the square ball week: close, but no cigaretteBack
After seventy bewildering minutes of Massimo Cellino’s press conference on Thursday, it might seem perverse to wish for more.
But the greater and more useful revelations are often those that take place off camera, away from the press. After all, what took place on camera in front of the press was of little use to anybody.
First of all there was the mid-session break: exit Cellino, pursued by Terry George; off for a cigarette, not before he’d paused next to the YEP’s Phil Hay and made a strange writing-on-a-notepad gesture while Adam Pearson tried to carry on answering questions behind him. If you’ve ever watched a snooker player take a mid-frame toilet break, you’ll know what this was like; the pause as everybody processes the fact that one of the protagonists has walked off, the unease as people adapt to the changed dynamic, the unsettling feeling of not being sure if he’s actually going to come back.
It would have been good to know where Cellino went and what Cellino did during those minutes away before he came back, declaring “Beautiful cigarette!” and clutching a paperback book.
It would have been good to know where Cellino went and what Cellino did once the whole fiasco was over, too. Apparently he began planning this press conference last Friday, so the seventy minutes we saw were the culmination of a week’s work and preparation; oh, to be a spy camera on the walls of the debrief. “Well, guys, I did it. How did I do?”
How did he do… what? One of the most mystifying aspects of the many mystifying aspects of a very mystifying press conference is that we’ve all been left mystified about why it even happened. It seemed to come, as Cellino said on several occasions about several things, “from the moon.” Did it come in peace? Was its mission accomplished? Why exactly did Massimo Cellino hold a press conference on Thursday?
And I know, technically, this was not Massimo Cellino’s press conference, just as the press conference to announce Dave Hockaday was not Massimo Cellino’s press conference. Taking the Junior Lewis memorial seat to Cellino’s left this time was Adam Pearson, and the pre-presser optimism could only have been higher if Lewis Cook had taken the Hock-seat to Cellino’s right.
The return of Pearson and the clinching of Cook were the nearest things Massimo has played to a blinder for months, and this column was very nearly going to be written in a tone of dazed delirium about the sudden rush of good news.
Massimo Cellino, infuriatingly, is only ever one or two good moves away from good form; partly because he does do good, right things occasionally, and partly because, despite everything, he still enjoys a lot of goodwill from fans who want to see him, and by extension the club, succeed. Leeds fans are, by and large, an easy-going bunch – we let Bates and Harvey have their way with the club for almost a decade – and weeks like these are worth more than I think even Cellino realises.
There’s been bad and good this week: the list of released players will split opinions, but for me Austin is a loss given what our track record says he’ll be replaced with, I’m sentimental enough to wish White had been invited to stick around, and we only have one goalkeeper now; but Lewis Cook looked happy with his extended contract, and that’s important. Cellino still hasn’t spoken to Neil Redfearn, and that’s ridiculous, especially given the echoes of last year and the hunt for Brian McDermott; but he has spoken to Adam Pearson, and somehow convinced a guy with a knowledge of the club and a reputation for sound thinking to come aboard and help, where help is urgently required.
That, especially for Massimo, represents a good week, and there have definitely been reasons for optimism. Adam Pearson, in particular, was a welcome shock; like the figure emerging from the steam at the end of The Railway Children before a disbelieving Jenny Agutter: “Daddy, my daddy!” Like all the best ones – Lucas Radebe, Howard Wilkinson, Martin Hiden – Pearson represents a time before the madness, when Leeds United were a lark ascending and, like a Yeboah scoring streak, it just got better and better and better.
Pearson is also remembered round here for noticing in time when things were about to get worse and worse and worse. Leeds United in the Champions League era was like an anti-drink drive advert, where nobody realised how drunk Party Pete was until his mates had abandoned him and he was alone at the wheel. Among the first to opt for a taxi home was Adam Pearson, which is why it’s a surprise to see him clambering into the speedboat next to Cellino now.
A firm hand on the tiller – I’m pretty sure one of them said that at the press conference, although I can’t remember which. Probability would suggest it was Cellino; he did most of the talking, after all. Which was perhaps the most dispiriting thing about Pearson’s involvement. Adam Pearson is the strong, confident, experienced leader this club has lacked for years, who spoke intelligently in Thursday morning’s Yorkshire Post about reconnecting the club to the city. By Thursday afternoon, he was gibbering like Hockaday; exactly like Hockaday, in fact. Towards the end of the Hockaday press conference, Cellino left the room just as he did on Thursday; on that occassion it was to let Hockaday and Lewis talk, but instead Massimo kept talking, just from further away, while Hockaday giggled inanely in a ‘you don’t get many of him to the pound!’ way. This time, Cellino signalled to Terry that it was time for a break, Pearson fumbled with this cuffs as he took a question about Neil Redfearn’s future and, as Cellino meandered through the room and talked off camera to the journalists, managed a nervous laugh and, “Yeah, god, yeah, it’ll definitely be Mr Cellino’s decision.”
Nervous laughter wasn’t supposed to be part of the Pearson script. Neither was the fact that Pearson didn’t appear to have even read the script. With Cellino out of the room, Pearson opted to answer questions quickly and curtly; a mistake, in retrospect, because that meant there were a lot of them, and he wasn’t prepared. “I’ve been here three days, and there don’t seem to be any communication problems between anyone,” he said; he also said that he hadn’t spoken to Neil Redfearn, he didn’t know if Cellino had spoken to Neil Redfearn, and he didn’t know if Cellino had plans to speak to Neil Redfearn; oh, and he didn’t know if Nicola Salerno still had a job. But apart from that, communication is fine.
Pearson’s main stance was that everybody just needed to chill about everything. “I’m only a week into it, so you guys have been waiting longer than I have, but I wouldn’t get too uptight about the amount of time that you’re going to have to keep waiting. Things are happening and conversations are taking place and it is being run properly. So I think if everybody could just…”
Relax, baby, relax. And as for Neil Redfearn? His future isn’t a decision that needs to be rushed into.
“Does the owner here speak to his coach on a regular basis? Normally he does. At this moment in time he’s just arrived back in the country, maybe he needs a couple of days.” It was pointed out that Cellino had been back in the country, and back at the club, for a fortnight. “Has he? I dunno. I only met him last week.”
With that, all hope was lost. Mr Cellino said near the start of the press conference – before the cigarette, and the shouting, and the foaming at the mouth – that he and Adam would work well together because they wouldn’t have to have meetings – they would talk for a couple of hours, decide who was cleaning the floor and who was mopping it, and then go and do it (the actual cleaning/mopping metaphor went on a lot longer than that, but you get the picture). The idea that Adam Pearson might actually have some input into the decision making process began to feel slightly silly; a shame, because giving Pearson input into the decision making process would have been the best decision Cellino could have possibly made.
The problem with that is that bad decisions are like a badge of honour to Cellino. Remember when he said that the club had a £15m budget for players this season, so the McCormack money wouldn’t be touched, and could be spent on buying Elland Road back? “We had £10m for McCormack,” he said on Thursday. “But we spend £9.5m for other players. I just realised last night,” this with a finger to the side of his head, cocked like a pistol. “But the £10m for McCormack that we have last season, unfortunately my friend, we spend for players that we never use.”
There followed a complaint that in Neil Redfearn’s first or second game, there were “£9.2m of wages in the stand”; and with this, the paperback hit the table and he folded his arms. “The £10m for McCormack went all on the garbage,” because the coach wouldn’t play the players he was given, bought with money that Cellino said was not going to be spent on players anyway; but the idea that the coach should be able to choose players that he would play got short shrift.
“If a coach make mistakes he walks away or we make him walk away, and the mistakes stay with the club. So, I am the club. They are the coach.” He acted out a conversation with the coach about signing a player. “We make a mistake with the player? We all responsible. Do you understand?”
Mistakes and responsibility – it’s like Cellino expects to fail, and the whole system is geared towards blame; blame Cellino is happy to take. But he is also happy to give blame out. He wants to decide who the club should sign, so that if the club signs the wrong player, he can hold his hands up and bear the burden of the responsibility: fair. But he also wants to have a coach he can fire at will, so that if they don’t, for example, make the best use of Brian Montenegro – and that’s the example Cellino gave – then Cellino has someone to blame, a way to say: this isn’t my fault. Unfair.
The responsibility is a myth because Massimo Cellino wants the credit for admitting mistakes as much as he wants the credit for the successes, and this is where we really get down to what is eating at him: Neil Redfearn. “Uhhhhhhhhh,” said Massimo, when the first question of the day was about whether Neil Redfearn would be in charge next season. “Did you have a reserve question? Keep that to the last.”
It didn’t take long to get into it, though. Massimo Cellino’s problem with Neil Redfearn, according to the evidence of this press conference, is that Redders was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when Massimo picked him out, shook him up, turned him around and turned him into someone new. Now, five months later on Redders has the world at his feet, and success has been so easy for him; but he’s forgotten it was Massimo who put Redders where he is now, and he can put him back down too.
“Who put Neil Redfearn in that position? Me. I did it. Who want Neil to succeed more than anyone else? It was me. It’s me. Because it was my choice. I take the risk.”
And the reward?
“I don’t know what’s happened. [Long pause] Really. From the last ten game. I never heard anyone, no one call me. No one call me. Until now, I’m here, when I got back my employees made a little champagne glass to welcome me back, I was touched – maybe they were very clever, they wanted the refill, I don’t know. But Neil was not there.”
“I don’t know. Ask him. He never call me.”
There was more, and the anger and resentment rose as the minutes ticked by. Cellino promised he would never fire a coach who is good for the club “because he has a personal problem with me”, a classic bit of it’s-not-me-it’s-him-ism; he told a convoluted tale about how nobody so much as noticed Charlie Taylor except Cellino, least of all Redfearn, and how he had to sell Stephen Warnock behind Redfearn’s back just to get him to notice Taylor; the idea seems to be that Cellino is responsible for all the good young players – the Redders generation – supported by Redfearn’s refusal to get the best out of Montenegro.
“He has many agents,” Cellino said of Redfearn near the start, before he got warmed up, which was taken to mean supporters, which was taken to mean that Cellino is paranoid about how well Redfearn is liked. By the end, when Cellino was flapping his arms and pounding his chest, there could be little doubt that paranoia, and jealousy, is the problem.
Pretty much the last question of the day came with the point that the situation with Neil Redfearn, that has angered so many fans, looks pretty easy to solve.
“I have big problem,” Massimo said quietly. “McDermott, I had 200 fans waiting for me out there. I am not used to, I am not used to, and never will, to explain the reason internal of my club or my company, publicly … [The majority of fans] have to think that I don’t have to just be worried about the 200 fans that, maybe, they are informed in the wrong way or they are too close with someone they shouldn’t be.”
Or too close with his agents. It was around this time, as the conference drew to a close, and Cellino started doing a sarcastic Leeds salute to accuse fans of pretending to love the club – “Less touching the crest! And start putting the money! … Tell them to start to buy season tickets! Then we talk about the club!” – that Adam Pearson’s hand went well and truly to his mouth and he began to resemble Terry Venables sat next to Peter Ridsdale back in 2003, that Cellino was basically talking exactly like Ken Bates – ‘the fans might not like what I’m doing, but they have to take their medicine, and the silent majority don’t want me to worry about 200 noisy fans’, that Cellino was also literally foaming at the mouth, pounding the table with a book, rising out of his chair, angry about something, about something at a press conference that had lasted seventy minutes with a cigarette break but no news, that he had called so that people could ask him questions, that he had begun by complaining about the type of questions he was asked and ended by saying it was disrespectful to ask him to justify his decisions publicly, while in between he contradicted his former statements about the club in more ways than we can even begin to touch on in an already too-long column – it was around then that we wished the cameras would stay running just a little bit longer, stay with Massimo as he left the room and returned to his newly redecorated office.
Because that way we might have found out what the hell it was all about.