Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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the square ball week: absent without leeds

the square ball week: absent without leeds

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Massimo Cellino held one of the best press conferences of his time at Leeds this week; by not being there.

The eminently quotable and performative president gave one of his best performances as owner of Leeds United by saying nothing; by not even being in the room.

Instead, when Darko Milanic was introduced to the press at Elland Road, it was Darko Milanic who met the press, alone – save for sporting director Nicola Salerno, who added a few fairly reluctant words about how Darko’s command of several languages will be useful when coaching Leeds United’s international team.

Those language skills won’t be much use to Milanic if he don’t speak up though, poor lamb. In the seventeen minutes or so that he answered questions, he said about 800 words; ol’ Massimo gets through that many in about six seconds, and kept it up for nearly an hour when Hockaday arrived. It’s not that Milanic doesn’t know the language, but rather that he doesn’t seem to feel the need to embellish it – will Neil Redfearn be alongside him in the dugout against Brentford? “Yes.” Well that settles that then.

Some people felt that the instant groaning when Dave Hockaday started speaking in his first press interviews was unfair, but those reactions were honest. If Hockaday had begun, when asked what his best qualities were, by saying what Milanic said – “It is difficult for me to say something about me. It’s better that other people tell what is my good thing, what is my bad thing” – instead of banging on about being in football for four hundred years, then the support for his appointment might have last longer than the end of those same interviews. He didn’t, though. Darko did. 1–0 Darko.

Hockaday also suffered by the proximity of his president. Cellino seemed to be there for reassurance – nobody could quite believe that Hockaday had been given the job, and needed to see Cellino there with him to believe it. I mean, even then, y’know? In fact, Cellino’s presence served only to acknowledge that doubt. The first questions put to Cellino were, although they were phrased a bit more politely, where did you find this guy, and why didn’t you get someone else. “I like him,” Massimo answered, as if he was justifying buying a new coat that he wasn’t sure of himself. I like him, I mean, it is does look good on me, doesn’t it? It looked great in the shop…

So things are already different with Darko; where before there was Cellino to provide moral support, now there was nobody, an absence, a better kind of moral support. Milanic is already being allowed to stand on his own two feet, something Hockaday never was, and already you can feel the difference in the respect he’s being allowed. We actually are going to wait and see what this guy can do, this time, because he’s earned the right.

Massimo is getting a lot of credit for this, and for the recent couple of weeks of better times, and he seems happy to take it. After the resounding win over Huddersfield last Saturday – and we haven’t had such an enjoyable afternoon in a long time – Cellino walked across the pitch, from West Stand to East Stand, taking the applause. Neil Redfearn was off talking to the players or something, but that wasn’t important there and then.

It’s odd that Cellino was able to take that applause, because for most of the preceding three weeks he hadn’t even been in the country, much less guiding Leeds United’s fortunes on the pitch. The best weeks of his ownership, in a sporting sense at least, have come while he was absent on a break in Miami; and while he remained indecisive about who to appoint as Hockaday’s successor.

Cellino’s absence from Milanic’s presser continued the theme of his absence from the club, and continued the theme that it did us no harm. Massimo was not here. He did nothing. He took no decisions. The team thrived. He came back, and decided upon a coach, and the response was humdrum – the reports on Milanic from Austria aren’t glowing. He stayed away from Milanic’s unveiling and Darko glowed.

There’s probably some sage saying among engineers that the best run machines run themselves, and you just grease the wheels; if there isn’t, there should be. Like a completed stack of cards, not touching a damn thing or even breathing nearing it is the best thing to do. Don’t even touch it, Massimo, in fact don’t look at it. In fact just leave the room, get out. And don’t make a draught when you close the –

The popular opinion is that Cellino has learned from his mistakes with Hockaday, but I can’t quite see it that way. Massimo isn’t a young man, and you’d think appointing Hockaday, dominating his initial press conference to the extent that the coach left the room a laughing stock and then publicly to-ing and fro-ing about whether to bin him off a few weeks later are the sort of lessons I’d have hoped Cellino would have learned during the first thirty-odd hirings and firings at Cagliari. If he’s learning, he’s learning slowly, and in areas I thought he’d be expert in.

I think the reality is closer to something I’ve said about Cellino before; that he isn’t so good at spotting his mistakes, but he is good, when the overwhelming public opinion is turning against him, at doing the other thing instead that he probably should have done in the first place. Cellino loves to walk across the pitch in front of appreciative crowds, and I’m sure when he appointed Hockaday he expected to be doing just that in no time at all. It wasn’t so much the results that did for Dave, in the short-run, as Cellino’s realisation that if he went anywhere near the pitch after the games with Brighton, Watford or Bradford, he’d have been pelted with rotten tomatoes brought in especially from Sainsbury’s.

Cellino has never quite admitted that he got it wrong by appointing Hockaday; only that he was wrong not to sack him sooner. That’s the kind of mea culpa Cellino deals in: not, I was wrong, but, I’m sorry I didn’t fix it before you noticed I was wrong.

That brings us back to another absence, and another reason why Cellino was keeping a relatively low profile while Milanic was announced. I wonder whether, if he could, Cellino would go back and fix that tax business on his yacht before anybody noticed it was wrong; or whether he’d just blindly charge onwards anyway.

Shaun Harvey got one thing right the other week; the absence of closure on that subject does hang over Leeds United. I’d expected a quiet afternoon reviewing what Milanic had had to say on Wednesday; instead I ended up frantically trying to work out what yet another Italian court judgement meant for our football club. It was one day when Judge Sandra Lapore’s decision could have stayed absent, thank you very much.

There does still seem to be some doubt about whether the long-awaited judgement really does exist, because if it does, and Leeds United have seen it, they’re supposed to pass it on to the Football League if it’s relevant to the Ownership situation. And when your ownership hinges on whether an Italian court thinks your dishonest or not, a document that says your actions amounted to a “Machiavellian simulation” is relevant. And the Football League say they haven’t seen a copy, as does, for that matter, Massimo Cellino.

Cellino’s lawyer, the gloriously named Giovanni Cocco – Johnny Coconut – certainly has. It’s “full to the brim of errors” he says, “It does not take into account what emerged in the trial: that is to say, that nothing implicates Cellino. I have already … lodged an appeal and have also completely demolished the [judge’s] reasoning.”

If Johnny’s had time to lodge an appeal you’d think he’d have time to send copies to Cellino and the Football League, but apparently not. Massimo Cellino isn’t answering questions on this one either; it’s one week when it’s better to let the coach do the talking – and to thank your lucky stars that the coach that’s talking isn’t Hockaday anymore. “I’ve been part of the Italian legal system for forty years, man and boy…”

The upshot of the judgement is that it could, if interpreted just-so by Shaun Harvey and the Football League, have the power to make Massimo Cellino absent from Leeds United for more than just a couple of weeks. For a lot of people in football that would be a shame; he’s the stir-crazy stir-it-up president from sunny Italy, goin’ dog-gone crazy in our supermarkets, firing out the quotes like bullets from his Beretta-like mouth.

For Leeds United it might also be a shame; I remain intensely distrustful of what Cellino might be doing at our club, but also as always intensely intrigued; while many fans are intensely grateful for days like last Saturday. It’s largely down to the Football League now, and their own ideas about whether his absence would be a good thing for us, or for the game.

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