Latest Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino (centre, grabbing balls) toasting some success
I have this friend who has absolutely no interest in football but who will still, every now and then, make a point of asking me how Leeds United are getting on. For a long time I thought he was just being nice, politely indulging me the way you would a mate who was passionate about live action role-playing, or breeding lizards, or whatever. I always found his interest kind of touching, so when he asked I might, for example, tell him about how we’d just gone into administration, or how we’d just been relegated to the third division with a -15 point penalty, or how we’d lost all our best players to Norwich, or how we’d just sold our own stadium and training ground, or how we’d got knocked out of the FA Cup by a village team, or how one of our fans just ran onto the pitch and chinned the Sheffield Wednesday keeper to a chorus of chants celebrating the life of Jimmy Savile. Everyone likes to imagine that their team is somehow special, but the cool thing about being a Leeds fan is that you absolutely know this is true. We’re special in the same way a 300lb 14-year-old who can’t do his own laces is “special”. We are, by some distance, the most dysfunctional football club in Britain, and my friend has always encouraged me to talk about it.
Only, I recently realised that the only reason he does this is because he just finds it all absolutely hilarious. He’s stopped bothering to pretend otherwise and now just thumps the table with sick glee when I explain how we took feted Everton starlet Ross Barkley on loan but then sent him back early because the club didn’t rate him, or how octogenarian ex-Leeds chairman Ken Bates used his matchday programme column to construct elaborate sexual metaphors. “In an age of instant gratification, Leeds United is having a long, dawn-out affair with plenty of foreplay and slow arousal,” he once wrote of his (massively failed) project to get us back into the Premier League. Only yesterday it was announced that Benito Carbone – a man who had only two months ago been employed by Leeds in some vague “technical advisor” position – had suddenly left the club. Why had he left? Where was he going? What the fuck had been his actual job in the first place? Most Leeds fans just shrugged and went back to daydreaming about Tony Yeboah.
This is what life as a Leeds fan is like. For me, the past decade has been like watching a super-slow-motion snuff movie involving my hometown team and an endless human centipede comprised of anonymous loanees, corporate lawyers and tens of thousands of fanatical shit-guzzling fans. But to my friend, Leeds United is just some fucked-up reality show he can occasionally tune-in to.
Cellino playing live with his band, Maurilios
And this coming season could turn out to be the most fucked-up in living memory. In April, a Sardinian corn magnate called Massimo Cellino bought 75 percent of the club and installed himself as President and Chairman. Cellino is almost exactly what you would imagine a Sardinian corn magnate to be like. He smokes a lot, wears RayBan aviators and keeps a cashmere jumper wrapped loosely round his neck. At weekends, the 58-year-old plays guitar in a vanity rock group called “Maurilios”, who are possibly one of the most Euro things you’ll ever see, like some Adriatic cruise ship version of the E Street Band. They wear little plastic trilbies and everything.
Anyway, Cellino had tried to buy Leeds in February but the Football League basically went “Um... no?”, pointing out that he’d failed the fit-and-proper-person criteria having recently been found guilty by a Sardinian court of not paying import duties on a yacht. That actually doesn’t seem like too big a deal when you consider that he also has two previous criminal convictions, one for conning the Italian Ministry of Agriculture out of £7.5m in 1996 and one for false accounting while chairman of the club he previously owned, Cagliari, currently in Italy’s Serie A. But the Football League being the Football League allowed him to appeal their decision, and when he did, they obviously just thought 'fuck it' and let him buy Leeds anyway.
And it hasn’t taken long for the batshit fun to begin. Having sacked manager Brian McDermott (he actually, somehow, managed to sack McDermott twice but it’s too complicated to explain how here), Cellino appointed in his place a man called Dave Hockaday. If you don’t know who Dave Hockaday is, don’t feel bad. He was sacked by Forest Green Rovers last year having barely managed to keep them in the Conference Premier division, but Cellino obviously saw something in him and gave him the hotseat at a club that has won the English title more recently than Liverpool. At the press conference unveiling of Hockaday and his assistant, Junior Lewis, the pair looked like escaped cons who had, owning to some hilarious technical mix-up, been put in charge of Leeds United. It could be the plot of a sub-Full Monty Britcom from the mid-90s (Howard Wilkinson would cameo as a groundsman).
The good news, I guess, is that Cellino is famously trigger happy, getting through 36 coaches in 22 years back at Cagliari. This probably explains his decision to hire then dispense with Carbone in the space of two months. You get the sense he likes to be the main man. He doesn’t hire “managers”, he hires “coaches”, guys who train and condition the players Cellino himself has signed. “I was raised as a manager, not as some bullshit president who puts his tie on, eats some roast beef and fucks off home,” he explained in the Yorkshire Post after his takeover was complete. One enterprising Leeds fan recorded a cold-call he made to Cellino prior to the takeover going through and, rather than telling the fan to get fucked, the Italian embarked on a rambling but passionate discourse. “I’m drunk,” he confessed, before revealing the club’s annual wage bill. “Eighteen million on wages. For a shit team like that!” It’s not the sort of thing you could pull with, say, Daniel Levy.
Cellino unveils Leeds' new managerial team, David Hockaday and Junior Lewis
And Leeds’ pre-season has already seen Cellino dominate. When goalkeeper Paddy Kenny returned for training in the sort of shape that suggested he’d spent his entire holiday ram-raiding branches of Greggs across West Yorkshire, Cellino told him to find a new club. Only the reason he gave for wanting rid of him was that Kenny’s birthday is on the 17th of May, and Cellino has a mortal fear of the number 17, a fear that led him to replace every seat number 17 at Cagliari with seat 16b. Cellino also has a well-documented fear of the colour purple, and on one occasion demanded all supporters wear purple to a match that was being played on the 17th of the month, explaining to fans that the two negative forces would cancel each other out. We’re creeping into Caligula territory, and the “crazy Latin autocrat” narrative is a compelling one. At Cagliari, he once denied fans the opportunity to buy season tickets simply because they “pissed me off”, but then, on a whim, he would offer generously discounted tickets or even full refunds if his team lost. It all points to a passionate man who will run the club with his heart rather than his head.
I’m not sure this is entirely true, however. Cellino may be a mad bastard, but he’s a mad bastard who recently convinced Leeds’ Championship rivals Fulham to pay £11m for striker Ross McCormack, which – to be fair – is absolutely shitloads. Yesterday it was announced that he would bid to buy back our stadium, Elland Road, ten years after we’d been forced to sell it after pointlessly spunking all our money on players like Seth Johnson. He’s cut costs – players arrived back to find they were required to bring packed lunches and pay for their own kit to be washed – and he’s already brought in a number of unknown players from Serie B on the cheap, Championship Manager-style signings who might be dross but who might also explode into life and have all their stats suddenly shoot up to 20. Marco Silvestri? Tommaso Bianchi? Souleymane Doukara? I mean, at least they all sound pretty good. Better than “Michael Brown”, anyway.
Obviously, because it’s Leeds, the season already has a tragicomic vibe to it. One of our pre-season opponents failed to show up for a game in Italy, another was so bad we had to lend them a goalie as we ran out 16-0 winners. But there is still this weird sense that, for everything, Cellino could, perhaps with the help of chaos theory, actually make something good happen at Leeds. After years of madness we’ve wanted nothing more than an owner who is measured, steadying and prudent, but what we’ve ended up with is a guy who is just as dysfunctional as the club he’s bought.
“I need a lot of fucking love, you know?” he drunkenly told that cold-calling fan. “And energy. And Leeds has got a lot of fucking energy... Leeds fans, they’re tired of eating shit.” And he’s right. Leeds United and Cellino have every chance of ending up a total car crash. But then, it's a pairing so crazy it just might work.
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