The City Talking: Fashion, Vol. 2

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the square ball week: leeds & cellino; doubt & self-doubt

the square ball week: leeds & cellino; doubt & self-doubt


I want to know what happened. This is one of those times when it’s good to have Massimo around, because you don’t actually have to ask for an explanation; you just need to wait, and it comes when it comes.

This week has been sort of brilliant at Leeds United, but one thing does sort of have to be made clear: this is no way to build a squad, or to rebuild a football club.

Leeds have already played one league game and been poor; then the win against Accrington Stanley was hardly convincing. But by full time on Tuesday the mood had, outside the ground, at least, changed.

Inside we had Doukara’s two goals to enjoy, and I had a flurry of Twitter notifications after each referring to the fact that I’d said on The Square Ball podcast and in my match report after Dundee that “I haven’t found anyone who thinks he looks like scoring in double figures this season.” Or scoring at all, as I said on the pod.

That mockery was my only contact with the world outside the ground, so it was only after I’d trudged through the Lowfields tunnel with my brow furrowed that I found out that Giuseppe Bellusci was now a confirmed Leeds player, a fee had been agreed for Liam Cooper and suddenly, as if from nowhere, a ten-year transfer saga was about to conclude and bring Billy Sharp to Leeds.

That put the Accrington game into a strange new kind of context. While any criticism – and there was a lot to criticise – was slapped down hard by some of the slavishly cultish Cellino devotees who see no wrong in anything he does, Cellino himself was dismantling the team he’d built so far, bits of which we’d just huffing their way past Stanley; Massimo had decided that this just wasn’t going to work, even while the fans were still trying to keep the faith in his plan.

That’s both disarming and alarming. Being able to admit when you’re wrong is a noble trait and a virtue worth striving for; I held up my hands over Doukara, because it was a fair cop, and Cellino seems to have held his hands up about, well, everything else, including Doukara but in a different way.

With Doukara, Morison and Hunt, and the unfancied Smith in reserve, Cellino and Hockaday seemed happy with their strikeforce in pre-season; just as Doukara was proving me wrong, though, Cellino was backing me up, by recognising that the guy’ll need some help if Leeds are to score goal this season, and going out to get some. Ajose arrived after Dundee and in time for Millwall, but after Cellino watched Millwall and decided to add Sharp and possibly soon Kieran Agard, Doukara might not even play much at all from now on.

It’s not only in the squad strength that Cellino has changed tack; it’s in his dealings with the players themselves. The list of dropped deals this summer at one point rivalled the list of deals done: Rossini, Sorensen, Viviani and Bellusci all got as far as talking wages and fine print before the plug was suddenly pulled; Chesterfield wanted more than we had bid for Cooper and Leeds didn’t only end their interest, but announced the end of their interest on the official website; less significant was the news from the horse’s mouthpiece that Sharp, Becchio and Hudson has been offered to Leeds, but Cellino didn’t want them.

Three of those players are now Leeds players, and who knows? If the move for Agard falls through, we could be reunited with Luciano, after all. A fair amount of humble pie must have been eaten during the last week to revive those deals and get them done. Imagine Massimo Cellino, the man who held Fulham to an £11m ransom for Ross McCormack, contacting Bellusci’s agent to say that he will meet their wage demands, after all; picture him ringing Chesterfield back to apologise for that statement on the website and to ask their latest valuation on Cooper.

I can’t imagine it, and it probably didn’t happen like that: the last person Cellino will ever fire is the guy who makes those phone calls of shame for him. But, even if it was only to his shaving mirror with the bathroom door locked, Massimo must have admitted he’d got it wrong over the last few weeks, and that now it was going to cost him – money and face – to put it right.

Bravo for putting it right. I have been worried about whether, like with Bates, Cellino’s is matched by stubbornness; a steadfast refusal to ever admit he’s wrong. Just look, for example, at what Ken says now about selling Leeds to GFH, and compare it to what he said at the time. Bates was never wrong: the world was.

Cellino’s egotistical bullheadness exists, but seems to be of a different kind. It’s matched by a sort of vulnerability, a willingness to do again and to do right, to get on the right path in the long run, even after starting in the wrong direction. He soon took responsibility for the mistakes of his one night stand at Elland Road in February – at least, the parts of it he couldn’t blame on his lawyers. But he didn’t mind admitting that he misjudged his new club that night, and promised to learn from it. Now it looks like he’s recognised that he has misjudged the players and the expenditure that will be required to keep Leeds United competitive this season and, having learned his lesson at Millwall, he’s making amends.

Ken Bates, of course, didn’t give a single care what anybody thought about him, and that’s why he never had to admit when he was wrong. Massimo Cellino, on the other hand, does care, and he cares a lot, and this is the point where disarming and endearing becomes alarming.

Few things play better to a gallery than a mea culpa, and Cellino is well aware that there is a large gallery at Leeds, and in English and Italian football, watching his every move. He will also be aware that, simply by signing a handful of players he should have signed six weeks ago so the club would stand a chance of starting the season properly prepared, he sent his popularity ratings through the roof.

As I said above, this is no way to build a squad, or to rebuild a football club. This morning Simon Austin has passed on some of the reasons for Cellino’s volte-face: the game against Middlesbrough tomorrow is on TV, and Massimo doesn’t want to be embarrassed, to the point where he asked Sky to show to give Leeds a break and show some other game. This week hasn’t just been about Cellino’s realisation that he was wrong, and that he needed to fix it quick; it has been about the need to fix it quick before anybody notices and he loses face.

Cellino’s work this week has been used as a stick to beat his doubters, when really what he has done this week is to agree with his doubters and do what they’ve been saying he should have been doing all along. Nobody has demonstrated less confidence in Massimo Cellino’s judgement this week than Massimo Cellino himself, to the point where for once he’d rather hide from the TV limelight than revel in the stage; which is why it is pure madness to have faith in Massimo Cellino’s judgement.

The manager-eater’s record for eating managers in Italy has been used to suggest that Cellino is a man with a ruthless streak, who rules his staff with fear. To me, it looks like the record of a man who hates being wrong, but who keeps being wrong. Thirty-six sacked managers is not a trophy for Cellino; if he’d ever hired a decent one, maybe he would have won a real trophy or two. It’s the record of a man who makes decisions quickly, and then has to find a way to make up for them quickly; and the quickest way to make up for hiring a goon as coach is to fire the goon. Don’t unpack too many boxes, Dave.

To err is human, though; and to analyse one’s life and decisions is to truly live. Massimo Cellino loves to live alright. Doubt is a natural condition, and self-doubt is a critical element of self-improvement. Asking, Is this really the best I can do? is how you realise that you can still do better, and truly high achievers never stop asking themselves that question.

Doubt, then, is the natural way to approach Massimo Cellino. If he didn’t doubt everything he does, he wouldn’t spend so much of his time and money and reputation doing over what he has already done; if he didn’t doubt his own judgement, he’d probably only have ever hired one coach at Cagliari. Our doubt, rather than our faith, is what can be of most use to Cellino at Leeds United.

If he’s not sure, and we’re not sure, then it’s probably not right, and we can have another go; but the last thing Massimo needs, as he lies awake at night thinking over the day’s work, is to be constantly told he’s right, when deep down he knows he’s wrong.

Tomorrow is always a new day, and it’s always another chance. It’s also live on Sky, so we’d better all hope we’re right this time.