the square ball week: massimo-realBack
Ahead of pre-season, Massimo Cellino has said a lot about what he’s going to do at Leeds United. How long will it take for Leeds-reality to meet Massimo-reality?Pre-season can be just as nervous a time as the end of the season; even more so, if your season has drifted to nothingness and you finish a comfortably poor 15th.
For the last few games in that scenario there’s nothing at stake, and the players are free to put on a festival of football; with something like a Danny Pugh goal as the result. Plus a couple from Matt Derbyshire.
There’s more at stake in the upcoming games against Guiseley, Mansfield, Chesterfield and Dundee United than there was against Forest, Birmingham or Derby last season. Not in the results, although four more sixteen-nils would be nice; but because Leeds United’s game this season needs to catch up with its president’s mouth. And fast.
The gap between Massimo-reality and Leeds-reality keeps growing, and the next three weeks is the time to close it. This week, the first back from training in Italy, there hasn’t been much sign of actual progress; headlines caused by our opponents’ farcical no-show in Santa Cristini; signings, all but confirmed, falling through because Massimo either didn’t like their attitude or didn’t like their wage demands; gossip-mongering on Twitter by, if you believe it, one or more disaffected players; Leigh Bromby and Richard Naylor summarily dismissed from the youth set-up, with no sign of replacements; rumours that we’ll be picking our strikers from Emile Heskey and Nile Ranger next season; rumours that, in the case of the latter, have not been quashed enough.
As for what’s actually happened, we’ve signed two goalkeepers but still have the old one, and midfielder Tommaso Bianchi and forward Souleymane Doukara are the only other two confirmed additions. Of Doukara, Hockaday backwards a sentence uttered, saying, “The Leeds United fans whatever he does or doesn’t do, they will not be able to say that he hasn’t put in a shift because he’s a hard working lad.” He’s honest, too, said Hockaday, dishing out Haitches has hif he has ha Hquota.
Doukara is an unknown quantity, and that is actually pretty exciting; every pre-season brings with it a ‘Who’s he?’ player that runs out in the first match and impresses. Because I like mysteries, I’m looking forward to seeing him. Bianchi comes with a good reputation, and Sampdoria right-back Gaetano Berardi – whose arrival has been all but confirmed, naturally, by a selfie with Terry George on Twitter – could be a bit of a coup.
But so far, Guiseley away feels like our club’s level in too many ways. Nethermoor has a capacity of 3,000, only 2,000 less than Cellino was used to at Cagliari, and their facilities are probably less decrepit. Hockaday, with his forty years (“man and boy”) experience of lower and non-league football, will be in his element. And the team, so far, hasn’t changed enough since Cellino called it “The worst team I ever saw in my life,” except to lose its main striker and add a handful of unknown quantities.
That’s the Leeds-reality as of today, and it’s a bit depressing – but then, reality often is. It’s going to be either our good fortune, then, or our grave error, to put our faith in Massimo-reality.
“We had a £15m budget to buy players and we’re doing that,” Massimo told the YEP yesterday. Our publicity shy president – “I don’t talk with television or radio. Have you noticed that?” he said during the takeover – did the rounds on Thursday, speaking to the YEP, to his mate Simon Austin, to LUTV. Only the YEP have published so far, but taken together I expect they’re going to be variations on the same dream.
It’s a bloody damn good dream, as Massimo would say. “This club is going to have more quiet time and less problems now,” he said. “And the people who used to rip the club off, they’re going to stop. I’ll protect the club from everyone – including myself.” He’s going to buy back Elland Road by November, “And I won’t go to the city of Manchester for a mortgage. I won’t give them the money. I’d prefer to pay cash. Because I’m Leeds, Leeds, Leeds.” I’m not too sure about Kirkstall Road as a new location for a new training ground, but another five or six new players sounds not just good, but absolutely necessary.
One of the Cellino’s major statements among the promises was not so much a dream as a waking from a nightmare. “We’ve fixed the past with GFH,” he said, “We found a way to get peace and we’ll work for Leeds.”
This is a big development, but without wishing to give old Massimo too hard a time, it’s a bit like saying ‘I managed to put out that massive fire, the one I started because I was playing with matches.’ Cellino has nobody but himself – and probably some lawyers with raw, smacked cheeks – to blame for the hold Gulf Finance House have had over the club since he took over.
Whether it was by not realising the implications of the fact that the largest debt the club owed was to its own owners, or by not noticing the imbalance of power in the agreement he signed – where essentially Cellino had all the liabilities and GFH had the veto – Massimo, after a few hard sessions on How to be Humble with Hockday, would admit himself that he got done.
That he’s got himself out of it says a couple of things. “With GFH I was ready to fight them,” said Cellino, presumably over the lump sum payments on the club’s debts to GFH that would start becoming due this Christmas. Cellino tried to fight Sport Capital/David Haigh over basically the same thing, and ended up with the club’s bank accounts frozen, a hefty legal bill and his plans on hold for two months. Negotiation and resolution with GFH suggests Massimo might have learnt something from that episode.
The other thing is that by convincing GFH to reduce the debt and to take payment of the rest upon promotion to the Premier League, Cellino has either a) pulled a trick of Batesian proportions and will now keep Leeds United in the doldrums until GFH take an even smaller lump sum to go away; or b) convinced GFH that his plan to get Leeds promoted will work, and work soon.
“They understand now that their 25 per cent is worth something and they understand too that they have to do something here,” said Cellino. “With GFH I was ready to fight them but they didn’t want to fight because they’re happy with my work.”
As far as GFH are concerned, they’re signing on for scenario b); trusting in Massimo Cellino to deliver Leeds United to the Premier League, and generate a rare profit for their bank. My upper arms begin to tingle and itch when I ask myself the question, Would I trust a man that GFH trust?, so it’s better to put that thought far from my mind and concentrate on the positives, and on what’s at stake.
What Cellino has put at stake is a dream, and stakes don’t come much higher than that. In his first interview Hockaday said the players had to “Work hard. Show hunger. And improve,” and it’s the last of those that is most important (I don’t really give a care how hungry the players are; if you’re that hungry, go to the shop and get a bag of crisps). Improving is not only important for the lads doing endless laps to impress the new not-boss; improving is important for the club as a whole, right now. The departures of Naylor and Bromby, for example, need to be justified by their replacements; the promises on infrastructure – the stadium, the training ground – need to become exchanged contracts and shovels in the ground.
There’s nothing wrong with selling a dream – and we shouldn’t let Peter Ridsdale’s idiocy spoil dreams for ourselves forever. There’s plenty right with the dream Massimo Cellino is selling at Leeds United. “I bought the biggest club in England,” he says. “You understand? This club has been 12 years in the s//t but I have this chance to do something good. I’m going to die but I’m going to do something good as well.”
They’re intoxicating words, and it’s an exhilarating dream, but so far, it’s not real, and against Guiseley tomorrow, it won’t be real. But against Guiseley, and Mansfield and Chesterfield and Dundee United, and before long against Millwall and Middlesbrough, we need to see some reflection of that Massimo-reality in the one place we can see it: on the pitch.
Cellino has spent his first 101 days as president, whether by accident, design, or GFH-caused restrictions, letting the dream drift further from our reach; but the fixture list is unavoidable, the stakes are high, and a football club can only survive on a dream for so long.
Guiseley is only a pre-season friendly, and only the first of a few. But it’s our first look at how far away the dream is, and how great the gap is between Massimo-real and Leeds-real.