s instinct kicked in as he rationalised the situation and chose not to bluff about issues he couldn’t comment on.
“Everyone does things in a different style,” Pearson said. “The owner has his way of doing things. I’m sure he’ll communicate with (Redfearn) when he says fit.
“Do you want the club to continue making knee-jerk reactions or do you want it to go through a process? The owner’s invested a lot of money and he has the right to make these decisions in an orderly manner.” In the background, Cellino hummed a tune to himself.
The Italian’s appraisal of Redfearn started with criticism of his head coach for failing to attend a champagne reception arranged by club staff after the end of his ban. He said somewhat cryptically that the 49-year-old had “a lot of agents”; the implication being that many people were fighting Redfearn’s corner in the hope that his deal might be extended. “He has a lot of support,” Cellino was told. “I have to fight with my emotion,” he responded. “Everything I do must be for the best interests of the club.”
At first he agreed that a rapid decision on Redfearn’s future was needed - “I cannot wait because we are late, already late. I admit that” - but finished off by saying: “I have 175 employees here to look after, three kids, my wife who I don’t see. It’s not so urgent to call someone to say what I don’t know what to say.”
On the subject of Steve Thompson, Redfearn’s suspended assistant, Cellino was nonplussed and did not shed any light. “I like Thompson as a man and when I finished my disqualification I called him and told him ‘I don’t know what’s happened. From my point of view, I’m sorry because I like you as a man.’”
Nicola Salerno, the club’s sporting director, was essentially informed that he was about to be replaced. Salerno has been absent from Leeds ever since he took responsibility for removing Thompson last month.
“Here we need a head of recruitment who comes from England, knows the players, everything,” Cellino said. “He can advise us. Salerno unfortunately is Italian.” Cellino added unexpectedly that the club had too many foreign players. He admitted to being “desperate” last summer, knowing that United would be condemned to a Financial Fair Play transfer embargo in January.
On transfers in general, Cellino was unequivocal. He’d continue to dictate them because any misjudgements would be his own, rather than those of a coach who was later sacked and paid off.
“If the coach makes mistakes, he walks away or we make him walk away and the mistake is with the club,” Cellino said.
“I am the club, they are the coach. I like this player. ‘You like coach?’ Great. ‘How much is he?’ Then we try to buy Forrest Gump. We make a mistake with a player, we are all responsible. If you let the manager or the coach take the players, that’s a waste in my experience.”
The caveat at this stage was Cellino’s comment that some of what Leeds recruited this season - 18 players in all at a cost of £9.2m, according to him - was “garbage”; in part because of Redfearn’s reluctance to use several of them. Brian Montenegro was name-checked.
A lone voice pointed out that Cellino had been responsible for signing many of those players but he was defiant. “Nine million two hundred thousand (pounds) went all on garbage because they were players we were not using,” Cellino said. “Next season we do not waste money.” He seemed to indicate that the £10.75m raised by selling Ross McCormack to Fulham last July had been duly swallowed up.
Other figures arose as the conference wore on. Cellino said he was facing an unforeseen bill of £5m from a legal case left behind by a previous regime. He said something about raising more money to pay different costs before May 20. Pearson, who talked about “calming the waters”, said he was due to meet club director and former chairman Andrew Umbers for the first time at 3pm. Three o’clock came and went. The event began at two.
Twice Cellino was interrupted by his phone. “I don’t know how to work this bloody s***t,” he complained. Hassle came from elsewhere shortly after as a fan slipped unnoticed into the room and began arguing with Cellino about the merits of Luciano Becchio - a January target of Redfearn’s - over Edgar Cani, the Albanian who United signed from Catania instead. Cellino mentioned Peter Lorimer and Eddie Gray. “They’d have been better than Cani,” someone said.
It was lawless by then and unenlightening, except in revealing that three months in Miami had not changed Cellino. People - the supporters - are angry, he was told. “The fans can tell me I’m a dick,” he replied. “I work for my club, I look after my club. The fans, they don’t understand. They will understand.”
Banging his chest with one hand, he said supporting the club was not just about the Leeds salute or renditions of ‘Marching on Together’. He wondered if frustration about him was as bad as it seemed, even though his wife and daughter have moved from Leeds to London after taking abuse in the street.
“When you talk about fans, you talk about a couple of million people,” he said. “Just be worried about 200 fans who have been informed in the wrong way. Maybe they are too close to someone they shouldn’t be.”
Like Redfearn? But with that riddle, the show was over. As if he’d never been away.