the square ball week: enjoy the footballBack
It’s Thursday afternoon, and you feel tense and nervous; staring sullenly into the middle distance, you make a fist just so your middle-finger can scratch your palm. There’s no itch there; it’s a cooling, hopefully calming sensation.
The European Championships. England vs Wales. The most battling Battle of Britain since Leeds United vs Glasgow Rangers in 1992. But you can barely see the players, hardly hear — blessfully — Robbie Savage squawking like that steel bin full of exhaling toy geese in that Ikea that time.
It’s not the stress of England, or of international football, because you can’t even concentrate on that. It’s because you’re a fan of Leeds United and Massimo Cellino has been talking.
Truly, does any of it matter? England beat Wales, Wales beat England; and somewhere on Instagram, Alex Mowatt, in face paint and flags, posts a selfie. And you wish to yourself that he wasn’t watching, because it’s a taste of the big time, isn’t it? He was watching France vs Albania the night before when Dimitri Payet curled home the winner. Alex’s phone buzzed. It was a message from Sam. ‘Payety does them all the time in training lol’ he says.
Charlie Taylor, back from a run and fresh from lunching on an entire butcher’s counter of raw meat, looks at Danny Rose playing left-back for England and ponders the way that Danny played his way from Leeds United to the European Championships with England, and has a lightbulb moment about what might have been the key decision in his progress. Half-time comes and Charlie is bench-pressing and thinking, bench-pressing and thinking.
Maybe Lewis Cook is with him, not joining in with Charlie on his constant bulking up because he has a toe to keep on ice and an England tournament of his own to consider, the U19 European Championships in Germany, when he’ll be playing with and against some of the best young players in the country and on the continent; he’ll be spending July with his squad mates from clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton, West Ham, and talking to them, no doubt. Comparing experiences, comparing clubs, comparing wage packets.
‘Football League Young Player of the Year?’ you imagine some oik from Chelsea’s yoof saying to him. ‘Like Dele Alli? And that’s all your getting?’ And you imagine him saying it to Lewis, every god damn day.
This is the point of international tournaments, in many ways; they’re showpieces, meant to demonstrate the best that football has, to the watching world. The problem for Leeds fans is that it’s not good for our players to know that there is another world out there beyond Elland Road and Thorp Arch; at least, it’s not good for the good ones to know, anyway. I doubt dear old Scott Wootton is having any sofa epiphanies this summer, unless he’s still not over the whole Rio Ferdinand thing (and he really should be by now).
But for Taylor and Cook, the futures of Rose and Alli are so attainable that our only hope of keeping them at Leeds United is to either lock them in windowless rooms between games and seasons, or do something about Leeds United to convince them that they’ll achieve their Premier League and England dreams in Yorkshire. Mowatt, after last season, is the runt of the litter, but that gives him just as many Tom Leesy reasons to get away; even more if his two mates get out first.
We have, then, to consider the odds; what is most achievable? At this point, enforced sensory deprivation for the club’s young stars seems much more viable than that United might win promotion. The downside is that it would probably do nothing for their footballing abilities, and land the club with court cases that are even harder to justify than the ones we’ve rolled through in these days of Cellino so far. But hey, a court case is a court case, even if it involves locking Lewis Cook in a box.
That chance has gone already, you feel. “Charlie is going to be a problem,” Massimo Cellino told the Daily Mail, for some reason I dunno search me, this week. “I think his agent is the same as Sam [Byram]. Taylor doesn’t return the call.”
That has brought all kinds of bloody hell and curses down upon the names of Charlie Taylor and his agent on Twitter, but misses the widely gossiped point that when Massimo Cellino calls, lots of people don’t answer, often because it’s four in the bloody morning and he’s been out all night with Terry George. What’s really at issue here is, yet again, Cellino’s naivety when it comes to football — football that has been his livelihood for more than two decades, football that he doesn’t understand.
“With Cook, he’s got good agents and is a nice kid. I think we are not going to have any problem(s),” says Cellino, and there it is, contract negotiations in a nutshell: Charlie Taylor, bad agent, no deal; Lewis Cook, good agent, nice kid, deal. Cellino has the reputation of being hard-nosed enough to know that being ‘good agents’ and ‘a nice kid’ go out the window when you sit around a table and talk about why one of the best young footballers in England should choose to play for Leeds United, but as we’ve seen again and again, he isn’t.
For Charlie Taylor now, you can read Sam Byram nine months ago, when he was personally breaking Massimo Cellino’s heart by saying he might want to play for another football club; and for Charlie Taylor now, read Lewis Cook in six months, or as soon as he and his agents tell Cellino that being nice guys won’t pay their bills, or get Lewis to the World Cup with Alli. You can hear Massimo’s bleating now; ‘I thought he was a nice kid, I thought his agents were good guys,’ and you can hear the reactions, too; Cook was just a Scum fan in it for the money all along.
That there may be more to Leeds United’s upcoming summer of transfers than just the ambition of its star players is another enthusiasm-sapping worry to drift to, as you realise you’re not watching the elite European football on the screen in front of you.
“I have a little problems with the shareholders,” Cellino also told the Mail. “I hope everything will go fine (on) the 21st.”
The 21st? That’s when the board meeting to discuss Leeds United’s summer strategy is being held, just over a month since Leeds United’s last board meeting to discuss the summer strategy. At that point, there was no mention of little problems with shareholders; there was also no mention of Niccolo Pio Barattieri di San Pietro, but he has replaced Ercole Cellino on the board anyway, and was on hand to present Garry Monk to the press the other week.
Barattieri’s presence has been hard to fathom. His link to the Leeds United boardroom comes through the parent company of Gulf Finance House; he is CEO of property company Northacre, whose majority owners, Abu Dhabi Finance Group, are also the largest shareholders of GFH Capital. His links to football come through Sunderland, where he was part of the ‘football committee’ — with the chairman, CEO, manager and director of football — from March 2013 to May 2014. His links to the Vatican come through his mother’s family; her great-uncle was Pius XII, Pope from 1939-1958. His links to the House of Windsor come through his girlfriend, Lady Kitty Spencer, niece of Princess Diana.
But what he’s doing at Leeds United is harder to delineate than a social network that links a princess, a Pope and Niall Quinn, and a second strategic board meeting of the summer hints at more going on behind the scenes than deciding how much to bid to sign Kemar Roofe from Oxford.
Ominous in the Mail report was the line: ‘Cellino added that there is a problem that he has to sort out “for good”, or Leeds will have to change their strategy this summer’; the kind of line we’ve heard before from Cellino. In fact, it’s pretty much the reason Cellino gives for not making good on any of his promises in his first two seasons at Elland Road; that he spent most of his time working on sorting things out off the pitch than working out how to improve the team off it.
But then, a meeting and a photo with Hisham Alrayes — clasping each others’ hands, and some sort of portfolio — “fixed the club forever,” in Massimo’s words, in December 2014. We’re eighteen months on from that announcement, and a month on from the board meeting to decide the future course of the club, and we have a head coach, an assistant coach, and a goalkeeping coach, true; but we also have the same nagging doubts as always since Cellino has been at Elland Road: that feeling that something, something weird, something papal or Royal or otherwise unpredictable, is lurking in the boardroom, ready to screw everything up. Again.
And all this, while we’re trying to enjoy the football.