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the square ball week: pitstop

the square ball week: pitstop


Massimo Cellino is dying. “I’m dying,” he told ITV this week. Welcome to Leeds United, Massimo. We’re dying too.

The president – a role Massimo seems to have had to take because he couldn’t come up with a way to prevent Salah Nooruddin staying as chairman in Elland Road’s musical chairs – is developing a line in over-extended metaphors.

Massimo was talking about Leeds United being like a plane. A 747, he says, or, “even bigger.” It’s carrying too many people and too much luggage and it won’t take off, and nobody will face that fact, "Nobody’s rocking down from the plane, and helping to push the plane to make it take off.

“I’m down there,” he said. “You just try to imagine myself down on the floor on the ground, pushing this plane full of people and luggage. And I’m dying.”

I can imagine that, actually. And I can imagine thinking to myself, well, this plane was full of people and luggage when you bought it, Massimo. And I can imagine adding, “Until you can come up with a better idea than getting off the plane, pushing it, and dying, I’m staying on the god damn plane.”

What characterises the metaphors and the comments coming from Cellino at the moment are that he is at pains to communicate his loneliness, his helplessness, and that nobody will give him a break in this man’s town. “Brian. Where’s Brian?” he asked ITV in part one of his Princess Diana moment with Calendar this week. “I send a letter to Brian – help us.”

In less than a fortnight Massimo has gone from confidently cranking out a solo on stage with the Pigeon Detectives in front of adoring audience, to squealing like Penelope Pitstop. He’s dying. Why won’t somebody help-help him?

Some of that audience aren’t around to help him anymore, or won’t be for much longer. What Cellino didn’t tell anybody, as he took their applause from the stage and got ready to make the most of the Bank Holiday weekend at Fibre’s Courtyard Party, was that the club had been served with a winding up petition the week before, that he was going to fight said petition in the courts, that the club’s bank account was going to be frozen and that the casual staff would not receive their wages, or keep their jobs.

Perhaps it would have killed the appreciative mood that cocooned him following his rendition of Hey Joe.

Something else seems to have gone unmentioned that night too. In one of the videos of Cellino’s performance, the camera pans stage left, to where Brian McDermott – a guitarist himself – stands watching. Cellino then exited stage right, missing his chance to say to Brian, “By the way, don’t go anywhere for the next couple of weeks. We’ve got a lot to sort out and I’ll need you here.”

Cellino and McDermott have not, apparently, spoken since the end of the season, despite McDermott’s claims that he’s been available for a ‘conversations’ – and given how often Brian spoke about having conversations during the season, that’s probably true. Cellino’s gone with a letter instead, and without his manager to help him push the plane, he’s installed Benito Carbone as chief plane-pushing consultant.

Carbone is not the manager. Cellino has said himself that Carbone is no manager: “He knows about soccer but he is not a manager for me that is ready to manage a club in the Championship. He’s still too close to a soccer player to be a coach. He’s not ready yet.”

No, Carbone is only here as a consultant to “deal with technical and football operations … involved with all football matters, including both the first team and the Academy.” So definitely not the manager, because McDermott has a contract for that job. Carbone might have helped Cellino and Neil Redfearn decide on the club’s retained list, with no input from McDermott, but he’s definitely only operating in a consultancy role there, because otherwise McDermott might be provoked into a constructive dismissal case, and that would be counter-productive.

Cellino told ITV that he might be “a good virus for this club.” He got to that idea by complaining that being told not to smoke cigarettes in his office made him feel like he was being rejected, but this is the Massimo mantra: self-pity, a bold statement, and then an inexplicable action. And an action that is all too possibly counter-productive.

Nobody doubts that Leeds United is in financial and structural trouble, and needs big changes – and a lot of help. But what Leeds United needs most of all right now are the right changes, executed by somebody who doesn’t need any help but knows what he is doing; changes that will improve the club, and won’t turn out to be short-term fixes that, before we reach the medium term, will need fixes of their own.

Cutting 40% of the workforce might reduce outgoings immediately, but will the club still run effectively when so drastically reduced?

Closing Thorp Arch for summer might save on some bills, but will it help Ross McCormack train for the Scotland squad this month, or help Sam Byram and Alex Mowatt recover their end of season injuries? That’s not trivial: even in cold financial terms, those are three of the club’s most valuable assets.

Enforcing a five week summer holiday – “they’re going to get everything they get in [their] contracts, nothing more” – might make it feel like maximum value is being got from the players, but will it make the club attractive to the new signings Leeds United desperately need for next season?

Playing hardball with McDermott over his job might force an unliked manager into resigning, but what if it just forces him into expensive legal action against the club? Might it not have been better to establish a positive relationship with a manager who still has a good reputation and a good record at Reading, if not Leeds, and make use of him for the money he earns rather than fight him for it?

Bringing Benito Carbone in as “consultant” might seem a wiley way of gathering friends and eroding the manager, but is a guy whose managerial experience amounts to a few months in the Italian lower leagues the right choice to deal with the management of something bigger than a 747?

Fighting Sport Capital’s winding up petition might seem like a way of defending the club’s finances, but if it’s anything like the similar claim from Enterprise Insurance, would it be more sensible to pay the loan on time rather than risk losing the case and having a petition turn into an order?

And lengthy interviews to Calendar might seem like an ideal way to get the fans on your side for the troubled times ahead, but is there not a risk that complaining about trying to push a 747, being rejected, wanting help from Brian, dying, etc etc, will stick slightly in the throat of the people who received their redundancy notices the same week?

It’ll also stick in the throats of those of us who are watching, with fingers crossed, hoping that Cellino is getting all these judgement calls right. Because he has to get these calls right. And perhaps he has. Each one of those points above is a call, and Cellino has called it his way, and if it means a new improved Leeds United for the future, all the better.

But the overarching narrative of Cellino at Leeds is of a judgement called wrong. “I think that unfortunately I’m going to win,” Massimo said in his infamous phone call on WhiteLeedsRadio, when asked if he would win his fight for approval by the Football League. “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.”

Buying the club has been unfortunate, Brian won’t help him, he can’t smoke in his office, he’s being rejected, nobody will get off the plane and he’s dying. The whining began even before Cellino took over, and in a summer of wild inconsistency so far, that’s been the one consistent note of Cellino’s reign.

The problems at the club are not of Cellino’s making, but the current situation certainly is: nobody but Massimo Cellino put him in the position of owning 75% of a jumbo jet, with the guys who weighed it down still owning the other quarter and wielding influence – enough influence to have the plane permanently grounded and dismantled – but offering no assistance.

Cellino had a decision to make about buying Leeds United, and if he regrets it now – as seems to be the case in every regretful, sorrowful interview – that suggests that buying Leeds United was one big judgement call Massimo Cellino has got wrong.

Now we have to rely on him to get the other calls right. “But never mind,” Cellino continued on the phone call. It might be unfortunate for him if he ended up owning Leeds United, but: “I engage myself, I can walk out.”

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