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the square ball week: the alchemist

the square ball week: the alchemist


They sacked Neil Redfearn; they sacked Andy Hughes. They haven’t sacked Luciano Becchio, though, which suggests that the board of Rotherham United still have some aesthetic sense, if nothing else.

“As we all know,” said Rotherham chairman Tony Stewart, “Football is a results driven business”; Redders’ Rotherham results were won five, drawn two, lost thirteen. Which is bloody loads lost, to be fair.

Redders might allow himself a wry smile that thirteen is also the number of games that Derby County won under Paul Clement this season, and that wasn’t enough to keep him in a job either. Welcome to the Championship, soon to be the EFL, where Massimo Cellino’s madness can be measured by degree.

Redfearn’s departure from Rotherham caused more interest in Leeds than it once would have; few of us really gave a care when they sacked their last guy. This time it was ammunition for anyone who wanted to drag along the arguments about Redfearn’s departure from Leeds, arguments that have had a fever that debates about Darko Milanic never reached, but that had died down since United (hope, truth and love version) knocked United (scrap metal and Chuckle Brothers version) out of the FA Cup.

That Redfearn couldn’t get more than five wins from a bare-bones squad built around Paul Green proved, apparently, that he was never the right man for Leeds United; even though one of those wins came against Leeds United, and even though when he was at Leeds United he dredged eight wins from sixteen games in the rosy post-New Year’s spell when all was right in the world.

It’s fair to concentrate on that period, and not on the five straight defeats that came once Steve Thompson was suspended, because I’m building up to a point about alchemy and insanity. Alchemy is the pursuit of the production of gold from base metals, and it’s a great analogy for football, which is the pursuit of the production of success from base people.

Take some lead, add fire and the wing of a bat, and await a vial of molten gold; take Alan Shearer, stick him in the dugout with an Adidas benchcoat, and wait for Newcastle to climb the table. It’s the same pseudo-science and it has the same pseudo non-results. Look at Derby’s reasons for getting rid of Paul Clement this week, despite being fifth in the league — not “building on the Derby way and style of football enjoyed in the past two seasons” — they don’t really know what they’re talking about, but they talk a good game.

The analogy in Massimo Cellino’s world is not alchemy, but watermelons; he keeps smashing them in the hope that a magical watermelon-baby will appear from within, and make everything alright; he’s haunted by it, like Ally McBeal and her dancing baby. Which is where the insanity develops, and where we find the end to arguments about Neil Redfearn’s suitability to be head coach at Leeds United: in an industry of alchemists and watermelon farmers, Cellino had found the magic formula that actually worked.

And then he trashed it.

And since then we’ve built a whole new backroom and playing staff around and between Uwe Rosler, Adam Pearson, Chris Wood, and 4–3–3; then trashed then, swept them all out and replaced them with Steve Evans and that’s it; all in pursuit of that elusive, alchemical perfection that, for a while this time last year, was bubbling in the test tube that Cellino held in his hand. The trash/rebuild policy’s effect on players was put into stark numbers by Phil Hay in his column this week: “No player in United’s squad boasts 100 club appearances or more. Charlie Taylor, after fourteen months in the side, is already fifth in the list.”

The other news in the Yorkshire Evening Post this week was the statement front page about Cellino, the pie-tax and punishment; a fan-sourced text from a non-football supporting translator of Cellino’s particular Sardinian dialect turning the volume on Cellino’s off-the-cuff pre-Christmas chat in l’Unione Sarda up so high that nobody, even Cellino, can ignore the sound; unless they wilfully wish to.

We’ve had this from Cellino before. In the days leading up to the fateful day at Wigan Athletic when the Football League announced the appeal decision that allowed Cellino to take over, he was appealing himself to the Cagliari fans in Italy — “When I realised that the team needed me, I came back” — and even underlined his commitment by sacking a Cagliari coach the day after Leeds won at Wigan. In the same week, though, he was telling The Sun in England, “There is only place in my heart for one club, and that is Leeds. When I get the right offer I will sell Cagliari.” As if Cagliari and Leeds operate in separate universes; as if translation doesn’t exist; as if the internet doesn’t warn us when someone is talking smack behind our backs.

Beyond the pie-tax the transcript is mostly a nostalgic and wine-soaked meander through good times and bad at Cagliari, where we can put aside the pint-based petulance and stare for a while into the history that created the watermelon alchemist that owns Leeds United today. It’s history, but if we’re already talking alchemy let’s talk about Quantum Leap starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, and travel along the lines of Cellino’s lifetime.

“I bought the Cagliari because Ferlaino told me: ‘Buy Cagliari, it is a bargain,’” says Cellino.

“When you’re a business man who doesn’t know anything about football you think that you can treat a football team like the other businesses and I thought: ‘Cagliari costs 15 billion [lire], for Fonseca another team will give me 14 billion, so it is a bargain.’ So I said yes. A week later I realized that was not so easy.

“If I did not go to the UEFA Cup that year I had made such a big hole that I put in jeopardy all our [family’s] companies. An unprecedented recklessness that my father forgive me from up there.”

Cellino does say elsewhere in the conversation that, “Mistakes can teach you in football. I made a lot of mistakes and I had the necessity to learn quickly. I can learn quickly and I can understand things quickly too”; but compare his recollections of buying Cagliari with the absolute mugging he received at the hands of Gulf Finance House while buying Leeds United, and consider how much Cellino learned from the experience; think about the risk to his family’s companies and about what that story adds to Cellino’s recent admission to Phil Hay: that ‘the Italian trust used to fund his original buy-out would not inject further cash into Leeds until his dispute with the Football League was settled.’

Take those bits of information, and bundle them up together with what Cellino says about his personal wealth, and how Cagliari was run: “Did I earn a lot of money? eee…. Let’s just say that: with Cagliari we lost a lot of money. Then the Cagliari have also earned the money that has been reinvested with much pleasure. And I am not so rich that I can lose 50 million or 100 million per year. If you haven’t got the money, you need to be clever. I need more money than others because I have less money than others, so with the money that I put and with the dedication that I gave, I think that I did a good football career”; in other words, that he needs to get money from the football club to invest in the football club, because he doesn’t have money to invest in football clubs.

“The Cagliari society [football club] and me had a lot of debts and we had a Fiat 500 for four in my family,” he also says. “We slept two in the front seat and two in the back seat. Then I bought a house with the money earned with a football player that I sold.”

Which is interesting, when paired with another Italian-language interview Cellino gave in 2015, discussing his ex-pat lifestyle in Miami: “‘If you don’t do what you love, love what you do,’ my father told me. I don’t love football. Football clubs are for profit and have a duty to bring a businessman profit.”

Compare, too, Cellino’s defeatist views of the current situations of the two football clubs he has owned; Cagliari, this season, top of the league and eight points clear of third place: “It can not go into Serie A. Although it may be a little team, it has a good coach, it has important players, and I must say that there is no competition. Serie B, the level of Serie B has collapsed. The problem for Cagliari will be that when it returns to Serie A, it must buy players and spend 50 million euro and i don’t know if it can do that. So we can say that it has a good Serie B team but it is not a team that can compete in the Serie A.”

Meanwhile, at Leeds United: “In life you have to admit that you can’t do more or that you’re not good enough. I thought it was easier in England. There is no comparison … There is also different stuff, difficult, scary. Fear is I think that I can’t go into the Premiership also.”

Leeds United is difficult, scary; and, “If I go away from Leeds I’m done with football.” The exit strategy? From the same interview, from Cellino’s same history: “You have to thank that the Cagliari is in the Hands of someone. Because if Giulini hadn’t bought it, I would have closed it.”

Of course as the talk wends on and the wine flows, the number 17 crops up; a long rambling tale about watching Cagliari draw a game against Empoli last season that should have been won comfortably; new owner Giulani has removed all the 17-defences Cellino installed, and so: “Vecino [an Empoli player] went into the field with the number 17, then 17 seconds from the end of the match he made it 1–1. Then you say that you’re not superstitious?!”

No, I say Vecino started the match and was wearing number 88, but feel free to take it out on the number 17 if you want to.

And feel free to take it all out on Leeds United. Because that’s what we’ve been getting; not a man with twenty-some years experience of Italian football applying his knowledge to another arena, but a reckless and emotionally-charged child of wealth careering without understanding through the “barbarian” world of English football, where we play in t-shirts in the cold, taking it all out on us.

The pie-tax was a “just a joke. I never could do anything like that,” Cellino tells Phil Hay now; back when he was taking over the club, he told Phil Hay about how at Cagliari, “…I was pissed off with the fans … So I say ‘no season tickets. You pay three times more’”; which is what all the trawling through Cellino’s history amount to: he will tell you one thing, to your face, and then later, he will tell you that he would never do anything like that.

What he has done before is exactly what he will do; and what he has done before is court disaster. That’s generally the moral in all the plays people have written, for centuries, about alchemists; they become crazed in their pursuit of an elixir of glory, and they blow up.

Alchemy at Cagliari brought Cellino to, “If Giulini hadn’t bought it, I would have closed it.” Alchemy at Leeds United? Well, at one point, it brought him Neil Redfearn and Steve Thompson; now it brings him, “Different stuff, difficult, scary … you are moved to a very high sacrifice.”

A while ago I wrote about another of northern England’s dramatics, the architect John Poulson, whose legacy in Leeds is the towering City House above the station, and who once said of himself: “I took on the world on its own terms, and no one can deny I once had it in my fist.”

Poulson collapsed, sobbing, in bankruptcy court in 1972, hospitalised by the severe shock of his life’s work and his work’s corruption being dragged into the daylight before him. In 1974, he was jailed for seven years, described by the judge as “an incalculably evil man.”

Echoes; we remember those kinds of phrases when we hear others like them. Phrases, for example, that describe Massimo Cellino as a man “of marked criminal tendencies… capable of using every kind of deception to achieve his ends.”

What brought Poulson down was his commitment to his own majesty; he painstakingly recorded his life as a monument to his own greatness, and instead built a narrative of his own criminality.

The idea of Massimo Cellino painstakingly recording anything is laughable; we’ve seen the photo of his desk at Elland Road, strewn with contracts and whisky. But he isn’t Eddie Gray; he can’t run across snow without leaving footprints. The footprints are there and the more he dances the more there is to read, and the more we learn about him the more we wonder where it’s all going to end.

“They have the Cagliari paid maybe for, my mistakes, my arrogance, my way to criticize some powers that I thought were not right.” Well, someone has to pay.


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