Monday, 20 April 2015

Cellino speaks: On the sicknote six and other matters

Massimo Cellino called me during the game against Charlton, early in the first half.

Leeds were 1-0 up thanks to that rarest of occurrences - a Steve Morison goal.

“Can you believe it! A goal from Morison, fucking hell!” he laughed.

The Italian was ebullient, even though his son Eduardo had just informed him some of the travelling fans were chanting ‘Cellino out!’

He claimed this didn’t bother him, although I wasn’t entirely sure I believed him.

“I am used to it,” he said.

“I remember one game at Stadio San Paolo in Italy, when Cagliari were playing Napoli.

“There were 60,000 fans spitting at me and chanting ‘Massimo Cellino motherfucker’.

“I have experienced it, it’s ok.”

Having thousands of your OWN fans chanting this is a different matter of course. But anyway.

Cellino explained he had a long-standing, mutual animosity with the Napoli supporters.

When his side were struggling at the wrong end of Serie A one season, the Napoli supporters had sung the equivalent of “you’re going down” at his players and fans. This irked him.

So when Cagliari snatched an injury-time equaliser and then a winner against Napoli the following season, he celebrated effusively – and right in front of them.

Not only that, but cameras captured him mouthing “pieces of shit” in their direction.

This didn’t go down at all well, as you might expect, hence those clear and succinct chants of “Massimo Cellino motherfucker”.

This was Cellino’s retelling of the story and it seemed to encapsulate the man quite well: bearing a grudge, courting controversy, causing trouble.

The 58-year-old said he had asked the Football League’s permission to attend Leeds’ final home game of the season, against Rotherham.

The game takes place a day before his ban ends. And, unbeknown to him at the time, his own fans are planning a mass protest against him.

But, as I said, he claims not to be worried about such matters.

“If the fans want to kick someone, kick me,” he said.

He was rather more upset that his daughter, Eleonora, had been targeted on social media.

Which brings us onto the latest bizarre twist in the battle between the club’s board and manager Neil Redfearn.

I call it a battle, but it seems to be one-way and I’ve never been entirely sure what the ultimate objective is.

And when I talk about the club’s board, does this actually just mean Cellino?

Has he been involved in the running of the club during his ban?

I don’t know for sure, but others will, including Redfearn, Steve Thompson and Matt Child.

With two of them already having departed and one on the brink of going, there could well be more to come on this story, with the Football League potentially involved.

Cellino has always insisted he has respected the ban and left the running of the club to others while he's been away.

He said he had not heard about the six injured players until Friday evening but admitted it looked “weird”.

He asked why Redfearn hadn’t told chairman Andrew Umbers about the injuries and questioned why the issue couldn’t have been sorted out internally.

Umbers subsequently said the medical staff had made him aware of the news.

When this inconsistency was pointed out to him by Phil Hay, Umbers said Cellino wasn’t au fait with the day-to-day running of the club because of his ban.

I told Cellino that a lot of fans suspected he had instructed the players to strike, in order to undermine Redfearn, but he strenuously denied this.

“I am not a coward and I’m not the sort of guy who tells his players to go on strike,” he said.

“I never use the people I love to protect me.

“If I want to do something, I have the balls to come out and do it myself.

“I only found out about these players pulling out on Friday evening. I can’t get involved with the club because of my ban.”

But one thing is for sure – the players wouldn’t have pulled out if they thought Redfearn had the backing of Cellino.

At the very least, they believed they could act with impunity in defying their manager.

Because, as of Saturday, people inside the club were privately arguing that Antenucci and Silvestri were genuinely injured, but no-one I spoke to attempted to argue that Del Fabro, Doukara, Cani and Bellusci were.

And, unprompted, Cellino said: “Perhaps they [the players] think they are doing something nice for me. But they are wrong.” And he described what had happened as “embarrassing”.

Yet still, on Sunday evening, as Lewis Cook was recognised as the young apprentice of the year by the Football League, Leeds released a statement reiterating that all six had been genuinely injured on Thursday. Or was it Friday?

Perhaps, as Umbers said, this is a sign that Cellino isn’t involved in the running of the club, that he’s looking in from the outside.

So what about the long term?

Cellino has previously told me the club is not for sale but that “everything has its price”.

He says plenty of parties have shown an interest, and that Red Bull asked to see the books – to which they were informed the club was not for sale - but there have been no firm offers.

And the eccentric Italian says he is planning for next season.

“I don’t have much time, I want to see the team in the Premier League,” he said.

“I have to change a lot of things, keep the best players and bring in four new ones, the right ones.

“The fans are going to enjoy next season so much, it will be a beautiful season, I promise to them.”

Where once proclamations like this seemed invigorating, prompting fans to think ‘maybe this crazy man can do what he says and take us back where we belong’, now I suspect they fall flat.

Too much has happened to make most fans believe in him any more.

After all, the team was doing well, winning a lot of games, and with a nucleus of young players under a homegrown manager.

Then it was all brought crashing down. Sabotaged even.

Why was Thompson suspended and why hasn’t he been replaced?

Who ultimately made that decision?

Why did six foreign players, all signed by Cellino, pull out on the eve of a game, to the complete bewilderment of the manager?

What is the reasoning for these decisions and why is it always inconsistent and untimely, depending on the time of day and the person giving the explanations?

Even Cellino himself admitted it all looked 'weird'.

Too right.

So the fans can be excused for grimacing when they read promises about next season.

And what of Redfearn? It seems unlikely he will still be the head coach next term.

Cellino said: “My dream was always to think of Neil Redfearn.

“People forget, when I first came in, after just 24 hours, I put him on the bench. I liked him and believed in him straight away.

“Then I put him in charge of the team. I loved him and we talked every day.

“And he helped me a lot, of course. And I appreciate that. And I thank god that we stayed in the Championship.

“But when I come back, I have to make a choice. I have to decide what is best for the club.”

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Calm to storm at Leeds United: How did it come to this?

Rewind to the start of April and Leeds United appeared to be sailing in calm waters.

Unbeaten in five, safe from relegation and with their young players to the fore: a rare opportunity to relax and look forward to next season with some optimism.

That was until the storm of 'mad Thursday', with assistant manager Steve Thompson suspended without explanation and news emerging that the club's top scorer had effectively been put in mothballs.

Since then there have been three defeats in a row, the position of manager Neil Redfearn is in doubt, and there are fears that the futures of young guns Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor could lie elsewhere.

So how did it come to this?

To try and understand, we need to go back to the end of last year, to December 30th to be precise, when Leeds United had just lost 2-0 away at Derby County. In truth, the scoreline flattered them, because they were completely outplayed.

They were 20th in the table, just one point above the relegation zone. And I, for one, thought they would be relegated.

It was at this point that Redfearn decided that if he was going down, he'd go down his way.

So at the start of 2015, out went the diamond formation and in came 4-2-3-1. Out went Bianchi, Doukara and Antenucci, and in came Murphy, Morison and Taylor.

Massimo Cellino has always told me he has never, ever, told a manager who to select. But he's also quite clear that he oversees transfers. And it doesn't sit well with the owner if a manager overlooks these signings.

Anyway. Back to the turn of the year and the turn in fortunes. One January signing, Sol Bamba, made a difference. And Thompson started to make an impact, too. Murphy and Bamba, in particular, paid tribute to the help he had given them.

And, perhaps most significantly of all, Redfearn started to get the best from the young guns he had nurtured through the club's academy.

Results picked up dramatically. Among the impressive results were wins over high-flying Bournemouth and Middlesbrough. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Leeds were one of the form teams in the division.

Then came mad Thursday and that optimism evaporated.

Underlying all of this, from day one, has been a tension between the foreign and English contingents at the club - or perhaps more accurately, between the staff of the Cellino era and the rest.

Despite the impressive results, the club's hierarchy were frustrated that the new signings - Montenegro, Cani, Doukara et al - were not getting a chance in the side.

Whether or not this came direct from Cellino, who was banned (and in Miami), I can't say. But the frustrations of 'the board' were conveyed to the manager.

Some of the foreign signings - Berardi, Bamba, Silvestre - mixed in with the rest, but the others didn't.

And suddenly there was not only Salerno at training - who Redfearn always got on well with - but his 'assistant' as well, a young man named Andrea.

The 23-year-old Frenchman first came to the attention of the Cellinos when he was working in a furniture shop in Miami. Mrs Cellino came in as a customer and was impressed by how polite this young man was, and by the fact that he spoke a number of languages.

Soon he was brought over to the club in an intern capacity, initially working in the club shop and then assisting Salerno, acting as his interpreter. He was given a modest wage and put up in a flat in the city.

Other staff understandably became bemused when he started to turn up in the boardroom for matches though. And at meetings. And at the Thorp Arch training ground, where he would ask questions and occasionally voice opinions.

Staff at Elland Road soon started to nickname him 'the spy' - and it stuck.

This is all perhaps something of an aside, although it adds to the slightly surreal picture at the club.

Tensions and mutual distrust between the two camps boiled over with the Antenucci affair. To recap, chairman Andrew Umbers told Redfearn he was not to select the striker because he was two goals away from triggering a clause that would give him another year's contract.

Redfearn said he would go along with this, but only so long as he could be honest about the reasons for not picking the player. After all, his form had picked up and he'd scored in his last two games. But he was told he mustn't do that.

When Thompson and Redfearn arrived for work on the morning of Thursday April 2nd, Bellusci and Antenucci were laughing. That seemed strange, but the reason soon became clear when Thompson was handed a letter, signed by Nicola Salerno, informing him he had been suspended.

Redfearn later spoke to Antenucci. "I stuck up for you, Mirco, and my mate got suspended," he said. "Now you're laughing about it."

Antenucci felt pretty bad about that. And, to be fair, his attitude, in both training and the matches, has been good and he earned a place in the side. Cellino, in turn, denied that Redfearn had ever been forbidden from selecting the striker.

When I spoke to the club's Italian owner last week, he revealed Salerno had tendered his resignation, but said he hoped to talk him out of it. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Salerno - who is described as a gentleman by pretty much everyone at Elland Road - felt very awkward about the events of the last fortnight.

So the club has no assistant manager, no sporting director and a manager on the brink.

The reasons for Thompson's departure are still not entirely clear. Cellino told me it was because he had called Salerno a 'retard' after the Fulham game, which Leeds won 3-0.

He also said he was still committed to the club and that they needed four or five new signings to mount a promotion charge next season.

In short, what we have is a situation of confusion, uncertainty and turbulence.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Rewind to Red Bull interest October 2014

In late October 2014, a source close to Massimo Cellino's regime told me the Italian had held talks with drinks giant Red Bull.

Apparently they were talking about the drinks taking up to a 50% stake in the club.

I ran a story and Cellino was very touchy about it indeed.

He said he had held talks with a middleman acting for the company. And that the talks were not about Red Bull taking a significant stake at all, but about sponsorship and investment. Something like renaming the training ground.

Cellino insisted he was at the club for the long haul and had unfinished business.

The Daily Mail website ran a story claiming Red Bull were in takeover talks. Apparently the club sent them a legal letter about the story and got an apology. There were also suggestions they had received some minor financial compensation.

I went on TalkSport to talk about it all on Sunday November 2nd - essentially summing up what I've written above.

I then got a text from Massimo Cellino, forwarding on a text he had been sent by Andrew Umbers.

"Just been listening to simon Austin on national radio saying that you are considering selling the club to red bull and talks are ongoing.

"Not good news. Leaves a confused message to fans, sponsors and players."

That wasn't what I'd said, but anyway.

Things seem to have changed now. Cellino is banned and facing the prospect of further bans. He says he has received an offer and that it will be considered by the board.

A figure of £60 million has been mentioned, which you would imagine would be accepted, if it's true.

Still more to go on this.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Leeds United's 'mad Thursday' explained

Not for the first time in Massimo Cellino's Leeds' reign, fans were left scratching their heads yesterday and asking 'what was all that about?'

At the start of the morning, news came through that assistant manager Steve Thompson had been suspended. This was a shock, to say the least.

Thompson had been given a letter, signed by Nicola Salerno, informing him he was suspended (with the word suspended spelt incorrectly) and that his contract, which expires this summer, would not be renewed.

Then, just as Neil Redfearn was about to attend his weekly press conference ahead of the Blackburn game on Saturday (understandably, he had considered cancelling it, before deciding he would front up to discuss a decision he had known nothing about), I wrote this story for The Sun revealing that the manager had been told he was not allowed to pick his top scorer, Mirco Antenucci.

The two stories, combined, gave a feeling of chaos, of a club in disarray. They weren't two random events that just happened to coincide though.

They were linked. And this is why.

Earlier in the week, Redfearn was told by chairman Andrew Umbers, in no uncertain terms, that he was not to select Antenucci because of a clause in his contract triggering an automatic one-year extension should he score 12 goals.

This would mean the striker staying at Elland Road for a further two seasons beyond the current one, as well as receiving a cash bonus.

This incentivised contract was seen as good business when it was agreed, as it would guarantee that the player would be rewarded only if he achieved. It was seen as insurance for the club. Everyone's a winner, or something like that.

Only Antenucci did get very close to reaching the stipulated target, and the club decided it didn't like the incentive any more. Antenucci is already 30; he has done fairly well although not outstandingly well in his first season; and the club's ownership situation is now up in the air.

These incentivised contracts are not unusual in football. And, even though it seems bizarre, this would not be the first time a club has wanted to avoid playing someone about to activate a clause.

But what is rather poor form is the fact that Umbers told Redfearn he could not disclose the real reason for not selecting Antenucci.

This put the manager in a difficult position. It's not hard to see why. Just consider if, at a press conference or in a post-match interview, he was asked why he had not selected the club's top scorer, a striker who had netted in his last two matches.

He would have to lie. And that sat uneasily with an honest man of integrity like Redfearn - one who also has a clause in his contract stating he has full autonomy over team selection.

So this caused tension between Redfearn and Umbers. The manager said he would not go along with what he had been told, and that if he couldn't pick Antenucci, he would at least be honest about the reason, saying it was a board decision.

In response, Umbers told Redfearn he must not do that and there would be consequences should he do so. Was Cellino aware of all this and ultimately behind the decision?

That's a question I could not answer definitively.

Then there was something of a stand-off between Redfearn and the board.

The club was obviously loath to suspend or sack the manager. He has done an excellent job this year, has brought through a fine crop of young homegrown players and is held in high esteem by the club's fans.

So what was the next most severe thing they could do?

Thompson was informed in the letter that he was being suspended because of the way he had been 'carrying out his duties'. But this doesn't wash.

Surely it was Redfearn's place and his alone to decide on the way his assistant was carrying out his duties? And he has always said that he was delighted with what Thompson had done.

And the form of the team, the morale of the team, has been excellent in 2015.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that this was a way of clipping Redfearn's wings, of showing him who was boss, of rebuking him, without taking the ultimate step of targeting him directly.

It's fair to say that Cellino was not sure about Thompson's appointment in the first place and that it took the persistence of chief operating officer Matt Child to push his signing through.

Cellino was always slightly suspicious of him after that as well. Perhaps it was because the Italian thought the appointment impacted on his own relationship with Redfearn and his own involvement in the football side of things, but that's speculation.

For his part, Redfearn has always spoken highly of Cellino, most recently in an interview with the BBC last week.

They genuinely get on and have a rapport. Having spent time with Cellino myself, I can vouch for the fact he can be extremely charismatic and inspirational. When he's in the mood, he can carry people along with his passion and vision.

And that can be powerful. At times like those, you genuinely think Leeds United could be onto big things with him at the helm.

Cellino can also be very astute and perceptive about people, and extremely knowledgeable about football.

But. And there are some serious buts. He can be extremely erratic and irrational. We have seen this when he has sacked people on a whim, in a fit of pique. Or when he has persisted with fights that were probably not worth fighting.

He also has an unfortunate trait of wanting to be the centre of attention and I wonder whether he has enjoyed watching the club's success in 2015 from afar, while he is sat in Miami and not involved on the ground at Elland Road or Thorpe Arch.

At times, he has seemed reminiscent of a child who has had a lavish birthday party laid on, only to find out he is ignored when it takes place.