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the square ball week: support your local sheriff

the square ball week: support your local sheriff

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Massimo Cellino doesn’t make things easy on himself. Or on us.

I’m not sure what I want more at this stage – to be able to ignore him, or to be able to understand him.

To be able to ignore him would be bliss: Alex Mowatt has scored three superb goals this week to wrest the limelight back from Cook and Tavares, but if he turned to receive the appreciation of the crowd this morning he would find us all transfixed in the long shadow of The Sheriff. That feels wrong.

But to ignore Cellino would be irresponsible. It’d be lovely to just concentrate on the football and not think or care about what goes on in the offices and meeting rooms out the back of the East Stand, but should you one day find, as fans of Austria Salzburg did, that you can no longer enter the stadium wearing traditional Leeds United colours to watch RB Leeds, you’ll wish you’d paid more attention.

You might also wish that Cellino had been easier to understand. One of the frustrations about our unelected president, our self-imposed sheriff, is that even when he dominates the media like he did this week, he doesn’t make anything any clearer.

As TBG2005 has pointed out on several occasions on Twitter, Cellino doesn’t just control the narrative at Leeds United, the way Bates attempted to with his outhouse radio station, the way GFH attempted to do with PR campaigns and dripfeeds to blogs and forums – he is the narrative. “Leeds United – you, me, it – is all about him whether you like it or not.”

That’s partly due to the media fascination with what is a fascinating character. While ignorance might be bliss where the minutae of Cellino’s life and movements is concerned, knowledge can be bliss too, and there is a richness to Massimo’s character and life story – both past and ongoing – that invites observation, investigation and analysis. What is more likely to sell papers: discussion of which of our defenders is the least incompetent, or the latest golden quotes laid by our madcap owner in his rented nest?

But it’s not the media’s fault that when Massimo calls, they clear the back pages and come eagerly. Even though Cellino is never far away when you want a quote – before the Cardiff game, when the Red Bull story was breaking, Cellino was readily available to chuck out a “Bullshit. It’s a complete lie,” when it was required, even if it wasn’t true – but he still feels the need every now and then to summon the press to Elland Road to tell them all how he feels. Like a sheriff, in July. Like a tired old fool, in November.

Tuesday was that day, and I’m not sure why it had to be that day. Perhaps the heat around the Red Bull and Elland Road buyback stories was getting too much, and he felt he had to put the record straight; but then, all he achieved with GFH in particular was a temperature increase. Perhaps he just wanted to have his say before heading to Miami on Sunday to “recharge his batteries” – again. For a man who made such a big deal about staff holidays he seems to – oh well, never mind.

If this really was clear the air, lay it straight down the line time, it didn’t exactly work out that way. The dull buzz you heard around Elland Road during the minutes when Mowatt wasn’t cracking hell out of the stanchions was the whirr of 18,600 people wondering what the hell all that was about from Massimo today, and why GFH were suddenly piping up about Ross McCormack and the stadium instead of their usual subject of David Haigh and jail.

It was also the sound of more people than usual receiving Massimo’s message and deciding that, in his words, it’s ‘Bullshit. A complete lie.’ The exceptionally charitable Simon Austin wrote in his blog post on the week’s events that, “Talking to Massimo Cellino over the course of 2014 has taught me that when he says ‘the deal is done’, he means ‘the deal is agreed’. Not that ‘the deal has been signed’, which is probably how you and I would interpret it” – something it would have been nice to have known back in July when Massimo told us he had “fixed the past with GFH” and that “by November, we’ll buy the stadium. If we have to pay cash then we will.”

Perhaps Cellino just took it as read that none of us would take him at his word, and is confused by just how miffed so many people are to find out that the past is certainly not fixed with a very snippy-sounding GFH and that we’re not going to be buying the stadium back this year, because reasons.

I’m not sure that, at this stage, “As soon as I can, I will do it. Let’s say we are not allowed yet with the previous dealings that have been done here. We have to work it out” is enough of an explanation, but that’s what he seemed to bring everyone to Elland Road to hear; as well as to put a new, somewhat less definite timescale on the project: “We can still buy it in six months’ time, one month’s time, three months’ time. It doesn’t change much.” Well, nobody’s going to hold him to that. Perhaps, while we’re beginning to understand how to interpret Cellino, Cellino is beginning to understand how to fob us off.

Unless the ‘one, three, six, don’t care who cares’ timeframe is actually the one truthful indicator of Massimo Cellino’s intentions. Pretty much everyone who spoke to him this week came away with the same impression: the bloke’s knackered. For once he seems to actually need that trip to Miami (and don’t buy a yacht this time, Massimo!). Although he’ll deny it, and although his mood and energy levels do seem to swing rapidly from one extreme to another, the new note being struck this week wasn’t only tiredness, but weariness – sickness with it all.

“For the last two months I’ve been trying to fix everything and I haven’t fixed it yet,” he told Phil Hay. “I can’t take any more of it. There’s no respect for me.”

This was even before he had to stand like a schoolboy in front of the Football League board and “appraise them of the current situation” at the club, presumably with as much enthusiasm as a teenager explaining why he hasn’t done his homework. If it isn’t somebody letting slip the info that disproves his ‘Red Bull who?’ claims, it’s a bunch of bureaucrats sticking their nose in to how the sheriff runs his town; or it’s GFH, publicly pointing out that it’s not actually his town at all, and that what they say goes.

But for it all to be getting too much for Massimo now seems strange. This is a guy who was in jail in Italy not so long ago, a guy who has been in bigger bother than this on plenty of occasions. He might have to face up to the Football League every now and then, and it might not be pleasant and he might resent it; but it’s only Preston, so he can still be in Fibre by midnight and Miami by Monday.

What’s the problem? GFH and the Football League are surely not the hardest things Cellino has ever had to deal with. Or is the problem more that it’s all relative? That he thought running Leeds would mean the easy life – play a few guitar solos, buy a few players, hire a few coaches, get promoted just like that?

Massimo talks a lot about love and about the heart, and about loving Leeds and it’s people and about not liking red – but it’s not us that he loves. It’s our love that he loves. He loves our love for our club and our city, and he thinks he can have some of that love for himself. “I won’t go to the city of Manchester for a mortgage,” he said back in July. “I won’t give them the money. I’d prefer to pay cash. Because I’m Leeds, Leeds, Leeds.” That’s not a confident statement of the We’re Leeds United, We Don’t Give a F–k variety. That’s a plea to join our gang.

But it’s not that easy to be Leeds. And perhaps that is what’s really bothering him.

“You can buy a bitch for one night, but you don’t buy the love, my friend,” is one of Massimo’s most famous sayings; but our love, to him, seems to be just as much a commodity as any bitch he’s bought before. Hot dog, anyone? It’s what GFH thought they were buying with their PR campaigns and selfish good works; they saw big attendances as a saleable item. A full Elland Road, and a full direct mailing database, was something else with which to woo potential suckers – sorry, investors.

When Cellino looks at us, I’m not sure he sees as many walking dollars as GFH did, but the end result is the same – the gallery is played to, even when he’s tired, even when he has nothing really to say other than bullshit and flannel about Red Bull and Elland Road. Sometimes he comes to us with machismo, and sometimes he comes seeking sympathy, but he always comes to us. Cellino needs us more than we need Cellino; it has always been the way with football club owners. What do they own without the fans?

The danger in the game Cellino is playing is that if he becomes over reliant on our sympathies he’ll find he has nothing left to lean on when those sympathies run out. He’s been through this Penelope Pitstop routine with us before, and his cries of “Hay-ulp, hay-ulp” are beginning to grate. The cries this week should have been “There’s only one Alex Mowatt,” but Massimo, somehow, still wails louder.

And we don’t know yet what he’ll do if his wails are ignored, which is the danger in the game for us. Part of Cellino’s reasoning for selling Cagliari seemed to be a lack of stomach for the fight, and a lack of love from the fans and the city; and now he has begun to make his big sad puppy-dog eyes in Yorkshire, the talks with the likes of Red Bull seem more significant, and more dangerous. The wrong owner can destroy a club. We know that. The problem is that outgoing owners tend not to care – and we know that too.

“You know how many people have come here asking to buy this club in the last 40 days?” asked Cellino back in July. "Four. Big companies. I told them I wouldn’t sell for 100 billion. They said ‘for 1 billion, you will.’

“I tried to explain to them, what is going to change if I sell for one billion? I don’t have time to drink a glass of water so if I have one billion, so what? One kilo of caviar, 100 kilos of caviar… I’ll work for my soul and the satisfaction of bringing this club back. How much is that worth? There’s no price.”

No price, no billion, no 100 billion; but what about a good night’s sleep? You can’t buy the love, my friend; but you can sell it. So I’m not sure what I want more at this stage – to be able to ignore Massimo Cellino, or to be able to understand him – and understand what he’s going to do next.

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