Saturday, 7 March 2015

A chat with Cellino

Massimo Cellino has been thousands of miles away in Miami for the last few weeks, but his presence is always felt at Leeds United.

I managed to speak to the Italian on Wednesday night. Initially he sounded tired and weary, but soon became more animated. This is a man capable of many moods, thoughts and opinions, all within the space of a single phone call.

Cellino said he had just been playing golf, which has apparently become a regular past-time of his since he was banned from owning the club by the Football League.

"I've been relaxing - playing golf and catching up with friends," he told me.

"I was worried about my health in Leeds, I really was, what with everything that was going on."

At first, he sounded a little down: weary after the fights, the legal cases and the bans.

Although he's not allowed any involvement with the club during the course of his ban, he's still been closely following the matches.

“The team is doing quite well, yes," he said, which seemed a bit of an understatement for a team which has won all but two of its matches in 2015.

"It’s the young players who are responsible for that," he added.

"Mowatt, Cook, Byram, Taylor – they are fantastic young players, they are the future of Leeds. I have always said that."

And, despite the upcoming Rule K arbitration with the Football League, and stories of an imminent sale, Cellino insists he is still committed to Leeds.

“I want to clear my name and come back, of course I do," he said. "I have done a lot of big things for this club, but the work is not finished.

“The fans have kept me going through all of this. People might say these are just words, that this is bullshit, but it's true.

"If it wasn’t for the fans, I would have left before.”

With his love of a good story, he was tickled by the reports about Russell Crowe being interested in the club.

"I heard this story about Russell Crowe and I laughed," he said. "I like this actor very much and I love his film, Gladiator.

"As far as I know, he hasn't made any contact, but, look, I am not involved with the club at this time.

"When I read that Crowe is a Leeds fan, I said 'this is fantastic'. I tell you though - owning Leeds is more difficult than fighting as a Gladiator."

Cellino is clearly looking ahead to next season. And he does seem frustrated that he's far away, unable to be directly involved with the club.

“If we can get two, three new players in the summer then we will be strong next season," he said. "Then we can start to think about the Premier League. But they have to be the right players."

In Cellino's absence, the club is being run by chairman Andrew Umbers and chief operating officer Matt Child - although Cellino says that his son, Eduardo, and lawyer, Giorgio Altieri, will also be having a significant say on events.

Umbers has clearly adopted the role of figurehead of the club with some relish. The investment banker has made statements, given interviews to the press, and hosted guests and held court on matchdays at Elland Road. And, as has been publicised, he's met with the fans' group Leeds Fans LLP, who are looking to buy a 25% stake in the club.

Umbers has also been very forthcoming with his opinions on football and the team, as anyone who has spent time with him will tell you. He's talked about tactics and players, although it's not entirely clear where this base of knowledge comes from.

He also hasn't been afraid to voice these opinions directly to the head coach, Neil Redfearn.

And then there's been the confusion over emergency loan signings. Redfearn has always been clear that his squad is inbalanced - and would any regular observer of the team disagree? Umbers initially said the door was not closed on emergency loans and then turned back, saying the squad was complete enough.

But isn't that Redfearn's decision? The confusion made things uncomfortable for the former midfielder this week.

Also then there's the issue of contracts - both Redfearn's and those of the players. Umbers said all contractual issues would be decided in the summer. Which is when Cellino is due to returm.

Which all brings us back to the same point - that despite Umbers' grandstanding, nothing will be really be decided until (or if) Cellino returns.

And that is a risky game to play with a manager who has done well in difficult circumstances, and a talented group of young players who have attracted covetous glances from elsewhere.

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