wigan athletic 1 – 0 leeds united: la dura vitaBack
Leeds United exist to make life difficult. The problem of late has been that it has been our own life that we’ve been complicating.
Saturday at Wigan was a departure from that routine that, I hope, was not a temporary change. The result didn’t change; Leeds lost by a goal, as they did against Doncaster, as they did against Charlton.
But what did change from those games, and the months of games preceding them, is that Leeds didn’t spend ninety minutes inventing new barriers against our own progress. This time it was our opponents that had it hard; this time we challenged the other team to beat us, rather than let them choose their own route to victory.
Leeds were always in this game, although conversely there were probably fewer chances to win it than in some of the dire games we’ve suffered of late. A switch to a kind of 3–4–3, with Ross McCormack dropping deep and making puke as he battled illness, kept Leeds involved in midfield where Murphy, Austin and Mowatt have too often been bystanders in 2014. Michael Brown took over in the middle, although his main contribution was, as always, to see how far he could push the referee, rather than to proactively help Leeds’ play. That job fell to McCormack, who in turn fell deeper and deeper almost to the Leeds penalty area at times, and consequently left us struggling in attack, where Smith and Hunt didn’t have many chances and couldn’t create many either.
But that was okay. On the touchline the stress was much more visible from Uwe Rosler than Brian McDermott, the former intent on guiding Wigan into the play-offs, the latter presumably relieved that his team was putting in a decent shift at last, and that a decision on the takeover would be coming, one way or another, by the end of the day. Martin Waghorn’s goal was annoying – it came from the area Brown is always said to be an expert at guarding, and went inside a post Butland should have had covered – but it wasn’t the end of the world. Leeds gave Rosler an uncomfortable afternoon, whereas the only manager Leeds have given a hard time lately has been our own.
Of all the lives that have been made difficult by Leeds United in recent months, Brian McDermott’s is the one where the effects have been most visible, week by week, defeat by defeat. Not having to field questions about the ownership will be “a weight off my shoulders” he said after the game; getting sacked by Massimo Cellino might be a welcome relief too.
The reports from Phil Hay in the YEP on Friday and Saturday, about how McDermott’s team selections had to be submitted for approval by Salah Nooruddin and Hisham Alrayes; about how one of the reasons given by GFH for blocking the purchase of Ashley Barnes was that he “had a lower rating on Football Manager than Luke Varney,” and nobody could be sure if they were joking; about how he was told to buy “Brazilians”, revealed to the fans some of what McDermott has been dealing with in recent months. I wonder if it revealed something to the players, too, if they had been wondering about their boss’s team selections; or whether the knowledge that the gaffer was being overruled from above was already widespread, and that’s why performances dropped. GFH couldn’t even pay the players on time; who were they to be saying which of them should play?
Whether that kind of meddling will end once Massimo Cellino’s takeover is completed remains to be seen. For one thing, GFH aren’t gone, despite talk from “Cellino insiders” that there will soon be “blood on the carpet.” For another, Cellino has already made his feelings about the players clear – “shit” – even if he can’t remember their names.
“The Football League’s Corrupt” was the chant of choice in the second half at the DW Stadium, and for many people the opinion of Tim Kerr QC confirmed that the Football League only blocked Cellino because they don’t want Leeds to have a rich, hungry owner; they don’t want Leeds to be successful. The League were just trying to make our lives difficult, when we should be doing that to them.
I have no doubt, though, that we have been. And still will – whether by upsetting the applecart when we achieve unprecedented success under Cellino, or through yet more legal wrangling that brings pressure on the League – and on us. The relief and the optimism among Leeds fans now that Cellino has approval is a tough bubble to burst, but the future of our club is still strewn with pins; and we’ve had enough difficulty in the last three years of takeovers to know that Leeds are more than capable of being pricked by every single one.
For one thing, Cellino’s suitability under the League’s rules is still subject to the ruling of Judge Sandra Lepore in Sardinia. Kerr agrees with the League that his current conviction in Sardinia, if it is for a “dishonest act,” would disqualify Cellino under the Owners and Directors Test. The problem is that Judge Lepore hasn’t written the decision that will reveal whether this acts were honest or dishonest yet. That report is due by mid-June, at which point the Football League may turn from blocking Cellino from taking over, to dislodging him. That has been done before, when Stephen Vaughan was forced to sell his Chester City shareholding; he sold it to his son and claimed to have no input, a loophole the League claim to have tightened up since.
For another, while the question of Cellino’s suitability under the test may be on the back burner for now, his suitability as a football club owner at all – and of Leeds United in particular – is yet to be proven. While GFH were asking Brian McDermott for reports on Danny Pugh, they were also preparing their own dossier on Cellino – Project Athena – and there’s plenty to include apart from Nelie the yacht: convictions for fraud running to millions of euros; the imprisonment and outstanding charges from last year over the rebuilding (or not) of Cagliari’s stadium; the unsolved story of another ship owned by Massimo, the Lucina, and seven murdered seamen.
Then there’s the relatively simple matter of Cellino’s split loyalties. His long-running attempt to buy Leeds has had its parallel in his long-running attempt to sell Cagliari, and with the failure of both looking certain after the Football League’s initial decision, he was appealing to the Sardinian fans again just ten days ago. “When I realised that the team needed me,” he said, “I came back.”
This weekend the tune changed again: “There is only place in my heart for one club,” he told The Sun, “and that is Leeds. When I get the right offer I will sell Cagliari.” That didn’t prevent him from ending a good weekend’s work by sacking coach Diego Lopez after defeat to Roma on Sunday. Cagliari’s fans, for their part, have had enough of Cellino; after 22 years, and with his interest in Leeds well known, they’ve been demanding he get out of their club just as Leeds fans have been demanding he get in ours.
Cellino and his millions should be the route to the good life for Leeds; his money, his passion, his enthusiasm, his experience and his swearing should be enough to ensure that we don’t ever go through four months like the last four months again – or three years like the last three years, or ten years like the last ten years. There is enough about Massimo to give us hope that we’ll no longer be making our own lives difficult, but will start causing problems for the rest of football again. The days when we’re Doncaster’s whipping boys have to end.
But the one life that shouldn’t be easy, now, is Massimo Cellino’s. “I think that unfortunately I’m going to win,” he said toward the end of That Phone Call. “You know why I say unfortunately? Because I’m just buying a lot of work, a lot of debt, and I don’t doubt that.” It’s good that Massimo is starting without any illusions about the job ahead, because there is a lot to be done, and a lot to sort out, and a lot to prove.
GFH and The Witch in the boardroom. The stadium, the training ground. The players, the manager. The losses, the debts. The court cases, the other club. And the risk that, when the judgement comes in June, this fiasco could all start up again. Sorting all and more is not going to be easy, but if Massimo Cellino truly wants to do something to help the fans of Leeds United, this is one thing he can do immediately. Massimo can take all that and he can make it his problem, make those complications a part of his life, and do it so that they are no longer a part of ours.
Leeds United can’t afford any more GFH-style half measures, or half competencies. Cellino has to prove he is up to this, that his past is not a minefield for our future, and that he is up to the challenge of owning Leeds United If that spoils his life for a while, well, welcome to the club.
On Saturday there were the first hints for a long time that Leeds United might start causing problems again. Let’s hope that this time we’re not just causing them for ourselves.
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