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the square ball week: set the controls for the heart of leeds united

the square ball week: set the controls for the heart of leeds united

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This week, same as always, the biggest questions at Elland Road are about control.

On the pitch last weekend it was Fulham who took control, steering the game away from our inexperienced midfield and taking three points with relatively little trouble.

There’s no lack of experience off the pitch, at least not among the fans. I can do this every Christmas for as long as you like: ‘We’ve now been in a constant stake of takeover for a year… for two years… for three years… on on on…’ We were actually at the point, when GFH arrived, when the fans were more experienced in club matters than the owners; my colleague at The Square Ball, Dan, recalls calmly talking Salem Patel through the Elite Player Performance Plan rules that were changing the way football’s academy system operates, and that Salem knew nothing about. We might still be at that point.

Salem is still on the board at Leeds United, although whether he’s any more clued in about the finer details of running a football club in the Championship isn’t clear. I suspect he never put too much time into studying the regulations. GFH’s priorities are clear from the terms of the deal they struck with Massimo Cellino: you do all the soccer stuff and if it turns a profit, we’ll take our share. One of the playing targets is for the club to eventually compete in the “UEFA Championship Cup”. Presumably Leeds will have plummeted out of the leagues and into Sensible Soccer 96/97 before that happens.

The presence of Salem Patel, and of David Haigh’s replacement at GFH Capital, Janesh Patel, on our board could become more of an issue in the new year. In the wake of the defeat to Fulham – into waters that didn’t froth at the loss but stayed sternly still – the Football League dropped a few depth charges of their own to add some churn. Transfer embargo: confirmed. Ownership appeal: received.

The rancour between Cellino and the Football League didn’t stop Massimo from turning up for the award of the £250,000 Sky Bet Transfer Fund this week; perhaps he was confused about who really runs football in this country and went prepared to chin Jim White. Or perhaps, knowing that Leeds can still sign players despite the embargo, a quarter of a mill was worth travelling for. Either way, we didn’t get it, and seeing the reaction to fellow-embargees Nottingham Forest’s win, that might have been for the best. There are only so many Crazily Ironic headlines about our Crisis Club that I can take this close to Christmas.

Cellino has, apparently, been preparing for this embargo since the summer, although how controlled the preparations have been is questionable. The sanctions are in place because of the losses shown in accounts up to June, but it was late August when our relaxed ‘try before you buy’ transfer policy became a ‘keep everyone we have and sign everyone we haven’t’ rush. Giuseppe Bellusci’s loan became a permanent four year deal before he’d even played a game, while latecomers Dario Del Fabro and Brian Montenegro look now to have been brought in purely to make up the numbers for the rest of the season.

Whether that was a necessary approach, or the most sensible, depends on how you interpret this line from Phil Hay in the YEP, who says: “Leeds have been assessing the transfer market since the latter stages of October, the point at which their owner, Massimo Cellino, began to realise that the League’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) penalty was not an embargo in the strictest sense.”

This is by now classic Massimo. Identify a problem; rush into a frantic solution; then begin to realise there was more to the problem than at first thought and that perhaps the first approach wasn’t the right idea after all. We could call this The Hockaday Effect, if it weren’t for Darko Milanic. Leeds do have wriggle room under the rules, and it seems to be generally assumed that striker Leonardo Pavoletti will again be a target in January; while it has been darkly joked that if Leeds make the most of all they can do in the market then signing four players on contracts up to £10,000 a week will be more than we ever got back when Ken Bates imposed his own summer and winter embargoes.

The embargo is there to punish clubs that are not being run properly, or fairly, or safely, but as ever the Football League’s rules are at odds with themselves. One day the League are punishing Forest for financial impropriety by banning transfers; the next day their title sponsor is giving Forest free cash to spend on transfers. In parenting speak, this is what’s known as giving your child a mixed message. You definitely shouldn’t shoplift, but don’t tell your mum I nicked these sweets for you.

The rules are obviously also at odds with the situation at Leeds United, but then I do have a certain amount of sympathy for anyone who would try to write a rulebook that takes into account every situation at Leeds United. The financial impropriety our club is being punished for is not of the current owner’s making, but Massimo can hardly hide Salem and Janesh in a cupboard when the Football League come round and pretend those days are all behind us now. There is provision in the rules for the embargo to eventually be lifted when you show that the club is being brought back to the regular, but no provision for an owner to dump an enormous Bahraini albatross on the steps of the League and bray at them, “I’m dying!” All the League can do is point to the relevant section of the rules as they stand and advise Massimo to have another word with Jim White. And then tell him how sincerely they’re looking forward to seeing him back soon for his ownership appeal.

The repercussions of Cellino’s ownership ban haven’t yet been fully felt, because it doesn’t yet feel fully real. He is appealing; he could be back in March anyway. Is it actually happening? Do we take this seriously? Cellino, however, has taken a very serious step, and appointed a CEO, Matt Child, who Massimo says will, “take immediate responsibility for the management and development of the day to day business” – otherwise known as all the stuff Massimo has so far insisted on doing himself.

Cellino is a self-confessed control freak, who wants to be involved in everything, and Child’s appointment is either a remarkable change of tack, an admission of defeat in the face of the Football League’s insistence, or, well, let’s just say the FL might need to check Matt for signal-receiving brain implants. The Football League’s ban isn’t only on ownership, but on influence, and it’s unlikely that Daniel Arty or Edoardo and Ercole will be allowed to keep their seats on the board should the ban be upheld – although Massimo could with some justification claim that vice-president Hercules has never exactly been hands on at Elland Road. An independently appointed (by Massimo) CEO free to run the club as he wishes could be just the thing to get the club through to March and Massimo’s comeback. After all, Massimo already has no influence or control over team affairs, so if all he has to do is give Matt Child the same freedom as Hockaday, Milanic and Redfearn then everything should be just fine.

What Neil Redfearn does in the coming weeks will be interesting to watch. Perhaps Massimo Cellino doesn’t pick the team on a game-by-game basis, but he doesn’t deny his role as ‘manager’, and looking at the season so far, it would be a brave head coach who either dropped Tommaso Bianchi or ditched the diamond. Redders, emboldened by finally having Steve Thompson as his right hand man, might be that brave coach. Already, after Ipswich, Redfearn was talking up the need for something different away from home; after losing to Fulham, it’s now a need for something different in general. “We’ve got one or two options but we do lack genuine width,” he said this week, reviewing his inability to change the game from the bench. “It’s difficult to go 4–3–3 or to use a flat 4–4–2 if we need to,” he added, not adding, ‘plus Massimo would go straight spare parts on me.’

Flexibility is crucial if a team isn’t going to be quickly worked out and consistently beaten, but we don’t have it at Leeds; Cellino and Nicola Salerno have decided upon the diamond formation as the future and signed players to suit, with no thought to a plan B. I wonder how much of Dave Hockaday’s infamous ‘no more wingers anymore’ speech was a parroted ‘football chat’ with Cellino.

Such stern adherence to one idea has also robbed fans of the pleasure of picking their own preferred line-ups, as once your mind wanders to perhaps playing three at the back you have to give up because you know Massimo won’t go for it. When his control-freakery extends to your fantasy eleven, you have to wonder if maybe the Football League aren’t right to set some boundaries for this guy.

I wonder too if Neil Redfearn won’t mind seeing Cellino confined to a faraway paddock. He sounds like a man itching to experiment; like a coach who is coaching for all he’s worth, but needs now to give a few lessons to the president in the gains to be had from a different formation. Or to have the president removed from the equation for a while so he can just get on with it.

It’s a risky strategy, and Neil Redfearn’s job would depend on the results. In fact, even if a new-look 4–3–3 Leeds won every game while Cellino was in exile, Cellino might just sack him on his return anyway for showing him up. That’s the quandry the whole club might find itself in come March when the boss is back. If there’s one person you don’t want to ask you ‘How have things been running while I was away?’, it’s Massimo Cellino.

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