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A Small Minority of Idiots

The Owner of Britain's Most Dysfunctional Football Team Is Too Weird Even for Them

The story of Massimo Cellino – Leeds United's manager-massacring, yacht-loving, beautiful daughter-possessing Italian owner – gets weirder by the day.

by Ben Machell
30 January 2015, 4:05pm

Imagine being Verne Troyer

Just before the football season began I wrote about the perennial shitshow that is Leeds United and asked a simple, open-ended question: could the club's latest owner – a Sardinian corn magnate by the name of Massimo Cellino – be the man to finally drag United back into the pillowy bosom of the Premier League after a dozen years spent scrubbing around the flinty second and third tiers of English football? The story of my club's financial meltdown and subsequent fall has been told a million times over – I honestly don't have the heart to go through it all again here – suffice to say that the whole thing today seems as morbid, darkly funny and generally hard-to-believe as some well-worn urban myth. You can actually imagine all the sensible, inoffensive chairmen of all those sensible, inoffensive Premier League clubs holding torches to their chins and scaring the shit out of each other at sleepover parties by recounting the tale of Leeds United. "And when the auditors finally checked the accounts, they found the club had been spending thousands of pounds a year just to rent... GOLDFISH!" one of them would boom, to the delighted shrieks of whoever the fuck runs Swansea or West Brom.

Anyway, the point is that back in April, Cellino was able to buy 75 percent of Britain's most dysfunctional football club™ and install himself as both Chairman and President. The 58-year-old, we quickly learnt, was stubborn, superstitious and outspoken. We already knew from his time as owner of Sardinian club Cagliari that he had a serious hard-on for sacking and appointing head-coaches. We also knew that The Football League weren't totally crazy about rubber-stamping his takeover in the first place on account of the fact he'd previously been convicted for financial dealings best described as "bent". Plus there was a lingering issue of a yacht he had been found guilty of evading paying import duty on back in Italy (hint: this will be important later on). On the plus side, though, he was in a rock band, drove a hard bargain and promised to do cool things like buy-back the club's stadium. And yet in a weird way, the most enticing thing about Cellino was that he seemed to exhibit the same kind of demented nihilistic swagger Leeds fans have always secretly (ie, not remotely secretly) loved. I concluded my original piece by suggesting that perhaps a club as mental as Leeds United might actually benefit from a chairman who was also totally fucking nuts.

Then the new season kicked-off and everything almost immediately went to shit.

The first issue the club ran into was the one that everyone apart from Cellino knew the club would run into. After sacking manager Brian McDermott upon acquiring Leeds, the Sardinian had appointed as Head Coach a man called Dave Hockaday, a virtual unknown who was to all intents and purposes the "confused shrug" emoji in human form. He lost four of his first six games and Cellino didn't hesitate to pull the trigger. Hockaday had to find a new job and he is now the assistant manager of Southern League Division One South and West side Swindon Supermarine, who play in the eighth tier of English football. This sounds like an elaborate lie constructed for comic effect but it's actually totally true. Getting involved with Leeds United can fuck you up in weird ways.

Next, Cellino promoted Neil "Redders" Redfearn – the man responsible for the club's youth academy – to the role of caretaker first team coach. Under the granite-faced Yorkshireman Leeds promptly won three and drew one of their next four games. Only, by this point, Cellino decided he absolutely definitely knew for sure who he wanted to manage his team. Step forward Darko Milanic, the former Slovenia defender and manager of Austria's Sturm Graz. Cellino described him as "a very cool guy" although when asked to elaborate on why exactly he had appointed him, he confessed that he wasn't entirely sure (his precise words? "I don't know").

"The coaches are like watermelons," he continued. "You find out about them when you open them. His [Milanic's] particular qualities? He's good looking, what can I tell you?"

This was the point, in late September, that a lot of Leeds fans started quietly thinking "I'm scared." And, not that this is even the main issue, but it wasn't like Milanic was even that good looking anyway. Not unless you have a real fetish for men who look like weary Balkan detectives with haunted eyes that seem to say "I saw some awful things during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia". Regardless, just like Hockaday Milanic didn't win in six and Cellino binned him after just 32 days. "I made a mistake with this guy," he then told fans, as though he'd been a calzone that hadn't risen.

By the time Cellino decided, actually, yeah, maybe best to just go back and give Redfearn the job after all, he had made four different managerial appointments in the space of five months. It sounds a lot but to those who knew him best, it wasn't a huge shock. "This is not a record," stressed his son, Edoardo Cellino, in The Yorkshire Post. "I remember in Italy, my dad sacked seven coaches in one year and one before the season had even started."

The Cellino children deserve a special mention. Edoardo and his sister Eleonora are like these hyper-euro Rich Kids of Instagram, albeit Rich Kids of Instagram who have developed a pronounced taste for Leeds United training gear, phone cases and other club shop tat. They were responsible for the occasion on which celebrity dwarf and Austin Powers star Verne Troyer showed up at Elland Road in a Leeds kit. I mean... OK, fine, why not, he seemed to have a good time. But it only added to strange fever-dream atmosphere building around the club, a creeping weirdness that seemed to permeate everything. During Leeds' away loss to Brentford in September, Cellino tried to watch the game from the home stand and had to be escorted to the other side of the stadium to join his own fans. In one of Eleonora's Instagram shots, she poses seductively in a bikini on a lilo beneath a scorching Miami sky. Amidst all the typical fawning comments you expect to see when a pretty rich girl posts pictures of herself on the internet – emoji hearts and kisses and Snapchat requests – one Leeds fan typed out a simple, from-the-heart message. "Sign a defensive midfielder".

Have Cellino's transfer dealings really necessitated this kind of blunt intervention? Well, put it this way: as Leeds sunk steadily towards the relegation zone (we're currently up to 20th after two draws and a win) he observed that, actually, the Championship is much tougher division than he'd expected... certainly a lot tougher than Italy's Serie B where – whoops! – he continues to source the majority of our signings. Our current top scorer, Mirco Antenucci, is the kind of bearded, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing frontman football hipsters cream themselves about, but beyond that? Players like Tommaso Bianchi, Dario Del Fabro, Brian Montenegro and Gaetano Beradi seem to have been signed for the sole purpose of fucking up my Leeds United Sporcle scores.

So, to quickly recap: within a few months of buying Leeds Cellino has managed to destabilise the club via his addiction to managerial Russian roulette, splash-out on a team that isn't far off the bottom of the table while also delaying his promised repurchase of Elland Road. Course, because it's Leeds, other weird stuff's been going on as well. After selling the club to Cellino, United's former MD, a financier called David Haigh, was arrested in Dubai where he has been held without charge for the last eight months. Nobody is entirely sure why. Not many Leeds fans seem to really care. There's only so much you can focus on at any one time. Like I say, getting involved with Leeds United can fuck you up in weird ways.

Cellino poses with boxer Josh Warrington (Photo via Terry George)

But just when you were thinking the season couldn't get any odder, The Football League announce that they are going to disqualify Cellino from being owner of Leeds United. They actually said this in December – his import tax evasion rap finally caught-up with him and provided sufficient grounds to bar him from his role – but when Cellino appealed, they effectively just said no, seriously, you have to stop being owner of Leeds ASAP.

I don't mind admitting that this is all really confusing, not least because Cellino is allowed to return to his old role at the club on the 10th of April, when his tax evasion conviction becomes spent in the eyes of the British legal system. Problem is, he has a couple of other legal cases pending back in Italy, about dodging import tax on a Range Rover and a yacht – another fucking yacht! – so who knows what will happen down the line. Cellino said he felt like he was "a guest at a party where he wasn't wanted". If anything, he's more like a guest at a party where you have to pay import duty on your yachts.

At the time of writing, his last meaningful act at Leeds was to decide that he was going to cook the squad's pre-match meal before they played Bournemouth at Elland Road. Video footage shows him entering the club's spartan kitchens in a blazer and cream cashmere roll-neck whilst providing a running commentary as he prepares what looks like a very salty pasta dish. The whole thing is like some gonzo cookery show filmed in a prison. "I don't give a fuck!" Cellino exclaimed on at least one occasion during the filming. But watching the footage back, you realise that the problem is that he does. He almost gives too much of a fuck. Part of his problem is that he wants to be involved in absolutely everything, at absolutely every level. He needs to chill out. He needs to pay some import duties.

"Why is this club hated so much?" Cellino asked, despairingly, after his latest run-in with the Football League. There used to be a million reasons why. But the sad truth is that, with each passing season, rival fans are starting to forget them. These days, when you tell someone you're a Leeds fan, you no longer face vitriol. You actually get sympathy. And that's so much worse.

@ben_machell

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