the square ball week: mamma’s cookingBack
Leeds United don’t have an owner, then; which is significant, if not really anything new.
Everyone wants to know how Massimo Cellino is going to pull off his Football League-enforced disappearing act over the next few months, not least at the League itself, where with the decision of their Professional Conduct Committee handed down, they seem to have taken a relatively common sense approach to an unusual situation. Maybe they’re just a bit frightened of poking such an angry bear as Massimo with such a short stick.
We are “in ongoing dialogue about matters relating to the recent decision of the Professional Conduct Committee regarding Massimo Cellino,” the Football League said in a statement on Thursday, a day after the day when Cellino should have formally stood down, or resigned, or stepped away, or whatever; whatever it was, high noon on Wednesday had been the deadline. A deal had already been struck for that date, to accommodate Christmas and give Cellino time to prepare dates being bent and flexed as all involved attempt to come up with a solution. Take as long as you need; just get it sorted. And try not to take too long.
You can imagine them at Football League headquarters this week, phoning Elland Road on the regular to check on Massimo’s progress. “It’s ringing,” Shaun Harvey tells the lawyers packed into his office.
HARVEY: He’s answered – wait! It’s not Massimo this time. Maybe he’s finally… [into telephone] Hello? Who’s that?
GEORGE: It’s Terry.
HARVEY: [hand over receiver, to room] Ooh, it’s Terry George. Perhaps that means Massimo has found a way to, and now Terry is the new –
DISTANT VOICE ON PHONE LINE: Terrence, the furk you answering the phone, gimme this furking phone.
HARVEY: [to room] I think I hear Massimo now. [to phone] Massimo?
HARVEY: Massimo it’s Shaun. From the Football League. No, Shaun Harvey. Listen, just wondered if you’d thought of anything yet?
CELLINO: [string of expletives]
HARVEY: [to room] No, he says he’s still thinking.
Strictly speaking, Massimo Cellino has to find a way to divest himself of any personal influence over the club, and prove that he has no influence on the people running it in his place. Either CEO Matt Child or director Andrew Umbers are expected to be those uninfluencable men, but it’s not for nothing that Ken Bates’ return has been whispered in tones normally reserved for recital of a story by Edgar Allan Poe. That is, basically, how he ran Leeds United for years anyway, and you’d think Shaun Harvey at least would have had a lightbulb moment by now: “Massimo, it’s Shaun again. Listen, I know you and Ken don’t along, but how about if – oh you do? You did? Well, even better…”
There weren’t many people who really believed Ken Bates when he said he didn’t know who he worked for as chairman of Leeds United, but that was his story and he stuck to it: there was no link between him and the owners, and they had no influence over him, content leaving him to run the club as he saw fit.
There probably won’t be many people who will believe Matt Child or Andrew Umbers over the next 79 days when they say the club’s owner has no input or influence into the way they’re running Leeds United. The release of the story and then the video of Massimo making pre-match pasta for the players after the ban and before Bournemouth were beaten might have been intended to portray him as humbly submitting to the Football League’s whimsical chopping of his power, like just so many tomatoes, cutting him from the vine of power to sous-chef; a sort of ‘started from the top now I’m furking here, thanks to Shaun furking Harvey’; but what you’re actually watching as Massimo stalks the head chef around the Elland Road kitchen and criticises his sauces like Alexander O’Neal’s girlfriend is a micro-manager who can’t let go. Massimo started meddling with the players’ nosebags soon after he was confirmed as owner, saving pennies by closing the Thorp Arch canteen and leaving Mathieu Smith to prepare packed lunches for Luke Murphy; if in doubt, and if there’s nothing else you can possibly think of to interfere with, get involved with the players’ dinners. At least that way you can still feel involved.
One of the stranger moments in the whole strange episode is the moment that has been seized upon the most; when, asked by Terry George what reaction he’s hoping the players will have to his food, Massimo declares that he doesn’t give a care, or words to that effect. He doesn’t want to see a reaction to pasta in the dining room; he wants to see a reaction to results on the pitch. That’s fine, and that’s where on Tuesday night we did see a reaction; if it wasn’t a reaction to the pasta, though, what was it a reaction to? And why aren’t we talking about that, instead of this?
The cooking, the talking, the filming, the editing, the uploading, all when you don’t give a care about the reaction; it’s scarcely believable, but I can believe it. Even as he berates the chef fo his own mistakes, the Cellino in that kitchen looks like the truest Cellino yet; his grey hair in wild tufts, a turtleneck and blazer combination so resolutely pre-punk you expect a new Sex Pistols to form on sight, he looks like he doesn’t have a care in the world except for caring deeply and with great concentration in that moment about what is going on in the kitchen and what results he will get from rattling the pots and pans. “I don’t give a furk,” about the players’ reactions, he says, jacket discarded, forehead gleaming with sweat as he vibrates an eye back and forth across the blazing ranges, and he means it. He doesn’t. He only cares about the pasta.
While Cellino doesn’t care what the players think about his cooking efforts, perhaps he should. Pasta does not exist in a vacuum; everything affects everything else. Understanding the way things join up and connect and result from one another is vital to understanding, well, anything really; but it doesn’t seem to be part of Cellino’s way of seeing the world.
A yacht from America doesn’t require tax to be paid in Italy; he paid the tax in America, so why in Italy too? A conviction in Italy for something they say he did years ago shouldn’t affect his ownership of a football team in England now; how can the two be connected? That, on the evening Massimo spent cooking pasta and watching Leeds United, he was ordered by courts in Italy to prepare and submit a defence against new charges of embezzlement and environmental offences relating to Cagliari Calcio’s stadium travails; how can this be relevant to him as he toils in Elland Road’s kitchen?
News of those charges appeared in the Italian press while the game against Bournemouth was being played; it’s reasonable to assume Cellino knew all about it as he threw tinned tomatoes into giant saucepans so that all the players in the team at the club he bought could get a surprise for their pre-match meal. Or so that cooking could be the one thing Massimo had to concentrate on that evening, instead of sitting through another barely credible conference call, filling his office with lawyers from Italy relaying more bad news from the courts.
Nothing seems to have really changed at Leeds United since the appeal verdict was announced, which some have found strange. Strangest of all might be that United have somehow found some form, but that’s not what people are interested in; elsewhere it’s business as usual, as Cellino is madcap, Cellino is trouble, Cellino is funny, Cellino is divisive, Cellino is, most strikingly of all, still in charge, if only of the kitchen. The Football League might be corrupt, but when it comes to persecuting Leeds United, their heart hasn’t really seemed to be in it this week; but then the League’s stomach for getting tough with dodgy football club owners has always been weak, and they don’t seem to have had any more effective plan in place for how to ban Cellino than he has had for being banned.
But this decision was never really about this week, or about this situation. In the grand scheme of grand larceny the case of Nelie the yacht will not go down as one of the world’s all-time crimes. But it was crime enough to trigger the domino effect that is collapsing relentlessly towards Cellino now, crime enough to establish a few important matters with the Football League, its lawyers and its advisors; crime enough to set as near to a precedent as possible for such an unpredictable president.
It’s fitting that we only had to wait hours and not even days for the horizon to darken with the shadows of bigger problems ahead; we didn’t have to wait long to be snapped back to the reality that is Leeds United’s lot for as long as Massimo Cellino is in charge.
Massimo, meanwhile, made pasta. He has talked before about feeling persecuted in Sardinia; that’s one of the reasons he moved to Miami, and it’s one of the reasons he sold a club in Italy to buy one in Yorkshire. He’s hiding, basically, in Miami, in Leeds, in the kitchen. That’ll be Massimo Cellino, until all this blows over, if it all blows over; he’ll be in the kitchen, concentrating on the pasta to the exclusion of everything else. There, at least, Massimo controls the heat.