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the square ball week: the leeds united talk show

the square ball week: the leeds united talk show


It’s difficult sometimes to remember just how unpopular Massimo Cellino was at Elland Road before his takeover was confirmed.

Much is made these days about how Massimo loves to be among ordinary Leeds fans – the ones he pities for saving for season tickets instead of buying decent shoes – mingling with the people everywhere from Guiseley to Fibre to the Peacock, hailed wherever he goes.

Things were a bit different on that first night of madness at Elland Road; even before Stanningley Cars intervened, Massimo didn’t dare leave the East Stand reception to face the hurriedly assembled mob outside. For a while, when sightings of Cellino around town were reported on Twitter and Facebook, somebody would usually ask of the spotter, “Why didn’t you chin him?”

All of that was before knew him; or felt like we knew him. It was also before he’d actually bought the club, when he was no more than a meddler, but comparing the reception he gets now to then, it feels like something more was transacted than just too much cash for a too bad football club. Some emotion changed hands too, some exchange of sympathies.

It’s been well worked over by now, but the guerrilla interview conducted by White Leeds Radio really was a watershed for Cellino. Nobody who heard that phone call or read the transcript could help but warm to the man as he called David Haigh “a witch” and compared Ross McCormack to a fridge full of beer. He sounded tired, drunk and angry, ready to completely give up on Leeds United specifically and life in general. He sounded exactly like most of us.

One part I liked in that interview was when Massimo declared what a shy, retiring chap he really is – at least compared to that fame-hungry Brian McDermott, anyway. “PR, television, radio, I don’t give a f—. I don’t talk with television or radio. Have you noticed that? I don’t have television, I don’t watch television. I don’t read papers. I don’t give a bloody damn.”

I’d been worried from the moment I saw the videos of him on stage with his band back in Sardinia that Cellino’s purple profile might end up overshadowing our club’s, but those lines put my mind at ease. “I don’t talk with television or radio. Have you noticed that?” Back them Cellino was still a mystery to us all – WLS’s phone call was the first we heard from him of any length – and maybe he really was going to stay in the background and let his sons (aye, I hadn’t seen them yet) and advisors (and didn’t know who they would be) run the thing. His home was still Miami, and he was welcome to stay there and stay quiet if that was his style.

We’ll probably say this a lot about ol’ Massimo over the years ahead, but things haven’t quite turned out that way. We’re at the end of the final week before the season kicks off, and it’s been a week when every day has brought some new interview or comment from the president. He’s called his coach “a baby”, slagged off McCormack and Carbone, criticised some non-existent ball boys and announced the signing of a player we haven’t actually signed yet. He did say some nice things about Lewis Cook, but then he said nice things about Steve Morison as well so he’s hardly discerning.

Cellino hasn’t been the only one. There was an in-depth profile piece on Dave Hockaday at the weekend, a long interview with him on Radio Leeds, and yesterday he did his first pre-match press conference, almost as if he was the manager; Benito Carbone gave his side of his departure from Thorp Arch to the BBC, declaring he’d love to return but immediately ruining his chances by contradicting all the president’s reasons for sacking him (just agree and beg, Benny, it’s the only way); Mathieu Smith was misquoted on the subjects of McCormack and Fulham, and even Ross himself popped up to say all the usual things players usually say about their new club. Not to forget Ken Bates, opining on YouTube about the Middle East conflict and Tom Lees to 72,000 fewer people than watched this train go round and round for an hour. Just about the only one maintaining a dignified silence at this point is Junior Lewis.

Dignity has been lacking from a lot of this discourse. It’s one thing for Massimo to tell Dave Hockaday what to do with his opinion about Ross McCormack – “Did I ask your f—— advice? No. So shut the f— up” – it’s quite another to tell the Daily Mail that that’s what you told your head coach. Especially when your head coach is telling everyone what a great relationship you have.

It’s not the fault of any of them, really, not even Massimo; although he could perhaps have limited himself to just the one newspaper for this week, and thought about when to hold his tongue. Sports papers and websites – and I’ll hold my hands up and include this corner of the internet here – need something to write about when there’s no football being played but no shortage of people wanting to read about football, and so the requests go flying in to United’s acting press officer: can we interview everybody at the club? Twice?

It’s all so bloody tiring, though. I’m sure Radio Leeds have made a fine programme around their Hockaday interview, but can I really summon up the energy to listen to him drone on about hard work and humility for a whole hour? I’d much rather just watch some football; but then, perhaps in that interview there’ll be some clues about how Hockaday will have Leeds United play at Millwall tomorrow, so perhaps I should listen after all…

I actually came up with a solution to all this last season: non-stop football. If Leeds United just played football constantly, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, there would be no time for the players and staff to give interviews and no time for us to read them. Instead we’d have minute-by-minute match reports encompassing every minute of every day; and, admittedly, some seriously curtailed life expectancies for the players and the never-missed-a-game fans.

I know Massimo would be keen on this idea, as desperate as he is to get maximum value from his players’ contracts; but it would come at a cost to his own profile that I think he would find hard to take. All that stuff back in March about never being on TV or in the papers was just bulls–t. “I don’t want to sell bulls–t to the people,” he said yesterday. Bulls–t you don’t.

Matchdays, I hope, will be the days when we hear a little bit less about Massimo, Dave and Benito’s opinions; or at least just during the match itself. It’s a forlorn hope; most match reports on Sunday and Monday morning will inevitably focus on ‘The New Men Cellino and Hockaday’; then there’s the first home game to get through, sorry, ‘The Debut of the Italian Job’ or whatever Sky come up with. Either side of the ninety minutes, we’ve got quite a lot more of this to come.

There is a cast of characters at the club we haven’t heard nearly enough from, though, and I don’t just mean Junior Lewis this time: I mean the players, and specifically the new ones. It has become a truism over the years that modern footballers are distant from the fans because they only exist in a protected bubble; that’s normally not as true in the second division, but it’s extra true at Leeds United in August 2014.

It’s not the usual kind of bubble here, though; I doubt Cellino is paying enough to any of the new boys for them to feel insulated by money. There are other factors at play here: lack of playing opportunities so far, language barriers, cultural barriers, and most unusual of all, existential barriers: nobody knows if Frederik Sorensen is really a Leeds player or not, so how are we supposed to know if we’re supposed to try to get to know him? Fredso, at least, has a name and a thorough Wikipedia page; “a striker” and “a centre back” are just silhouettes right now, spaces on a squad list, but we’re assured they’re coming, whoever they are. Three cheers for them. I like them already.

Marco Silvestri has stepped up and had a go, giving a couple of interviews to LUTV and the YEP. “At the moment, the team help me when I speak but I need to study English,” he says. “I want my English to be perfect. I don’t want to come here, speak only a little bit, speak lots of Italian and have people not understand me. This is England so I must speak English. We all will. I need lessons.”

That’s good, but it’ll take time, and there will be some risky knowledge gaps when United run out against Millwall on Saturday: we don’t really know anything about our new players, and they don’t know much about us. What do they know about Millwall? Hopefully it’s more than Millwall know about them. We’ll see.

I, meanwhile, know that it was Massimo Cellino’s wife’s birthday this week, and I hope she enjoyed her day. I’m not quite sure how I grew up from the boy who religiously collected trivia about how Mel Sterland took free kicks (John Lukic taught him to kick straight through the valve) to the man who attracts trivia about Italian millionaire’s wives whether I’m interested or not, but I suppose that’s football’s change as much as my own.

And certainly Leeds United has changed. Into what, exactly, I’m not sure, but I hope that’s something that the next nine months will tell us. I feel like I know enough now about Massimo Cellino to prepare me for the next twenty-two years, and enough about Dave Hockaday to get me through the next twenty-two days (or hours, if Millwall really goes wrong). What I need now are some details about Leeds United, because that’s going to have to last me for the rest of my life.

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