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il mangiatore di direttore

Have Cellino and Leeds United Finally Turned the Corner?

During his first year and a half at Leeds United, Massimo Cellino looked capable of destroying the club. But this season things appear altogether more focussed.

by Amitai Winehouse
Sep 14 2015, 4:05pm

Photo by PA Images

Just outside Elland Road, scrawled on a wall as a permanent reminder of the past, read the words 'Bates Out'. They feel as though they've been there forever, and will stand for time immemorial, a lasting sign of the past's vitriol.

Leeds United have had their fair share of questionable owners over the last 10 years, and at the end of last season, as chaos engulfed Elland Road, the club seemed to be heading down an already well trodden path — a tragi-comedy more enjoyable to consume for fans of other clubs than those that support them.

Former Chelsea chairman Bates, who faced increasingly organised opposition from the fans, sold up to Gulf Finance House, a Bahraini bank, in December 2012. GFH tried to use a network of fans as a combination sounding board and propaganda machine while edging closer and closer to complete disaster. Along the way, there were rumours of administration, using Football Manager to decide signings, and chief executive David Haigh found himself locked up in a Dubai prison. They were rescued from their own failings by Massimo Cellino, a 59-year-old corn magnate who previously owned Serie A club Cagliari.

Cellino's reputation proceeded him, and he came into Leeds known as Il Mangiatore di Direttore, the manager eater. Even so, his first year was beyond expectations. There were three permanent head coaches, a transfer embargo, and his own suspension from owning the club. It looked like Cellino would quickly join the pantheon of failure at Elland Road.

Speaking to employees of the club about how it was to work for Cellino last campaign, the problems seem clear. One told VICE Sports: "You go through a very short honeymoon period with him, and then it almost switches off immediately and you start to see some of the bizarre behavioural traits.

The initial fan reaction to Cellino was not positive | Photo by PA Images

"He's very quick to fly off the handle about the smallest thing. It's very difficult to be effective and productive in the club. He creates this illusion that there's only him that can run the football club, because everyone has to ask him things. He creates his own chaos, then tries to pretend he's solving chaos created by someone else."

This wasn't a lone employee, as another said: "[Cellino] creates what you call toxic management, which causes people to turn on each other as they are afraid that he will sack them.

"He thinks it keeps people on their toes but it is damaging. Everyone, and I mean everyone who gets too close to him is eventually bombed out. This has happened continually with him."

However, by the time the first ball was kicked this season, everything seemed to have changed at Leeds.

In part, that change seems to have come about from the appointment of Adam Pearson, the club's new chief executive. It was something of a diversion from type for Cellino, who had a series of advisors last year, but no one with as defined and as powerful a remit as Pearson. The result couldn't be more different.

Pearson himself is regarded as a talented operator, and comes with significant experience in the field. Having been commercial director at Leeds at the turn of the century, he has, at points, owned Derby County and been chairman and head of football operations at Hull City over the last decade.

James Brown, founder of Loaded and Sabotage Times, worked with Pearson on Leeds Leeds Leeds, a club magazine that ran during the great successes of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Regarding Pearson, Brown, who is a fan of the club, said: "He's not particularly interested in public acclaim, just wants to get on with the job. I found him very straight forward to work with and there were never any problems.

"I've been in to see him at Elland Road since he returned to the club. One thing he made clear is the owner is very hands on every day and that his role is to support him. I think it's a misconception to assume [Cellino] has taken a step back in any way.

"[Pearson's] a likeable guy, he's worked with determined owners before and most importantly he has a passion for the club because he was here and very involved when we were a top side in the [Premier League] and Europe."

The appointment alone indicated a sea change at Leeds, and helped soften the relationship between the fans and the owner, one that threatened to become broken beyond repair.

It sent an initial message out – that Cellino himself had changed.

Club insiders spoken to believe that Cellino came to a realisation at the end of last season that both he and Leeds needed to act differently. From the top to the bottom, they have.

The club, in comparison with last year, has been far more focused in the transfer market. Chris Wood, bought for around £3 million, was a statement signing, the sort that Leeds simply wouldn't have made as they ambled around the marketplace last summer. Where last year's squad contained a staggering 13 different central midfielders at various junctures, five of them brought into Leeds, all additions this year seem to have come from the same logical place.

New boss Uwe Rosler (left) has yet to lose as Leeds manager | Photo by PA Images

Around that though, Cellino has brought in structure and stability. Hiring Uwe Rosler as head coach in May was in complete contrast to the delayed appointment of failed non-league boss David Hockaday the year before. There is a new head of recruitment, Martyn Glover, and a full complement of coaching staff for both the first team and the academy. Compared to the rest of the division and last season, when Neil Redfearn was, at times, the only first team coach, it's understandable that the backroom team has been described to VICE Sports as "fucking massive".

Another huge u-turn was recently confirmed. Cellino has complained about the cost of running the academy in the past; now, he has brought in Paul Hart as its new head. Hart is a name with a certain resonance for Leeds fans. He was in charge of the academy when the club won the FA Youth Cup in 1993 and 1997, with many of Leeds's Champions League semi-finalists – Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell and Alan Smith – coming from the '97 side. Investment in a man like Hart shows the extent to which Cellino seems to have altered course.

What has that improvement on Cellino's part brought? A team that headed into the first international break of the season undefeated, including an away win against presumed promotion contenders Derby. Rosler has a clear style, and the team, moulded around the stunning talent of Lewis Cook in midfield, look like a real unit.

Cellino targeted the end of this season for promotion when he first bought the club, but put the date back another year at the start of this summer. Should the stability that has seemingly permeated Leeds, arguably the most volatile club in the country only six months ago, remain until the end of the campaign, it would not be a surprise to see that date brought forward again.

It seems in Cellino's case, the old dog has learned some new tricks.

@awinehouse1