Civilian Soccer Tyrants: Leeds and Massimo

August 19, 2014 — by Rob Kirby



Civilian Soccer Tyrants: Leeds and Massimo

August 19, 2014 — by Rob Kirby

Northern English football fans are usually all-in or all-out. At Leeds United, however, the roller coaster highs and lows over the past decade have inner-ear imbalanced supporters. After a rogues gallery of financial disaster club owners, they remain wary of a flashy, volatile new Italian guy for whom “eccentric” puts it mildly. They could be excused for remaining cautiously fill_in_the_blank. (This said by someone who has never been to olde town Leeds and whose defining viewing moment involving the team begins and ends with the storybook match-winning FA Cup goal from an on-loan MLS Thierry Henry a few years back.) But as of August 3, Massimo Cellino, eccentric Italian entrepreneur, convicted fraud and serial sacker of coaches, announced he’s buying back the LUFC stadium grounds that the club’s broke ass previously had to sell, so that’s positive, yes? Yes, Leeds fans? I’ll take that grumbled assent as cautiously optimistic. And you’re no longer in the third tier, though he had nothing to do with that… Robble.

High-flying millennium era Premier League Leeds reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001 but they walked a razor’s edge to do so, and racked up huge debts in the process. After finishing fifth in 2003, meaning they didn’t qualify for the European competition (and more importantly, the associated TV rights cash), the “spend money to make money” strategy backfired massively. Debt collections led to mass player sell offs and a subsequent plummet down the table. Leeds sold the Elland Road stadium and grounds in 2004, and the team got relegated the same year. In the Championship, the team went into financial administration in 2007, which then triggered relegation to the third division with a 10-point deduction. They found themselves unceremoniously dumped down two divisions within six years. (Still, as Leeds fans will tell you, they’ve won the league more recently than Liverpool.) High-powered consultants were not required to explain the collapse. Simple financial fallout of reckless overspending. Leeds fought the big dogs Cold War CCCP-style and arms-raced themselves to bankruptcy by kiting checks and making bad big buys. They got burned in a very real sense, and have fought to keep creditors at bay the past decade as they heal in the burn victims ward.

Meanwhile, in Sardinia, during the whole rise and fall of Leeds Massimo Cellino operated a separate universe of terror and infamy in his war against the local Sardinian island government and its refusal to allow him to build his stadium how he wanted and where he wanted. As result, he threw one of the most incredible club owner tantrums of all time and relocated the Sardinian home grounds to Trieste, on the far northeastern end of Italy near Slovenia and Croatia–basically as far from the Mediterranean island off the western coast of Italy as one could get, 600 mixed-transport miles away. He fired 36 managers in 22 years at Cagliari, the club which he sold in June. The Italian Feds have found him guilty twice, once for agricultural import malfeasance (he’s a corn magnate) and once for accountancy issues regarding Cagliari (okay, for the English FA, that one seems rather pertinent…) with the specter of further charges perpetually overhead. At the time he was buying Leeds, in early 2014, he had some problem or other with customs over his yacht. Tax evasion and import malfeasance, something like that. The usual.

It’s nearly impossible to fail the English FA’s “fit and proper persons” test, but Cellino did. (Apparently, the yacht thing killed him, not the football-specific financial crime, or the other.) That is, before he didn’t, and passed it. He appealed, the FA reversed its decision, and Leeds, after a string of owners that have left it in different stages of ruin and bankruptcy, had a new man on the throne who may further destroy the club or actually scheme it back to the Premier League. He’s clearly got some sleight of hand skills, even if he does keep getting busted. Also he projects promotion to the Premier League in two years as his goal, so naturally ears prick up for the Leeds hopeful, cast out from the top tier for the past 10 years.

In contrast, the hated David Haigh, who managed Elland Road of a sort until last year as managing director, has been sweating in a Dubai jail for three months, incarcerated on charges of £3 million for fraud and embezzlement. From his cell, he counter-threatened previous owners Gulf Finance House Capital with “damaging allegations” of their own misconduct to which the mega corporation remained colossally deaf until it blasted back about a reported tell-all book deal Haigh may or may not slimily have in the works. Gulf Financial House Capital still cling on as 25% current minority shareholders. Again, Leeds has endured a run of pretty bad owners. And that’s just a fraction of the nonsense.

But back to Cellino. First, in the President’s vision to the masses, he plans to deliver the ancestral grounds. Next, the promised land: the top tier of English football. Unless the whole continental shelf erupts in the process. Past owners have showcased a sort of object lesson in what not to do, and then along comes Mr. Volatile, very likely to blow up an already detonated landscape, but promising to buy back the land. It’s contrasting but compelling, especially for Leeds supporters more than ready to “March on Together” back to the Premier League again.

Cellino doesn’t do warm and fuzzy, but he does do money and he kept (sometimes) island-bound Cagliari in the Italian top flight for a long time. Fans may see him as a crook, but if so, at least one who has the financial mind to make the right moves economically–like buying back the stadium at Elland Road, previously liquidated at massive long term cost to come up with cut-rate quick cash. Though the actual squad lacks Premiership star quality, he has brought in inexpensive but promising players from the top two tiers of Italian football, making use of his connections in and knowledge of players in Seria A and B. The club has lost and continues to lose money, and on the controversial side, In July, after 4 months, he has sacked his first Leeds manager for the second time (surprise!) in his first three months, having only bought the club in April 2014. He’d pared the budget also by firing well-liked staff, academy coaches and, most controversially, the best player, if for a pretty huge price. But Cellino requires all-aboard in righting the ship, by hook or by crook, as some say, but certainly not publicly by any sort of skipper. He doesn’t suffer insubordination lightly. (See aforementened “sacking of Sardinian fan base and moving stadium grounds to Trieste” incident.) But some people still have some beef.

The scarred and pessimistic point to the glaring exit of their source of goals (last season’s leading scorer Ross McCormack, sold by Leeds to Fulham for a fee of £11m). Too many foreign imports, too many young and/or academy players, too much deadweight that didn’t perform up to par in the season past, not to mention the unceremonious sending off of staff that people considered part of the Elland Road firmament. In addition to McCormack, 14 other where’s were sold or released. Hockaday has managed in the Conference, but never the league. These things can mount a bit worrisome for those who value the stability and experience. However…he apparently costs about a tenth of what McDermott earned, so Cellino balances some ledgers right there. Who needs a manager?

According to the Guardian, (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/aug/08/maverick-owner-massimo-cellino-leeds-united-big-mess) new coach Dave Hockaday seemed nervous as he repeatedly referred to Cellino as “the President” (echoes of Il Duce?), in an opening press conference. Fear of his infamously tyrannical new boss is, of course, well-founded. He fired Brian McDermott before rehiring him last season. In the the same Guardian interview regarding the Hockaday press conference, Cellino said, “I can change manager like underwear if needs be.”

After the bizarre, convenient freezing out of main goalie and second highest wage earner at the club because of Cellino’s superstition about the number 17 (more below), this summer Cellino also fortuitously signed young Seria A GK Marco Silvestri, “the best goalkeeper in Italy,” per Cellino, sort of via his other club Cagliari in Serie A. Conspiracy theorists will unquestionably swarm the scene if the £400,000 looks in hindsight an overly kindly price. Silvestri signed on June 9, having just been on loan from Chievo for the previous six months. Cellino then agreed to sell Cagliari itself two days later, embuing his last movements with a whiff of a backroom deal. Not so much as anyone could prove, mind, and Chievo actually owned Silvestri, not Cagliari, but seems like something there nonetheless.

But the day before the sale, in a narrative twist, Leeds had to pay £950,000 to Sport Capital, the company that filed a winding-up petition against the club and had tried to buy the club before Massimo Cellino’s takeover in April. Apparently backed by David Haigh (former Leeds man of Dubai incarceration) Sport Capital issued the petition in May after Leeds missed a repayment on the loan, to previous owner (and current minority owner), Gulf Finance House Capital, subsidiary of Bahrain finance giant Gulf Finance House, which owned the club from December 2012 to April 2014 and hemorrhaged debts to the tune of £1 million a month, according to the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jun/10/leeds-united-repay-loan-sport-capital-david-haigh-court

Sport Capital tried to buy the club before Massimo Cellino’s takeover in April and slapped petition on the court’s desk in May after Leeds missed a repayment on the loan to Gulf Capital (wherefore came that information?), and once Sport Capital complained with evidence that Leeds had £1.6m in their bank account, meaning that bank account account could be frozen, they got £1 million (plus legal fees) for their corporate watchdog altruism. Even though the money was to a partner unrelated to Sport Capital. It was sort of a bitch move. Though Haigh soon came into enough trouble of his own in the end.

In the season opener away at Millwall, Leeds lost, 2-0. At home, against Middlesbrough, they won, 1-0. The Serie A and B players haven’t yet scored, but one recent Southampton signing has, Billy Sharp. Sharp scored the lone goal over Middlesbrough in the 88th minute to secure Leeds 3 important points, as opposed to sitting two games into the season scoreless. The Hockaday wear may not need to be discarded yet. Which works for Cellino, because Hockaday comes cheap.

In addition to all his other eccentricities, other stories abound about Cellino’s abhorrence of the number 17, his dropping of goalkeeper Paddy Kenny (coincidentally second-highest earner) for being born on the 17th of a month; his alleged dread of purple (when does that even come up?); and other things that could be fact or fiction. The first two are apparently fact, though. He has actually spoken about them, and at Cagliari, he had all the seats renumbered from 17 to 16B.

Cellino isn’t first-choice as stabilizing forces go, but he could finagle the destabilization into heading upwards. As regards Cellino the cost-cutting yacht owner, he has apparently shut down the training ground cafeteria, which means brown bag lunches for players, and players are also responsible for washing their own clothes. Subtract player wages, manager wages, add player sales, he’s getting there, even if it’s shoestring jerry-rigged. And a lot depends on whether the Elland Road purchase comes to pass. Delivering on that sort of milestone could sway some minds toward his side, or at least serve as a solid first step.

Although, as a tarnish on that silver lining, he did recently get arrested last year in connection with a stadium redevelopment deal in Italy. http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/european/cagliari-president-massimo-cellino-arrested-in-stadium-investigation-8494422.html

He’s a sketchy cat, what can you say?