Friday, September 30, 2022

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Massimo Cellino’s madhouse in Leeds! The Italian owner once turned down the chance to sign Virgil van Dijk

Graham Bean was the FA’s ‘dirt carrier’ but also worked for a number of clubs in English football, most notably at Leeds where he worked closely with the club’s controversial former owner…

Massimo Cellino’s reputation preceded him when he bought Leeds United. The controversial Italian businessman was known as a “manager eater” in his homeland, having been through more bosses than pepperoni pizzas in his 22 years in Cagliari, and it felt like he was reveling in the notoriety.

I found myself parachuted into the eye of the storm on Elland Road. Cellino had no experience of English football and had sacked the CEO and head of football administration within weeks of taking control of the club. In fact, the club was rudderless.

Staff morale was the lowest I’ve seen in my career. They didn’t like Cellino – and certainly didn’t trust him. They feared the consequences of falling on the wrong side of him. I once suggested that he put £50,000 into the staff pay budget to give them all a raise as they hadn’t had a raise in years, it would have given them a boost and made them more receptive to what he was doing there Association. Cellino shot me in his usual tantrum and asked why he should give them extra money.

After bluntly refusing my request he then asked about sourcing an Audi R8 sports car for his son’s birthday as I had already secured a Mini for the same son a few weeks earlier. He told me he was willing to pay up to £80,000! He would not split £50,000 between all those who worked so hard for him at the club, he would instead spend £80,000 on a vanity project for his spoiled and spoiled son. It summed him up perfectly.

My first meeting with Cellino had been an eye opener. The first thing he did was blow my breath away with a series of insulting comments. It went down like a lead balloon, but it was clear that he was a very charismatic man with a cheeky sense of humor. As the weeks and months went by, it became apparent that he was prone to serious mood swings and would frequently lose his temper, sometimes over the most trivial of things. Then, almost immediately, he was able to turn the spell back on. It was like flipping a switch, so I and the other staff became very suspicious of his irrational side.

Working in Leeds was one of the most bizarre experiences of my professional career. At times it really did feel like I was working in a madhouse and I seriously questioned whether I would continue working for him because of his nasty tantrums, which were like dealing with a spoiled child. It was exhausting and stressful.

However, I quickly learned that the only way to deal with him was to stand up to him and give as best you could. He once blamed me for a costly mistake in a loan deal for Souleymane Doukara from Catania. He raged and raged, but I had no part in it. I snapped — it was one tirade too much from him — and threw myself across the desk, my finger pointed close to his face, and yelled, “Never blame me for anything that has nothing to do with me.” You screw this up and nobody else does.” Cellino s***ed himself, quickly backed down and ended up blaming someone else!

Because of his erratic temper, it was difficult to distinguish when he was simply expressing himself with his passionate Italian personality and mannerisms and when he was actually losing his temper. But over time, it became much easier to distinguish between the two.

I was the only person willing to stand up to him because everyone else in the club lived in fear of him. His temper was such that he would sometimes become irrational, raising his voice to the point where he could no longer make out what he was saying and driving himself into such a frenzy that he would foam at the mouth.

He would be rude to many people without realizing it, using offensive language, with his most common phrases being “mother***” and “****head”. Whenever I raised FA issues with him, his standard response was “Fuck the Federation,” a sentiment I mostly agreed with!

One of Cellino’s biggest problems at work was that he didn’t seem to work in the mornings. He rarely showed up on Elland Road before noon. This meant you were limited in what you could actually do because his micromanagement was so intense that nobody at the club dared do anything that could have caused him to erupt.

He also had some weird and wonderful superstitions like removing the number 17 from the club and not using the color purple. He even told me one day to make sure I get high earning goalkeeper Paddy Kenny out of the club because he was born on the 17th and he just couldn’t risk him playing at Leeds.

When I arranged delivery of the Mini for his son, Cellino refused delivery on a Friday because “Friday was an unlucky day for car deliveries”. Like I said, a madhouse.

A month after I joined Leeds, Cellino stunned club fans by appointing the relatively unknown Dave Hockaday as the new first-team manager. Hockaday’s managerial experience spanned from being youth coach at Watford and Southampton, then managing Forest Green Rovers for four years when they were in the National League. From day one, I knew it would all end in tears.

I got on well with Dave and he was a really nice guy, as was his assistant Junior Lewis, but the reality was they were both overwhelmed at Leeds. However, Dave has identified two standout players who would have transformed the club.

One was a certain Virgil van Dijk, then at Celtic. Unfortunately, Cellino ignored him and signed Giuseppe Bellusci on loan from Italian Serie B club Catania. Known as “The Warrior” in his native Italy for his playing style, Bellusci thrived on his undeserved reputation as a hardman. He made his debut in a 4-1 defeat by Watford and not much improved from there – he was disliked by many of his team-mates or the club’s staff.

The other target Dave suggested was Andre Gray but instead Cellino sanctioned the signing of Mirco Antenucci from Ternana, who only lasted two seasons. Hockaday had identified two players where Leeds would have made a huge profit in due course and potentially even led to promotion had Cellino opted to sign.

I knew Hockaday wouldn’t last very long – and I was right. After just 70 days, he and Lewis were released. Cellino called me and all he said was “Sack Hockaday”.

I replied that he should do the decent thing and talk to Dave himself, but Cellino “didn’t like confrontation,” so refused to do it.

Most normal club owners would have done the sensible thing and hire a replacement manager before firing their current one, but Cellino was anything but normal. In fact, he was playing a real Football Manager game.

That same evening I was called into his office, where he asked who I thought we should appoint. I made it clear that I had no influence, so Cellino decided on the spot that he wanted Steve Clarke as the next boss. Clarke wasn’t interested so Cellino resorted to plan B and decided he wanted Paul Clement, who was Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant at Real Madrid. Cellino called Ancelotti and wanted to know what Clement’s salary was. When Ancelotti told him it was over a million euros a year, the talks ended very quickly!

Cellino then reverted to Plan C, which was to temporarily hire academy manager Neil Redfearn while procuring a permanent boss.

Remarkably, given the talent that Leeds produced such as Lewis Cook, Charlie Taylor, Sam Byram, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Alex Mowatt and Kalvin Phillips, Cellino had initially had intentions of closing the academy before being convinced it was a viable cause .

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