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the square ball week: presidential pieces

the square ball week: presidential pieces


It’s been a pleasure over the last few weeks not only to watch Leeds United winning games and scoring good goals, but to able to write down thoughts about their progress without mentioning Massimo Cellino.

Pleasure ends now, I guess, but like much of the world, I’m hoping the end is only temporary.

It has been, for a while, a glimpse of what football could be, perhaps how football is at other clubs, but how it hasn’t been at Leeds United since, probably, 1999, when the fairly anonymous people running Caspian and Leeds Sporting PLC allowed Peter Ridsdale to take the board’s chair and run with it.

The names in the boardroom since then flow as easily from memory as easily as the names on the pitch; more easily, in some cases, which is surely putting things the wrong way around. They’ve had more support, sometimes, too; there were times when, while fans angrily debated the finer points of Marko Viduka’s playing style, they found little reason to pause and discuss before chanting the name of Peter Ridsdale.

Whether we’re still struggling with the implications of the Ridsdale era all these years later, or whether some switch in society tripped the emphasis, that cult of personality has kept bringing ill tides to Elland Road. The spick and span teeth of Gulf Finance House are sometimes given as the point in time of a post-Peter Ridsdale resumption of PR, but actually it was the rotten, hairy maw of Ken Bates that brought the media back to LS11, not to see what the football was like, but for the “Lorra, lorra laughs” Ken promised from the boardroom.

The media are still awaiting a reason to go home, but that’s been good in recent weeks, because until very recently they’ve had no choice, on finding the presidential suite empty, but to turn attention to the pitch. Which has been an absolute blessing, and the fulfilment of a possibility from the moment Massimo Cellino got here.

We all want peace, surely, and after the rancour of the Bates and GFH eras many of us looked into the background of our prospective new owner to see if peace might be found there. What we found instead were decaying stadiums half-full of protesting fans, criminal dramas played out amid accusations and convictions for large scale fraud, exploding helicopters and ships with dead crew, crotch-grabbing boasts and some pretty awful mangling of the electric guitar.

It didn’t promise peace, and neither did Massimo Cellino by either his words or actions, and so while there was still a chance for his takeover to be averted and a new future to be found, protests were held and taxis pursued. Ultimately defeated, that early discord set the tone, but in the pursuit of peace, discord needn’t have been as final as it became.

Football and its intersections with commerce lead fans into hypocritical positions where they feel devotion to their team leaves them no choice but to follow, and so I wrote in the early days of Cellino about a formula for how, against all better judgements, things might still work out. Yeah, even after the hiring and firing of Dave Hockaday, when photocopied mea culpas were supplementing the matchday programme. We all want peace, Cellino won, we just had to make it as painless as possible.

The pain was always Cellino himself, and the medicine — if not a cure — was always what we’ve had of late. If Massimo wouldn’t go, instead he just had to go against his instincts, his character, his history and his track record, by making good decisions and staying quiet. Drop the profile, turn up the management; or even better, hand the management to someone else, Adam Pearson or Ben Mansford, and drop the profile even further.

That’s how we’ve been of late, mostly. In Leeds Cellino has been quiet and therefore tolerable, whether through policy, or because he’s been here long enough to develop bizarre grudges with so many local reporters he’s got nobody left to text. He’s disappeared from interviews, and he’s disappeared from match reports, too.

Although Cellino is a fascinating character to consider, there are times when you don’t want to have to reboot American Psycho when you’re halfway through describing a Second Division football game, and recent weeks spent pondering the psychology of Pontus and probing the sensuality of Pablo in prose have been a sweet, sweet relief from loading the bookmark on for synonyms of ‘unstable.’

That something is up, though, is obvious; the signs Cellino has had to fight his instincts to maintain his low profile make it so. As quiet as he has been here, over in Italy he’s still managed to wade into debates about the organisation and management of Internazionale, a subject that Cellino should only ever comment on ironically, and did, whether he was aware of it or not, criticising them for hiring Frank de Boer at the wrong time.

“You can’t change your coach in August,” said Cellino, who sacked Dave Hockaday 28th August 2014. To be charitable you could say he knows whereof he speaks. More likely he just can’t remember back that far. “The guy with the woman, the vampire, or the potato-face guy?” The potato-face guy, Massimo. “Ahhhhh this face I remember. Was at Cagliari, no?”

Also in Italy have been reports that Cellino might be about to sell Leeds United to Andrea Radrizzani, and then go buy Brescia, although all the Google Translation on the internet can’t unravel where these stories begin. “Newspapers in Italy say…” write the British websites. “Websites in Britain say…” write the Italian newspapers. Then social media tries to convince you these stories contain new developments and the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook amplify rumour into truth. And we’ve learned this year how good social media echo chambers are for us all.

Wherever it’s come from, mention of Brescia is an interesting and plausible development, because if true it pushes understanding of Cellino closer to what the evidence has always shown us, and further from the fake website that claimed he was a billionaire, and one of the world’s richest rappers. Brescia, my memory tells me, are that team with the natty blue shirts and the deep white chevron. They also, Wikipedia tells me, hold the record for the most overall seasons (53) and consecutive seasons (18) in Serie B. Right now, Google tells me, they’re 9th in Serie B, playing in front of crowds of around 7,000 people.

It seems like his level. If there was one constant about the public Cellino that he used to project around Leeds, it was that Leeds United was hard. Really hard. Much harder than he expected. GFH made it difficult, the Football League made it tough, finding a good coach was so much effort, players from Serie B couldn’t handle it, the fans didn’t automatically love him, everything was so much more expensive and nobody understood how hard he was trying.

It was as if Cellino had fought and fought for his dream job and all its power, but then found out that having that dream job meant you actually had to be capable of doing it, not just of telling people how great you would be if you were.

Does that sound familiar, this week? Although US President-Elect Donald J. Trump famously pulled Leeds United’s ball out of the FA’s bag to lock us three times together in a tug-of-Christmas with Manchester United back in 1991/92, I doubt he’s followed our fortunes since, or that he knows who Massimo Cellino is. After all, the Donald deals only with winners.

Presidents are judged on behaviour and results, so when Trump toned down the rhetoric and fuzz-felted the promises in his victory speech, it was with a keen eye — either his own or his advisors’ — on his life after January, and it was as if he’d torn a page from Cellino’s recent book.

Trump will have to be presidential when he’s the president, and people who know Trump’s character of old say that might be the thing that will be hardest for him to achieve. Campaigning was the easy part, because it meant Trump could stand up in front of crowds of people already willing to support him, and tell them what they wanted to hear — I’m going to build a wall, I’m going to lock up Hillary Clinton, I’m going to buy back Elland Road — and allow his ego to feed on the adoring cheers.

From January he will be charged with sitting in an office while people ask him to do the things necessary to do the things he says he wants to do, constantly. Various American presidents have become famous for the long, concentrated hours they work, but nobody says that’s Donald Trump’s style. Cellino’s style, if Trump is interested, is to have a few bottles of whiskey by his desk. Maybe a few of those could double as a paperweight for the nuclear codes.

The lack of adulation may well be another hard part for Trump to adjust to as he shifts gear from rebel to executive. The discipline required of Cellino in recent weeks has shown signs of cracking him, not only in those remarks about Inter and the need they showed to be heard, but when he popped up on in a watermarked photo on Terry George’s Instagram this week, tearing vegetables apart with this bare hands — sorry, “preparing dinner” — and wearing a gross Leeds United ‘college style’ jacket. He also wore the expression of someone who knows he should be out of the limelight, but also knows that being in the limelight feels so damn good, and just this once more won’t hurt. They’re singing a song about Pontus Jansson, you know, so a few easy likes on Instagram can’t hurt.

The limes have few brighter lights in football than at Leeds United, and this is the trap from which Massimo Cellino won’t want to escape. All the grand boasts that got him here proved to be unnecessary; what was required to make Leeds United successful was quiet good work, done by other people. But that wouldn’t have made Cellino half as popular as he wanted.

The brimming love for Pontus Jansson, Garry Monk, Pablo Hernandez and even Luke Ayling is not for anything they’ve said they’ll do — the opposite, in Monk’s case, if you think back to when his summer talk about identity became an autumn refusal to speak about it — but for the good things they’ve done. Thanks to the good things they’ve done, Leeds United feels more positive than it has been for years. Absent from it all, apparently to negotiate his absence permanently, has been the man who promised that all this sort of stuff would be down to him, one day.

Now that it’s going so well, Brescia must lose its lustre, but what is there left for Cellino to add? He can own Leeds United, but he can’t run it the way he said he would. He might get more bang for his buck in Brescia in terms of understanding the league, its culture, the players required, and the buck required, which might be easier for him to afford. But the bang, in front of 7,000 people, even at that price, might not be worth it. Not, like, Leeds worth it.

Back in 2014, Cellino said, “In 2015/16, if we don’t go into the Premier League then you can tell me I’ve failed.” Well, if he was around, we could tell him: you’ve failed. And: whether you failed or not, there was always something more at stake than Massimo Cellino’s personal failure, or personal success.

What we’ve learned in recent weeks is that Leeds United can be successful without a president, that we can achieve without overpromises, that we have enough light of our own in the club that we don’t need so much heat. Where that leaves Massimo Cellino is up to him. Brescia? If it makes him happy. Where that would leave us, though, is peering into the background of another new owner, but not looking so much for peace we want, but for someone who can accept the peace we have.


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