Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Cellino's promises for Leeds fans

This piece was first published in The Sun newspaper on April 5th, the day after Massimo Cellino's takeover of Leeds United went through.

Massimo Cellino has promised Leeds fans: “I will make your club great again.”

The outspoken Italian became the official owner of the Championship giants yesterday.

An independent QC overturned the Football League’s decision to fail him as a ‘fit and proper owner’.

Speaking exclusively to SunSport, the 57-year-old has vowed:

* To return Leeds to the Premier League by 2016

* To buy back their Elland Road ground and Thorp Arch training ground NEXT WEEK

* To pay the players and staff their unpaid wages

* To transform the playing squad

Whether manager Brian McDermott will be there to oversee the revival is in serious doubt though.

Cellino said: “The fans have had to put up with 10 sh***y years and I want to make them proud of this club again.

“I’ve always said that the only assets Leeds have are their fans and their history.Next week I will go to the bank and buy back Elland Road and Thorp Arch. And on Monday I will pay all the wages.

“A lot of work needs to be done on the squad. We need new players.

“I had four signings lined up in January but I couldn’t sign them because of the ownership situation — it was so frustrating.

“In the summer we will buy some players. I want to focus on English and international players.

“I have built up a fantastic scouting network with Cagliari which we will use. I have scouts in Europe, South America and Latin America.”

And Cellino has promised to return the Yorkshire side to the promised land of the Premier League for the first time since 2004.

He added: “I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep — and I admit it will be difficult to get promotion next season.

“But in 2015-16, we will earn our way back to the Premier League, which is where Leeds belong.”

The club’s managing director David Haigh has welcomed Cellino and was due to become his chief executive.

But the Italian has some bad news for Haigh... ‘You’re fired’. He said: “David has to go. I have had too much of him.”

A consortium of local businessmen called Together Leeds have claimed they will work with Cellino, but the Italian seemed to throw cold water on this.

He said: “I promised I will talk to them and that is what I will do.”

Cellino will arrive in England on Monday and plans to hold an immediate Press conference in London.

He will then travel up to Leeds to begin his transformation of the Yorkshire side.

He is still planning to sell Cagliari, although he admits “the situation is not so hot at the moment”.

Cellino said: “There is only place in my heart for one club and that is Leeds. When I get the right offer I will sell Cagliari.”


This piece was first published in The Sun newspaper on February 9th.

Massimo Cellino has exclusively told SunSport how he will return Leeds to their former glories.

The 57-year-old Italian arrives in England tomorrow ahead of an interview with the Football League on Wednesday.

He is confident he will pass their fit and proper persons test before immediately getting to work. Cellino says he will:

* Immediately buy Elland Road * Keep manager Brian McDermott and work closely with him * Transform the club’s Academy * And give key roles to his two sons. * Speaking from his home in Miami, Cellino said he was looking forward to working alongside McDermott — despite having sacked him a week ago.

Cellino said: “I want to get to know the manager and help him.

“I hope he can help me as well. We are going to work together.

“When I am approved by the Football League I will go to the bank the next day and buy Elland Road.

“I am going to get to work straight away.

“I love the history of Leeds and I love the fans.”

Cellino has owned Italian side Cagliari for the last 22 years but is planning to sell them to focus on Leeds.

He had a buyer lined up, but the deal has stalled.

He added: “If I was running a Fiat 500 in Italy, now I have the chance to run a Ferrari.

“I feel like I did 22 years ago, when I first bought Cagliari.

“Or when I was eight-years-old and my father bought me my first bike and I woke up at 4am to ride it.

“I want to forget about Cagliari now, my heart is with Leeds.”

Cellino says he plans to use all the experience he gained from running Cagliari at the Yorkshire club.

He said: “Cagliari was recognised by UEFA as a model of a well-run club.

“We didn’t spend what we didn’t have.

“We had a €45million budget (£37m) but managed to compete with clubs with budgets of hundreds of millions.

“I am most proud of the Academy we had. I spent a lot of time and money on it and even knew the price of the seeds for the grass.

“In the end we had six home-grown players in the first team, all from Sardinia. Is there another team in Europe with a record like that?

“Imagine what we can do at Leeds — it has much more potential. I will set about finding a guy in Leeds who loves Leeds to run the Academy there.”

Cellino says he will buy a home in Yorkshire and spend a lot of time there.

And he will give his two sons roles at the club.

He said: “I am bringing my two sons with me to work there and learn about business. One is 22, the other 24.

“They speak English, Spanish, German and Italian. They have degrees from American universities.

“I am giving the future to my sons and bringing them to a big club with potential.

“One will work in the marketing department, the other will work with the secretary, learning about wages and contracts.

“They are not spoilt. They each drive a Smart car and live in modest apartments.”

Cellino has a big job on his hands to win over the Leeds supporters, who are furious about his treatment of boss McDermott.

The Italian says he is now determined to work hard and keep his head down.

He added: “I am going to a country where I want to be approved.

“I am moving to England from Italy because English football is better than Italian football.

“I have got passion and the fans loved me at Cagliari.”

He says he plans to quickly get in a couple of additions to the squad and then invest more heavily in players in the summer.

Cellino said: “In the last few years not enough money has been spent on investing in players.

“I want to reinforce the club. When you spend little you achieve little.”

Sunday, 26 October 2014

'Trapped by ebola but I won't give up on these kids'

Holed up in the football academy he runs for the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone as fear and suspicion spreads throughout Africa, Johnny McKinstry is standing firm.

When he was sacked as manager of the national team last month, his worried parents urged him to come home to Northern Ireland. But even though more than 1,200 people have been killed by Ebola in Sierra Leone and his former players are being treated like ‘fugitives’, the academy in the capital Freetown is now a sanctuary from the devastating disease and 29-year-old McKinstry has vowed to stay on.

‘We are like an extended family here and that’s what I told my parents,’ says McKinstry, as he sits in his spartan office in the middle of the 15-acre complex.

‘There are 27 boys here and, before each enrolled, I went to meet his parents. The first thing I always said was, “I’ll look after your son”. I meant it and can’t go back on that now. If I was just doing this job for myself, I’d probably have gone home but people are relying on me and I have to stay.’

No one is allowed in or out of the academy, which was founded in 2007 and is funded by Bellamy, the only exception being McKinstry’s forays into town once a fortnight to pick up supplies. If anything, the dedication and enthusiasm of the youngsters, who range in age from 12 to 17, has actually improved in recent weeks.

‘I’ve been immensely impressed with the kids,’ says McKinstry. ‘Their strength and focus has just bowled me over.’

The Sierra Leone national team that McKinstry used to coach have become football’s lepers, chased out of every country they visit because of a disease they do not even have.

Last month they were banned from playing at home following the outbreak. All their games have become away fixtures and to say they are unwelcome guests is something of an understatement. In the last eight days they played Cameroon home and away.

Sierra Leone defender Mustapha Dumbuya, who grew up in Tottenham and plays for Notts County in League One, says: ‘When we arrived in Cameroon, we checked into our hotel and everything seemed fine.

‘Then we were told it was fully booked and that we had to leave immediately. We went to another hotel and it was empty. We were literally the only residents there.’

It turned out that the Cameroon government had asked for the visiting delegation to be quarantined.

Dumbuya and a couple of his team-mates ventured out onto the streets and received a by-now-familiar response from the locals.

‘As soon as people saw our training tops, the shouts of, “Ebola, Ebola” started,’ he says. ‘I’m getting used to it to be honest.’

Things first started to change with the Africa Cup of Nations pre-qualifier in the Seychelles in August. The team were refused entry to the country and were held in transit in Nairobi, Kenya, for two days.

Full-back Michael Lahoud, who plays for Philadelphia Union in the MLS, says: ‘We felt like fugitives. ‘We were on the run, only we were fleeing from something we didn’t know anything about.’

Eventually the Seychelles forfeited the match, so worried were they about Ebola entering their idyll and ruining the lucrative tourism industry.

This was only the start of Sierra Leone’s problems though.

They were banned from playing any matches at home by the Confederation of African Football, meaning all their games were now away fixtures. Ivory Coast wanted to ban them from entering last month and the match was confirmed so late that the Sierra Leone players had to buy their own plane tickets.

‘They tried to ban us from coming, yhen the opposition didn’t want to shake our hands or swap shirts with us,’ said Lahoud. ‘South Africa is the latest country to close its borders to Leone nationals and I can’t help feeling like we have become the scapegoats and face of this disease.’

Things reached their nadir with the fixture against DR Congo in Kinshasa. There was the customary nightmare journey, followed by hostility on the streets. Then came the match in the Mazembe Stadium. Dumbuya says: ‘Before kick-off, Johnny walked out on to the pitch, as he always used to do.

‘He looked a little shaken when he came back into the dressing room and said, “This isn’t going to be easy lads”. He wasn’t wrong. When we walked out of the tunnel the whole place just erupted and we were hit by this deafening noise.

‘It didn’t take long to work out what they were chanting — ‘E-BO-LA! E-BO-LA!’ It seemed everyone in the crowd was chanting it.’ Lahoud, who was born in Sierra Leone before moving to Washington DC at the age of five, says he will never forget that day.

‘It stung me and hurt deep inside,’ he says. ‘How could another African country — itself dealing with the disease — react like that?’

Sierra Leone lost the match 2-0 and suddenly their great form under McKinstry had evaporated.

These experiences will not deter Dumbuya from representing his country though.

‘All the boys in our squad are so passionate about playing for Sierra Leone,’ he says. ‘That applies more now than ever. We feel like we are representing the country in a positive light and giving the people something to be proud of. I’m in this for the long haul.’

The same, it appears, goes for McKinstry. ‘This is a wonderful country that has only just recovered from a terrible civil war and is now having to contend with another crisis,’ he says.

‘The least I can do is stick around and do a little bit to help.’

This piece was first published in the Mail on Sunday newspaper

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Roy Keane and Gary Charles: A different perspective on the Man Utd legend

I don't know Roy Keane.

My opinions of him were always based on what I'd seen of the Irishman on TV, in the papers and what I'd read in his two autobiographies.

The image I formed was perhaps the same as yours - of a ferocious, unforgiving and uncompromising loner.

A man who has, by and large, struggled as a manager because he can't empathise with or relate to players. A man who savages anyone he feels has let him down.

A lot of that may well be true, but I got a different perspective by speaking to the former England defender Gary Charles - a friend of mine who has been a friend of Keane's for more than 25 years.

The duo first met as teenagers and shared digs together in Nottingham.

These were heady days for both men. They were becoming regulars in the first team and each looked destined for stardom.

Charles was dubbed "the Brazilian", because of his silky dribbling skills and skin tone.

After one game, legendary manager Brian Clough purred: "When Charles plays a one-two, he goes like a gazelle.

"It's so effortless - at first it looks as if he's not moving, yet he's 40 yards up the field."

There were also lots of nights out, plenty of girls - and some scrapes - along the way.

Both played in the 1991 FA Cup final against Tottenham - when Charles was chopped down by that infamous Paul Gascoigne tackle early in the game - and the defender went on to win three England caps that summer.

Although it looked like each player was on the fast-track to the top, their journeys went in different directions after this.

Keane moved to Manchester United in 1992 and we know the rest - he became the club's on-field emblem and drove them to unprecedented levels of success.

Charles's next destination was, with respect, rather less glamorous - a short move across the east Midlands to Derby County. His form seemed to have gone backwards since 1991.

The reason was probably a road accident in the summer of 1992, in which he hit and killed a teenage cyclist. Although Charles was cleared of wrongdoing, the experience - of seeing the look on the boy's face at impact, of seeing his stricken family at the inquest - had a profound effect on the footballer.

His career was still pretty stellar - he played for a very successful Aston Villa side, for Benfica in Portugal, and also for his boyhood team West Ham - but it never really reached the heights that had once been expected.

He had also sunk deeper and deeper into alcoholism. Things got really bad during a year out with a career-threatening ankle injury at Villa, and there was an infamous incident towards the end of his career, in 2002, when he collided with another car in London, and told the other driver he was a bank robber on the run before fleeing the scene.

He was sent to prison for four months for drink driving in 2004, then jailed for a year in 2005 for threatening a nightclub bouncer while serving a suspended sentence.

Drink was always at the heart of his problems. I'd need at least another 5,000 words to try and get to the root of why Charles drank - perhaps that's for another day.

This is where Keane comes in again though. The pair had kept in touch sporadically since parting ways at Forest.

When Charles was serving his sentence in Rutland Prison in 2006, he received an unexpected and lengthy letter from his old pal, who was by now the manager of Sunderland.

The letter talked about what good friends they had been and what good times they had had, before going on to say 'There but for the grace of god - what's happened to you could have been me'."

When he was a wealthy Premier League footballer, Charles found he had dozens of friends. Mysteriously, they all disappeared when he experienced problems with drink and the law.

In the letter, Keane vowed to help his old pal, saying he'd give him some guidance about starting a coaching career, and that he'd provide him with somewhere to stay when he got out of prison.

And he was good to his word. In fact Keane didn't just offer his friend a place to stay, he brought him in with him and his family.

The Irishman also took Charles to training at Sunderland, where the former full-back sometimes took part alongside the other players, and at other times organised training drills.

When the side went on a pre-season tour to Holland, Charles went along as well.

The east Londoner has now taken some of his badges and is a coach at the University of Nottingham, as well as being a part-time scout.

It's not all been plain-sailing, but he's stayed sober and is doing well, and it's quite a transformation and an achievement for him. He is also looking after two of his three sons, with the eldest having left home to take up a job.

Charles himself has to take the credit for turning his life around, but a bit of credit should also go to Keane.

Not that he'd want any credit though. In fact he'd hate that. As far as I'm aware, the Irishman has never told anyone about this. He hasn't spoken about it in interviews, or in his books.

The last thing he's wanted is a pat on the back for helping out his mate, in private.

And Charles hasn't wanted to talk about it either, which is why there aren't any quotes from him here, and why it's in a blog.

But I thought it was a story worth telling.