the square ball week: leaving leeds unitedBack
One of the odder bits of half-forgotten flim-flam that found its way on to my laptop during Massimo Cellino’s time at Elland Road is a screenshot from YouTube of a video, ‘Cagliarifornia’, by a Sardinian rap group called Alter Ego.
One of them is holding up a bare plank of wood, tapering to the top, that I think is part of a surfboard; someone has drawn a face on it. The long cartoonish eyelashes suggest it’s the face of a woman; the lyrics suggest it’s meant to represent Massimo Cellino’s daughter, Eleonora.
The five minute song satirises the wannabe Californian lifestyle of Cagliari’s idle rich, to the extent that the video was temporarily removed from YouTube for defamation and one of the rappers was set upon and beaten by three hooded men in the middle of the night.
With that in mind, I won’t be translating many of the lyrics, except that the general jist of the allegations about Eleonora is that her dad is a party-obsessed jailbird, her brother is “a shit”, and that she herself has had excessive plastic surgery.
Which is all very much their business, except it’s my desktop the screenshot ended up on, and it was a corner of my mind that became occupied with this Sardinian socialite trivia. It’s there with the Instagram photo of Eleonora’s brother, Ercole, celebrating his “Nazi” haircut (Ercole’s Instagram profile still states he is “Vice President Leeds United F.C”, by the way); her other brother, Edoardo (whose Instagram profile also states he is a director of Leeds United — he is), apparently calling former academy welfare officer Lucy Ward “a lesbian”; and one particular photo of her father looking as if he’s being force fed fish and chips on a hungover trip to Whitby with Terry George. I don’t know why that one has stuck with me so; something about the look of vacant despair on Massimo’s face makes it harrowing and unforgettable.
Perhaps that too will be forgotten in time, now that Massimo Cellino’s ownership is sorta kinda almost definitely ending soon. But the confirmation of Andrea Radrizzani’s half-now takeover only means, for now, that all this stuff is coming rushing back fresh as part of the assessment of Cellino’s legacy. Remember that Italian TV show where a confused Massimo was interrogated by a comedian dressed as a priest? Great fun.
The problem with Radrizzani only taking half, rather than going full throttle for ball and man, is that it means between now and at the earliest June there’s too much time for debate about Massimo Cellino’s legacy at Leeds United. Which was exactly the problem we had with Ken Bates, until GFH found one shady jet bill too far and kicked him back to Monaco. Even then, like a Weeble on a bungee cord, he somehow wobbled back to the shop over the road, where he was stalking the streets again before Christmas, as if taunting 2016 to take him too. No go, Ken. 2016 only wanted the good ones.
I’ve written before about United’s eternal struggle with a clean break, and of the failures of GFH to clean out Bates and of Cellino to clean out GFH (the club still, however long it’s now been deferred, owes them millions). Even before Radrizzani was announced this week I was taking a first-week-back-feel-busy interest in the Dubai Court’s order that David Haigh pay back to GFH the £4m they say he took from them. (Let’s just say that, while I don’t doubt he has genuinely suffered ill health as a result of his treatment while held in Dubai, the date of his entry to The Priory clinic does coincide remarkably with the confirmation of the court hearing date that was first proposed to him in August; especially when, given the lack of a plausible explanation (after two years) for the £4m of GFH’s money that found its way into accounts he controlled, his only way out of giving the money back seems to be to challenge the procedure and jurisdiction of the court, which is what he is now doing. But, that’s none of my business. Although somehow it is still reported as relevant business to Leeds United fans; many of whom, on Twitter at least, seem moved to support David against GFH — which is presumably why his PR teams make sure it’s reported as relevant to Leeds United fans, because nobody else knows who he is.)
Now it’s Massimo Cellino who only has one foot out the door, when I’d hoped for two; although it’s more like both he and Radrizzani have both feet firmly inside the door, only with a chalk line dividing the space. Better informed people than me are calm, confident and assured that 50/50 isn’t the whole picture, and that there’s a vital +1% (or +0.01%) in there that gives overall control to Radrizzani; they’re sure, too, that Radrizzani will complete the rest of the deal and become 100% owner at the end of the season.
I don’t have any reason to doubt that’s good information, but then I also don’t doubt the people who told me Cellino was still talking to others about selling 100% of the club long after this season had started, during the period Radrizzani has supposedly had him locked in a box. And it’s perfectly possible, and the likeliest situation, that both are absolutely true: that Cellino kept his options open as long as possible, and didn’t turn down anybody who showed a legitimate interest (or the Telegraph journalists who just wanted to try some shady player trading but ended up being offered part of the club for their trouble), and that some of those interests were as serious as Radrizzani’s.
In the end Cellino chose the sale he wanted to make, and he chose Radrizzani, and that choice means an uncomfortable six months ahead for those of us who prefer our breakups clean and tidy. A breakup probably isn’t the best analogy here, because Cellino, confined now to the spare room, seems to retain the power to come downstairs and kick our new lover off the sofa should the whim take him; but the bottom line is, that to trust the deal is going to go ahead as promised, you have to trust Cellino to complete his end — which we should know enough not to do by now — and trust Radrizzani to complete his. And, with all due respect to Radrizzani, we don’t know enough about him to trust him yet; we can only hope that we can and wait to find out one way or the other.
It’s a gloomy note to play when Leeds United are riding high in the league, about to play an easy looking televised cup tie at Cambridge (and I could twist the gloomy knife by invoking January 2002, and the week we beat West Ham to go top of the Premiership, then lost 2-1 at Cardiff in the FA Cup and didn’t win any of the next nine matches). But I’m having to overplay the gloom a bit to make a point. In the end, I’m actually as confident as I can be that Cellino will go in the summer, that we’ll be owned 100% by Radrizzani, and that after that, what will be will be; hopefully be good.
The point that is sticking in me like a dropped pin through a sock is that the 50/50 deal, Radrizzani’s talk about being honoured to become “joint owner” and work alongside Cellino, Cellino’s description of Radrizzani as “a new partner” — as if the sheriff of Leeds, as he used to call himself, has a new deputy — is all engineered to make this season the season of Massimo Cellino and his ‘legacy’. And, unlike Ken Bates, whose ego demanded the same when he invented the title of president and made GFH give it to him, he just might get away with it.
It has been hard to explain why Leeds United have been so good this season, and that has led several people to give the credit to Cellino. And perhaps this season he has made some good decisions; mainly hiring Garry Monk, bringing in Ben Mansford as chief executive, and letting them get on with their jobs.
But it should never have taken so long for us to get to here, where Massimo Cellino has apparently granted Leeds United permission to be run like a normal fucking football club. He’s tried twice before and failed — remember Matt Child, appointed December 2014, resigned in March? Adam Pearson, appointed May 2015, immediately subjected to a clownshoes press conference (“beautiful cigarette … [tell fans] Start putting the money! … Tell them to start to buy season tickets! Then we talk about the club!”), resigned in September? Cellino’s response when Pearson left was that he didn’t need to replace him, he could do his job anyway.
“I have worked hard for the past three years for Leeds United,” says Cellino in his new statement on the official website, sent from Miami. “We are a massive club, and I feel the only way we can get better is for me to bring in a new partner,” as if it’s taken three years for him to realise: he’s not up to this.
The true legacy of Cellino is what should make that clear. The quotes above, about fans buying season tickets if they want to talk, were accompanied with a mocking of the Leeds Salute; later he was filmed in Italy explaining that he decided to charge the arbitrary £5 pie tax in the South Stand because he didn’t like the fans there who had chanted against him after Leeds conceded two goals in eight minutes — the first after eighteen seconds — in a miserable defeat to Blackburn; before that he was filmed in Miami, for a programme about the lifestyles of the Italian jet-set, explaining that he didn’t really like football but that “football clubs are for making money” and “have a duty to bring a businessman profits … ‘If you don’t do what you love, love what you do,’ my father told me. I don’t love football.”
Of all the sins of all our owners, none have had such contempt for fans as Cellino, the man who ordered Cagliari to play their home games 500 miles away in Trieste, who tried to impose a ban on our own away fans because of his own arguments with the Football League. Ken Bates hated and feared us (why else would he have proposed electric fences at Chelsea unless, like all bullies, he was scared?); GFH thought we were pushovers; only Massimo Cellino has actively set out to make our lives harder, our matchdays more miserable, our wallets unreasonably lighter.
And none have got away with it to such an extent that they’re actually popular for having a pop at our fans. There’s a lot of talk in the United States at the moment about ‘normalising’ the opinions of Donald Trump, about how the media’s reporting of his extremist viewpoints and contradictions has made them seem reasonable rather than outrageous. Researchers of a ‘post-truth’ society could do worse than look at the society of Leeds fans after three years of Cellino, where he’s soon to leave the club hailed as a man who learned from his mistakes and left — hopefully — a successful season as his epitaph.
Well, he said he’d learn from his mistakes when he sacked Dave Hockaday — there was even a printed letter of apology in the match programme. But it also said: “I may make other mistakes but if I do I will be big enough to own up to them like I have with David and Junior,” like a good, big, brave boy. Darko Milanic, Neil Redfearn, Uwe Rosler and Steve Evans were all still to come.
That’s not to mention that we’d barely seen Giuseppe Bellusci at that point, the key man of the £10m of McCormack money that, Cellino said, “Went all on the garbage” (Bellusci has another season on his contract after this one); Nigel Gibbs and Lucy Ward had not yet had their successful days in court; the first team coach had not been undermined by a youthful but overkeen furniture salesman, or had his assistant manager sacked for no reason; three years of mistakes that have adjusted our expectations to such a new normal that simply not sacking somebody that’s doing a good job, as with Garry Monk, has become a reason to celebrate success.
Perhaps Cellino has learned. Perhaps he deserves the six month victory lap that Andrea Radrizzani is, for whatever reason, allowing him. But then again, as Cellino said on Sardinian radio in May 2015: “I sold Cagliari because I made too many mistakes. Older I get, the more I realise I don’t understand anything about football.”
Now he’s sold Leeds United. Selling. Sold. Selling. Whatever. I’m sure it’ll be fine. And I hope one day it’s forgotten.