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the square ball week: bored in public

the square ball week: bored in public


With everybody nowadays online, and every event performed on social media moment by moment, a lot of the life of a football fan is a rush to uncover information.

That especially applies when someone like Massimo Cellino lands at the airport with an open chequebook and the intention of buying your club; or three-quarters of it, at least. He was an unknown quantity to us, but it was clear from first sight of him rocking with a metal band on YouTube that the quantity of unknowns was considerable.

We’ve had a lot of history to process, and little time to do it in. Fifty-seven years of life on earth to account for; twenty-two years of ownership of Cagliari; all distorted by gaps of language, culture, time and bias that make it difficult to separate truth from opinion, fact from myth, the relevant from the trivial.

There have been various attempts at potted biographies of Massimo, but this isn’t like the days when you could take a dusty old volume of Encyclopaedia Brittanica off the library shelf, riffle the pages to C, and get a dispassionate account of Massimo Cellino’s life with all its facts checked and all opinions wrung out of it.

Instead Cellino’s life and work is being constantly rewritten as new snippets of information arrive, then rewritten again according to the interpretation – a word I prefer to the bad faith ‘spin’ – we want to put it on it as fans.

Because there is no doubt that two distinct and parallel stories are being told, about the same bloke, depending on whether the person doing the telling is in favour of Cellino taking over at Leeds United or not.

In the first, Cellino is a billionaire who has kept Cagliari’s football club performing well above expectations for nearly a quarter of a century; his battles with authority have been fought to try and improve the lot of I Rossoblu and landed him with jumped up fraud charges that are nothing more than technicalities any businessman is guilty of; his comments about Leeds being the Ferrari to free him from the constraints of Cagliari’s Fiat 500 prove that he’s going to spend on Leeds United until we’re challenging at the very top of the game again, where we belong. And his daughter has a great arse.

The other story is of a man who rides on the back of family wealth that he did little to earn himself, who bought Cagliari as an indulgence and interferes with the staff and players on a whim; who keeps the club in Serie A only so he can keep it in profit; profit that, despite fees for the sales of the club’s best players, is rarely put back into the team. His battles with local authorities have been an ill-conceived ego trip that, far from benefiting the club, have caused the team to play 500 miles away from their home island and led to critical fans being blacklisted and banned from watching their own club; a manifestation of how little Cellino cares about the fans of the club beyond feeding them enough soft soap to keep them quiet. His personality causes problems with everybody from playing staff to government officials and his public statements are an embarrassment, and his two sons are a pair of arses.

The truth may lie somewhere in the middle. Or, the truth may lie in this quote from a Cagliari internet forum:

“The problem is only one, a crazy lunatic – as a result the fans of Cagliari practically do not speak about sport, rather they talk about the consequences of his delusions: stadium, exemptions, exiles in Trieste, players out of the team, trades real or imagined.”

My first reaction when reading these kinds of comments from Cagliari fans was to give in to an urge I’d been trying to fight off – to give in to the idea that Cellino is just the Italian Bates. I’ve been trying to resist that idea, trying to disregard our own past while we try to get to grips with Cellino’s, and to judge the man on his own terms and by his own – reported and translated – actions. But comments like this one in this YEP article – that owning Cagliari has been, “A great success but just for him. Nowadays he’s much richer than 20 years ago” – sound too much like Ken’s modus operandi for comfort.

But I’ve realised since that it’s not so much that Massimo Cellino sounds like the Italian Ken Bates. What is really giving me the shivers is that Cagliari’s fans sound like the Italian us.

“Lot of fans say they’re not going anymore because of Cellino’s role and the way he’s managed Cagliari. They say they’ve lost their passion and thrill for the team. At the start of a season you can guess with a reasonable percentage of success the final league position. It makes things quite boring – following a club without ambition.”

Change the names and that’s us; that’s Leeds United two years ago. Over 31,000 came to Elland Road to watch us play Huddersfield a couple of weeks ago; even more significantly, over 31,000 were there to see us play Barnsley just before Christmas. Last October, in the last days of Bates’ eight year regime, only 22,500 people were interested in watching Leeds v Barnsley; even last March, with GFH in control but with Neil Warnock still in the dugout, the Huddersfield game drew just 23,800.

Lost passion? Don’t see any ambition? Not going along anymore? We’ve been there. We’ve also been where the Cagliari fans are right now. They’re angry at what they hope is an outgoing owner, not least because while Cellino’s son – their vice-president – is messing around on Instagram in a Leeds shirt, their manager’s job has been on the line and their assistant manager has been sacked, as the homeless club gets drawn into a relegation battle; and they’re excited about the prospect of being taken over by the Al-Thani family, Qatari owners of Paris Saint-Germain, hoping for a bright new era freed from the old tyrant. Yep, we’ve been there too.

What fans of Cagliari and Leeds have in common, though, is not a simple Massimo equals Ken or Al-Thani equals GFH situation. What we have in common is in that first quote from a Cagliari fan above: “Fans of Cagliari practically do not speak about sport.” Neither do fans of Leeds. This is a column about Leeds United Football Club, but I’ve written more than a thousand words here without naming a single player. The concentration – the obsession, almost – of fans in both Yorkshire and Sardinia is on the boardroom, not on the pitch.

Leeds were linked this week with a player from the Northern Ireland called McDaid. I can tell you the forenames of Cellino’s children – Eleonora, Ercole and Edoardo – but I need Google to be able to tell you that McDaid’s first name is Robbie. He’s an 18 year old striker who has made a mark for Glenavon this season – coming off the bench to score two goals last weekend – and exactly the sort of hot young prospect that should be greeted with giddy excitement at Leeds, especially when you consider that after McCormack and Smith our viable striking choices are Hunt and Diouf, both in their own ways stretching the definition of ‘viable.’

The stage is set for McDaid, but he’ll have a hard time grabbing any of the limelight. Every event at Leeds United at the moment is taking place in the shade of Ms. Cellino’s backside; whether Cellino and McDermott will be duelling banjos on the pitch is causing more conversation than who might play up front.

Perhaps Cellino, if his takeover is approved and he spends his money, can be the man to make us believe in the football again. But the signs point to no. After Ridsdale, after Bates, after Haigh, my ideal owner for Leeds United would be one without a ‘larger than life’ reputation – let alone a rock band; without any social media accounts, and without any children with social media accounts, and if possible without children at all. I don’t want to follow my club’s every executive meeting on Twitter; I want to follow videos of our players and prospective players on YouTube.

A lot of people, as the takeover drags on, have begun to complain that it’s boring. It isn’t boring; in its own way, it would be fascinating to watch as Eleonora and the family mount football’s first social media takeover, if only Dave, Salem and Hisham hadn’t got there first a year ago. I can’t deny that there is something hypnotic about following the Cellino’s incursions into our club and our city via an iPhone screen – look, one of them Instagrammed the Victoria Quarter! – but it isn’t football, and that needs to be kept in mind.

If our takeover, and our new owners, were truly boring, they wouldn’t be so fascinating, and they wouldn’t distract us so much from the football. And they’d be very, very welcome.

For more about Leeds United, check the back pages of the new issue of The City Talking, available for free in loads of venues around Leeds; also don’t miss the new issue of The Square Ball, which is on sale right now online; it’s just £1 to get a copy of the digital version, with 56 pages of brilliant writing about LUFC.

More from The City Talking:

The City Talking Issue 10

The City Talking Issue 10

about a year ago

The tenth issue of The City Talking is out now and can be picked up from all over Leeds right now – including our A-Z of the city for 2014.