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the square ball week: memories accrued

the square ball week: memories accrued

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Leeds United have played pretty much two seasons of football since the game against Watford at Vicarage Road in August 2014, and in that time, some of the details have been lost.

Naturally it was a court case that sent the pages fluttering from the calendar and flung our thoughts back to those heady days. And what days they were. Giuseppe Bellusci made his debut, and was sent off, and Leeds lost to Watford, 4-1; David Hockaday was fired, then not fired, then said he wanted to be part of the club’s journey to “the Champions League”, then Leeds lost to Bradford, then he was fired.

We hadn’t even signed Tavares by this point. Hell, we’d only just been signed Casper Sloth, although the BBC’s Adam Pope had reported Hockaday was “yet to be convinced” by the idea of signing Sloth. Bellusci had only just been signed in the post-Millwall match panic, when Cellino saw what he’d wrought during the summer in the opening day defeat and went back to buy all the players he’d sworn would cost too damn much money. A deal for Bellusci had collapsed over wages early in July, before Leeds chased Frederik Sørensen with much the same result. Then there was Liam Cooper; Leeds United even put a statement on the official website to say that official interest in Cooper was officially over, before letting Tom Lees leave for nothing and crawling back to pay Chesterfield what they wanted. Bellusci joined him on loan at first, but before he’d even played a game he was given a four year contract, as Cellino made frantic room for more loanees.

In the midst of it all, we learned from the latest successful claim against Leeds United for unfair dismissal, that Massimo Cellino made a phone call to the claimant in that case, Nigel Gibbs. In the hot hours after the Watford match, when it looked certain that Hockaday would be gone that day, Cellino phoned Gibbs to ask him if he would be interested in taking over as head coach.

“Mr Cellino told the Claimant that he had not been aware that the Claimant had left Leeds,” reads the judgement, “and had only been informed that afternoon of that. Mr Cellino asked if the Claimant would return to Leeds as head coach, a post which the Claimant refused.”

I know it’s not mature, but I do love imagining a good Cellino conversation, and this one’s a peach. It starts, “Eh Gibbo! Someone told me I sacked you! Say it ain’t so!” and you can carry it on yourself from there.

What’s odd — well, one of the thing’s that’s odd — is that when he eventually resigned (which the judge has ruled was constructive dismissal) Gibbs released a statement to say the matter was in the hands of his legal advisers; a statement to which Cellino responded, saying Gibbs had wanted too much money to settle his contract and had refused to work for Hockaday.

Then, a month later, Cellino was on the phone, claiming to be surprised that Gibbs didn’t work for him anymore.

It was a long, brooding night for Cellino, who made late night contact by text with his then journalist of choice Simon Austin to say he was ashamed of the team’s performance but didn’t want to think about the manager’s future, he just wanted to sleep; he expanded on that to Phil Hay of the YEP the next night. “Yes, at Watford I decided to sack him,” he said of Hockaday, “I said ‘he’s finished.’

“But in my life I’ve learned that with your decisions, take 24 hours. Why should I blame the coach? The squad isn’t finished and that is my fault. Signing players has been harder than I thought so if I fire anyone, I should fire myself or else I’m a coward. I have to control my ego.”

No mention there of phoning Nigel Gibbs and asking him to take the job, but it did sound like a rough old weekend for Massimo. When eventually he did sack Hockaday, he rapidly wrote an apology note to the fans and inserted a copy into the matchday programme for the game against Bolton. “I may make other mistakes,” he wrote, “but if I do I will be big enough to own up to them like I have with David and Junior.” As reassuring now as it was then.

Perhaps Cellino’s confusion was understandable. Among the memories that spin off the page when you read the judgement are the names; not only Brian McDermott and Nigel Gibbs (now working at Reading and Tottenham Hotspur respectively), replaced by Dave Hockaday and Junior Lewis (most recently sacked by Kidderminster, and currently first team coach at Boreham Wood, respectively); but Gibbs also had meetings with Andrew Umbers, “who worked closely with Mr Cellino”; Graham Bean, who “was acting as Club Secretary”; Neil Redfearn, who had been told by Bean that Gibbs would be working for him at the Academy; and Benito Carbone.

Benito Carbone! Gibbs had met with Cellino shortly after McDermott was sacked to discuss his future employment, or otherwise, at Leeds; Cellino asked if Gibbs would be interested in becoming Head Coach, and Gibbs said he wouldn’t, out of loyalty to McDermott. That was transmuted in a letter from Cellino the next day into a job offer to become Assistant Manager, a position Gibbs already held but according to Cellino had refused now he was being offered it; but more important than that, Cellino wrote to Gibbs, “…you informed Benito Carbone and myself that your loyalty lay with Brian McDermott…”

So that’s what Benito Carbone did! Well, I still don’t know what he did. But after he arrived with a welcome-to-United photoshoot on the official website (an early example of the hand of Terry George?), this is the first evidence I’ve seen of Carbone doing anything at Leeds United at all, so I say it’s valuable, and shall seize upon it.

Carbone, you may recall, was reported by Massimo Cellino to have quit his job at Leeds for “family reasons” a week before the start of the season; before the week was up Carbone had told the BBC there had been a misunderstanding, he had thought he had permission to return to Italy to see his sick mother after informing Redfearn, Hockaday and Nicola Salerno (another one!) while Cellino was on holiday, and that he hoped he might be able to get his job back, despite Cellino’s withering criticism in the press.

“He went to Italy without permission, to see his sick mother, and wasn’t in Ireland when the under-21s had a game there,” Cellino had said. “He gave them the chance to fuck him, he made a mistake. Who is going to be the next to make a mistake?”

The next to make a mistake was, in fact, Giuseppe Bellusci, who had been the catalyst for the defeat thanks to his mistake and red card; bizarrely enough, it was a mistake that covered Hockaday’s backside long enough to get him through the weekend and the dalliance with Gibbs. “We lost because of his mistake. I see that now,” said Cellino. “I didn’t see it yesterday. If he didn’t fuck up and we win the game, would I be firing the coach? No.”

Perhaps it’s a shame, given what we now know, that he didn’t take the opportunity to fire Bellusci. Peppe was causing anger again this week, when Phil Hay mentioned in a report about Steve Evans’ future that, when he found out he wouldn’t be in the starting line-up against Hull, Bellusci had walked off the training pitch and complained to the staff so voluminously that he ended up left out of the whole squad, “for disciplinary reasons.”

Naturally, Phil Hay, the YEP’s chief football writer and Leeds United reporter, was castigated by some for writing in a report about something that had happened at Leeds United, but while it might be a minor incident, it proved a neat little detail, coming as it did 373 days after Bellusci last missed an away trip, to Charlton.

There was another echo of that this week. What stood out about the Sick Six incident was the decision of Gaetano Berardi to get on the bus to London and travel with the squad to Charlton, despite being officially unfit; he sat on the bench that day, and would no doubt have willingly (if foolishly) played. This week, as his season ended early due to injury, he posted a composite image on Instagram of all his injuries this season — his head cut, his nose smashed, his ankles battered, his face contorted here with pain, there with anger — he apologised for not being able to finish the season, but added he was grateful that his injuries could have been much worse. “I’ll be ready to fight with the lads soon,” he wrote.

All this is not to say that history is repeating at Leeds United. Rather, that it’s accruing. Leeds may not have a Carbone doing who knows what anymore, or a Gibbs desperate for something to do or a reason to go, or a Hockaday calling the shots (it was Hockaday, remember, who didn’t see much worth keeping about Tom Lees); but Leeds are paying for the decisions and actions made while they were. The club’s treatment of Nigel Gibbs hasn’t only cost us the rest of his contract, but hefty legal fees and considerable reputational damage; Sheffield Wednesday fans have, soberly, talked about Tom Lees as a future England international with a £12m price tag.

Past actions are catching up with Bellusci and Berardi, too; Bellusci, who could not sink much lower in the opinions of many Leeds fans than he has in recent weeks, with a glut of stupid mistakes, arrogant on-field behaviour and what amounts to a second refusal to play his proper part in a matchday squad, all in the last couple of months; Berardi, who has been narrowly pipped by Charlie Taylor in the YEP’s player of the year poll, finishing ahead of Lewis Cook, as much for his attitude as for his consistency at right-back. He’s up there in Leeds fans estimations through hard work and dedication, and has even shook off something else I was reminded of today — my early attempts to make the nickname ‘Hard Bear’ stick.

History won’t forget Massimo Cellino, either. He might have apologised for Hockaday, and at the same time for any mistakes he might make in the future. He might have learned from that first summer when he closed Thorp Arch and told a respected coach to do the cleaning; or maybe from the second summer, when he sacked Lucy Ward for being someone’s girlfriend then claimed not to know what someone who had been with the club for seventeen years as player and staff did, or even who she was. “But yes, I remembered,” he told The Times last October, “the blonde girl who works in the academy.”

Or he might just have hoped that we’d forgotten as much of all this as, the Gibbs judgement showed, we had; that the finer grains of the chaos he has instigated at Leeds since he walked through the door would have disappeared on the gritty beach of his general incompetence. Well, it’s all just a memory away. And as we compare the staffing situation of summer 2014, when nobody knew who was doing what and then Cellino hired Hockaday, with the staffing situation of summer 2016 — no head of academy, no head of recruitment, soon to be no head coach or coaching team — it’s probably a good time to remember.

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