Leeds United Is Too Big A Job For One Man, Cellino Needs Help
November will soon be upon us, a month that will mark Massimo Cellino’s seventh at the helm and with it, the annual renewal deadline for the Elland Road rental agreement. The Italian’s proudest proclamation as he walked through the doors of the stadium for the first time as the club’s new owner, was that those bricks and mortar, the glass, the executive boxes, the bars, the toilets, the 39,000+ other seats and the pitch they surrounded would all fall back under the ownership of Leeds United at the first practical opportunity.
As the initial tub thumping and the crass claims of walking into the bank the next morning to sort out matters gave way to a more measured assessment, November was explicitly identified as when Massimo would deliver on the promise of ensuring the club is no longer a guest in its own home.
Should Cellino deliver, and the suggestion is that everything remains on track, then the Italian’s popularity will reach new heights; at one end of the spectrum, the Celliebers (a section of the fan base seemingly ready to mobilise against dissenting voice on any aspect of the regime) will most likely discuss the possibility of moving Billy from his plinth to accommodate a statue of the President, while even the staunchest of doubters will be forced to shrug and admit that credit is due.
It’d crown the end of (yet) another remarkable period in Leeds United’s recent history and underline Cellino’s credentials as a man equipped both with the funds and ambition to return the club to the top tier. After countless years of seeing the transfer market being utilised primarily as an income generator under Bates and the many broken promises of GFH, the president will have delivered on stadium ownership, brought (what on the surface appears to be) a degree of financial stability and markedly improved the squad, all in a timespan that equates to roughly a third of the length of Noel Hunt’s current goal drought.
In the light of the failures of those that preceded him, and the ruins GFH left behind, such a turnaround would represent a remarkable feat for the Italian; decisive strides made in addressing what have consistently been flagged as the three biggest issues at the club - the debts, the players and the stadium. So far so good, you might say. But then again, maybe this is the easy bit?
It might seem churlish, even dismissive, to label what Cellino has done so far as ‘easy’, after all, a lot of hard work, time, commitment and a boatload (maybe not the best adjective to use at the moment) of money has been invested to get us here, a destination we’ve been sold before but never once set foot upon. But this is where our owner excels, his passion, hunger and drive for success is undeniable, he even has qualifications in the field of finance.
In Nicola Salerno, he is also blessed with a trusted ally with a keen eye for a player; Howard Wilkinson once remarked that any manager who could claim a ‘one in three’ success rate in the transfer market, was doing a fine job. While it remains too early to pass definitive judgement on some of Salerno’s selections as they adjust to the English game - and in the case of Adryan, Del Fabro and Montenegro, impossible until they’re sufficiently up to speed to try - the captures of Silvestri, Bianchi have the look of unequivocal coups, while Bellusci as a footballer is an undoubted talent, arguably wasted as a centre back, but even there is looking less of a catastrophe with each passing game. By Wilko’s yardstick, things look pretty promising.
In short, Cellino possesses all the essential ingredients needed to succeed at Leeds; he has the funds, the financial nous, the connections, even the anti-establishment swagger, he has Salerno and the small matter of over two decades’ experience of running a club; throw in the small matter of the support base that can help create a sense of momentum that no other at this level can rival and any well thought out, considered, short to medium term plan can offer The Whites a real chance of a long awaited return to the Premier League…and that’s where we get to the hard bit.
There are of course other obstacles, the small matter of 23 other, like-minded cubs for example, and more pressingly the Football League; but no club can claim to achieve anything without competition, while for all their posturing, the credibility of the Shaun Harvey-led Football League as guardians of the fit and proper, and as an efficient body of governance, combined the Cellino’s gift for litigation and the vagaries of the Italian legal system, all combine to suggest that much discussed threat will remain forever, no more than that. No, potentially the main hurdle to Massimo’s dream of presiding or Premier League Leeds United and levels of popularity and notoriety of which he can currently only dream, remains within the club, within the boardroom…within himself.
Cellino’s greatest challenge lies with his own ego; while the old adage tells of no one individual being bigger than the club, Massimo operates as if he simply is the club. While Leeds United is finally showing some signs of recovery, it is doing so in the midst of an identity crisis. Brentford was a compelling case in point.
By rights, the visit to Griffin Park should’ve been all about Darko Milanic, the new LUFC coach taking his first first game in charge. The post-match discussions between supporters and in the media, a dissection of a very flat, post-Redfearn performance, the baffling substitutions and an acknowledgement of another fine individual showing by Marco Silvestri. Instead of that, it was all about the Cellino sideshow.
The decision to sit adjacent to the Leeds fans, rather than with with the directors, then the walk to the terracing to stand with them, taking up a front row position, just to make sure the press photographers could get their shots…the whole orchestrated charade felt lack the actions of an individual simply unable to stand in the shadows while another bathed in the limelight.
At this precise moment in time, Leeds United is defined by this one man, an Italian who precious few had heard of before 2014, and had circumstances been different, would’ve been branding himself as Mr. West Ham United instead. A football club should always defined by its players, supporters, its history, by those ingrained in creating its identity. If any one man who still has connections with the club has a right to the title of ‘Mr. Leeds United’, then it’s Eddie Gray, but as we know, our beloved Eddie would belittle any such claims, as his honour has been in serving this institution for so many decades.
Here lies the crux of the matter, the one conflict that Cellino must resolve if he’s to afford himself the greatest possible opportunity of succeeding at Leeds United. To truly prosper, Massimo needs to appreciate that he’s here to serve Leeds United; the success, the adoration, the spotlight - all these things he craves are there to be had if he can only get past the notion than Leeds United is first and foremost, and will always unequivocally be a football club, not simply a vanity project. If he can marry such a notion with his passion to succeed, then win, lose or draw, the ceaseless arguments can stop. Everyone wants a successful Leeds United, everyone loves the football club. Keep the focus purely on the football club and the lines of division immediately start to fade.
Promising signs are already there. Following the humbling of Huddersfield, twitter was awash with supporters enthusing about the performance, the squad and the promise of what’s ahead. It’s as if Leeds United was all about football again. Although results have since dipped, there remains a common consensus that the Class of 2014/15 represents a marked improvement upon any in recent times. Measured, planned, on the pitch progress breeds contentment. Supporters simply crave the same off it.
Cellino famously declared himself as the Sheriff of Elland Road, decreeing the supporters to be his deputies, but as an analogy it falls down. If Cellino is the sheriff, then the supporters are merely the simple townsfolk, those who pay their taxes and as such, earn the right to voice their views. Some such people are happy to embrace the sheriff in the streets, offering lavish praise for restoring order to the town, while others, more disgruntled, choose to stay in the bars and critique.
Deputies are different to the townsfolk, their role is to serve the sheriff, to help him in running the town and to do so, they’re delegated their own power. Cellino has precious few legitimate deputies, certainly very few credible ones; Salerno is an obvious soulmate on football matters, but with Graham Bean now gone, one look at the board of directors at Elland Road offers great cause for concern. While Daniel Arty can offer further expertise on finances, it’s unclear what, if anything, the remaining board members can bring to the table. Salah Nooruddin and Salem Patel, essentially ceremonial representatives for a sleeping partner and the remaining two are Cellino’s sons, Edoardo and Ercole, the former perceived as a bungling Burger King devotee, the latter almost totally anonymous. A club the size of Cagliari may be sustained by a one man show, but one of Leeds United’s stature demands a strong supporting cast.
That goes for the manager too. The Hockaday appointment was a nightmare that the vast majority foretold, but the selection of Milanic still leaves many questions over just how many lessons have been learned. While Milanic at least resembles a credible looking coach, he still very much fits the bill as an subservient unknown, desperate to make the best of a huge opportunity. Some will point to his successes Slovenia, though many would probably struggle to name any of Maribor’s domestic rivals. In Milanic, Cellino has by own admission, picked himself another watermelon - a better looking one that can seemingly speak more languages than C3PO, granted - and as such is taking another huge gamble. No appointment guarantees success, but a policy of choosing those that inspire hope, rather than legitimate expectation, surely underlines why so many coaches perished in Italy.
Leeds United is too big a job for one man; Cellino can’t hope to run the club as a business that thrives to the maximum without the help of others. As much as his love for the game compels him to affect matters on the pitch, the kind of headstrong, confident coach Leeds United demands in the interest of long term stability, is also someone who must wholly be trusted to operate in accordance with his own beliefs.
Massimo needs his deputies; skilled, confident, able individuals, people with their own ideas who can help drive the club back towards the top, but in order to appoint them, he first need to make peace with a simple notion: Leeds United is not a one man show, and that in the long run, sharing just a little of the huge levels of adoration and the limelight there to be won at a successful club, offers a heck of a lot more fulfilment than being held solely responsible for one that still falters below its true potential.
Best way to make yourself a hero Massimo? Stop trying so hard to be one.