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the square ball week: someone special

the square ball week: someone special


There’s a romantic idea that art is all about drinking wine, taking drugs and waiting for inspiration.

Reclining in a secluded tower, or pondering by an Italian lake, the artist waits for the thunderbolt of an idea to enter their mind, to seize their hand. Turning to the canvas, opening the notebook or picking up the guitar, they are a vessel for vibrations from some other place, and that’s when a masterpiece happens.

That seems to be the approach Massimo Cellino is taking to owning Leeds United this summer, anyway.

“I have a good feeling,” Cellino told The Mirror, about his ‘search’ for a new head coach. “I can not make a mistake this time. My players need someone special.”

There’s a lot to unpack in there, before we get back to the art/inspiration thing. These players that need someone special — what players are these, exactly? So far this summer Leeds have only shed players, like anoraks when lunchtime turns out warmer than expected, and while there are day by day updates in the press about our coaching targets, there’s a noticeable lack of speculation linking Leeds United to new players. The only transfer movements expected are the ones out we’re hoping for, like Giuseppe Bellusci to just fuck off; or the ones out that we’re resigned to, to protect ourselves from total dismay: Taylor, Mowatt, Cook. Let them all go, and at the current rate we’ll be close to needing to interpret “My players need someone special” as ‘Casper Sloth needs someone special.’

Casper Sloth needs someone, that’s for sure. Cellino can boast to The Mirror that, “For the first time in England I have a lot of good managers willing to come to us at Leeds United,” and promise that he won’t make a mistake this time, he’ll get someone special — but that’s far from enough. Special or not, the club needs a full range of coaching staff, a Head of Academy, a preseason programme of training and friendlies; and players, it needs players. And it’s basically already June.

But perhaps all that will just happen if Cellino picks the right, the special, ‘The’ Head Coach, and doesn’t just get distracted by their looks like with Milanic. Decisions about things like coaching staff are often left up to head coaches, so perhaps that’s fair; players too, although Cellino has never seemed to value the opinions of his head coaches too highly in the past (“Did I ask your fucking advice?” he said he once asked Dave Hockaday, who had offered some thoughts on Ross McCormack’s future; “No. So shut the fuck up”).

The Academy Director is different; that seems like an appointment that ought to be made in a more strategic, long term way, separate to the first team or the season ahead, in order to provide some stability, consistency and protection for the young players; but that would require someone at the football club to not get bored and give up as soon as this sentence mentioned ‘strategy’.

But if that is what Cellino hopes, that he’ll pick the magic watermelon that will do all the hard work for him, then he needs first of all to apply some urgency and stop waiting for fate to gift him the special coach he needs. That, to get back to the start, is not how art happens. For art to happen, you have to turn up and work at it, every day, and practice, and learn; you need to experience, absorb and apply. That’s what inspiration really is; it’s hard work, seeking out examples you admire or want to achieve, then acquiring the skills to make your version.

That is possibly what Cellino has actually been attempting to put into practice during his recent blind dates with the young, English coaching talent that he said, during his most recent big interview, he definitely couldn’t and didn’t want to work with. Regardless of that, promising candidates have been identified, approached, and spoken to. Perhaps they got to hear details from the board meeting held last week, were filled in on the strategy for next season that is currently hidden from us humble supporters. And then, they’ve walked away.

This is arguably a bigger problem for Leeds United’s than Cellino’s reliance on a ‘good feeling’ in place of a proper strategy. Good people are attracted by the prospect of working for Leeds United; and the manager’s job has made Brian McDermott a reborn fan, reduced Steve Evans to tears. Just playing has changed the lives of players like Shaun Derry or Andy Hughes, and all this while Leeds United has been a second or third division club.

They’re all attracted, but now they meet Massimo Cellino, and then they walk away. And that’s the problem. People decide, after spending time with the owner, that rather than take what might be a once in a lifetime chance to manage what has been one of the greatest club sides in the world, they’d be happier at Fake FC in Milton Keynes. Or Oldham or Notts County, in John Sheridan’s case, someone who already knows exactly what it is to be Leeds.

It feels as though the club are heading for a like disappointment from Darrell Clarke. Cellino says he will meet Bristol Rovers’ payment demands for one of lower league football’s best regarded young managers, if not yet the payment schedule; but that only gets him to first base. Then they have to meet.

There’s a decreasing opportunity for that to happen, as Cellino is in Italy until the weekend — where he attended a party at Serie B champions Cagliari, who celebrate every day since Cellino left — and Clarke is off to his stag do in Las Vegas early next week. Given Cellino has previous for sacking staff for taking holidays, and at least for one for just thinking about taking one before he even started work, that seems a novel way for Clarke to rule himself out. But if Cellino is willing to wait for Clarke to come back — if he truly is the special one — we still face the same difficulty of them actually interacting as human people; and another week will have flown by, and with it the season ticket money back deadline, and we’ll still be no closer to arranging a preseason friendly match. (I assume Darrell will have sorted all that sort of stuff for Bristol before his holiday.)

In the midst of all this is the curious creature that Steve Evans calls Steve Evans, curious because he is the one person apart from Terry George who seems not only willing, but begging to work with Massimo Cellino; but is also the one person Massimo Cellino doesn’t want. “I can not make a mistake,” says Cellino, “This time”; and Steve cries into Steve’s face, hunched over a hand-mirror in a deserted Thorp Arch. A mistake.

That statement appeared to help Steve Evans find Steve Evans’ backbone, but then, now he really, really had to. There are no distracting games being played anymore — not of football, at least — no more, ‘I’m sure I’ll find out at the end of the season.’ Now there is only the unavoidable fact that Cellino is actively trying to hire a new head coach for Leeds United, while Leeds United’s head coach rearranges the contents of every filing cabinet he can find at Thorp Arch, and wonders why his own job offers, that he used to humblebrag his way through the end of the season, have dried up.

It’s probably because Steve Evans has so completely sacrificed Steve Evans’ dignity in his desperation to keep Steve Evans in the Leeds job, and to other clubs, that kind of desperate ain’t attractive. His comments at the end of the season — “I won’t be one of those head coaches who goes away, goes to court, speaks ill of this football club. It would go against everything I’m for” — were so weasel, and so badly aimed (which head coaches have taken Leeds to court, anyway?), and so unseemly, that they simultaneously cost him his last shot at keeping the Leeds job, and the respect of any prospective employers. What would go against everything Steve Evans is for, it seems like, is standing up to the worst joke owner in English football; what Steve Evans is for, is for prostrating himself at the feet of so false a god as Cellino, washing those feet with his hair and very, very expensive talcum powder. There was talk of Evans getting the Celtic job; they went for Brendan Rogers in the end.

Even the sharply clawed statement in response to Cellino’s talk about his next coach carried a not so subliminal ‘please pick me’ message to Cellino: “I’m confident I would lead us to promotion so I presume the remit is now to be champions”; because, Massimo, if all those other guys run away after dinner, after drinks, after a bumpy night when they see you as the man you are, I’ll still be right here — and I might not get you the title, but I will get you promotion. And I wanna give you devotion.”

Which seems to be the one thing Cellino doesn’t want, not from his coaches, anyway. From his coaches, he doesn’t want devotion, but fealty; Neil Redfearn, who was coolly respectful of the owner while he was first team coach, might have survived if he hadn’t been so damn popular.

But what about devotion from the fans? That, it would appear, would seem to be as much a need of Cellino’s as when he spat his dummy out because Redders had a better nickname. “After all the things the fans have said about me, now they will start to understand,” says Massimo, now. Alright. Well. First of all, he’s got some explaining to do.

And first of all, he’s got to do it to the next poor unfortunate to sit the other side of a bottle-strewn table from Massimo, listening to the incoherent ramblings of a man who two weeks ago said he was tired of owning Leeds United and wants to sell but who now wants you, yes you, to come and work for him as head coach, and to wave your magic wand and make everything right that should have been sorted weeks ago — the coaching staff, the new players, the old players, the preseason training, the preseason friendlies, the beautiful football, the promotion; Massimo Cellino first has to make that person understand why he should leave whatever stability he has in his work and life and come and work for Leeds United when, once, come and work for Leeds United would have been all they had to hear. Only when that person understands will the fans start to understand. And time is running out.

It’s getting late. The restaurant is closing, and Massimo can tell you’re not convinced. ‘Come on, I have a good feeling,’ he says, throwing a best-matey arm around your neck. ‘We talk more, we got to my place, I make you understand. You have to come. I have my players, they need someone special. I have this Casper Sloth…”


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