Dilemmas of Football Ownership: Marching on, Direction Unknown
As we move into Day Three of our Football Ownership series, Gary Hartley tries in vain to make some sense of what, exactly, Massimo Cellino is up to at his beloved Leeds United.
It’s not particularly new, this football clubs subsumed by rich men’s egos thing. It’s just that in the presumed halcyon days, the egos were more the Rotary Club, cigar on Sunday type of affair – vaguely but not entirely unapproachable, with no offspring on Twitter.
Things are different now; we’ve supported or allowed the cult of moneyed personality, accepting that since it’s all ultimately a game, we can in turn allow our game to be gamed. Sigh. But hey, down at Elland Road, at least our rich man has a personality. Right? You with me? Right?
The Problem is that the last rich man we had hovering over the scene that lasted any length of time had one of those too: that of the real, dyed-in-the-wool, self-made villain.
Despite Massimo Cellino’s having more legally-formal villainous credentials than Ken Bates, the public pronouncements of Cellino thus far – and there have been many – suggest a crowd-pleaser wearing his faux pas and vast personality quirks on his tailored sleeve. He’s willing to answer the phone and have a sweary, well-lubricated chat with a fan manning a recording device – well at least he was. The logic being that we’ve had to shovel down so much excrement in recent years that this openness about failings can be taken as some sort of a positive.
Bates only ever loses civil cases, but has left a poisoned legacy far worse than a stadium wrangle and some unpaid duty on a yacht. Years spitting venom at his source of income, racking up legal bills to protect his non-existent good name against the media and made-up nemeses he couldn’t lock up in a tax haven have taken the mood of the club from classically cantankerous to desperately poisonous. Ken’s attempts at humour were appreciated only at a sort of Dr Evil level, and he certainly never tried a guitar solo or rocked a cigarette rakishly. He didn’t have enough HMRC-allowed days in the country to develop his act in the stands.
Cellino plays mediocre rock music, even getting up at the club Christmas party to join second-rate Leeds rock musicians the Pigeon Detectives in a semi-impromptu jam. Leeds is a city that revels in its mediocre guitar bands, so this offers great promise for a lasting friendship. There, he also made a joke about the old tax evasion thing when accepting a model boat as a token of affection from the fans. He’s a cheeky scamp is that Cellino. He also seems to lie a lot.
Lie is perhaps too strong – it’s more a lack of a firm grasp of the central truth of his own convictions. This is a slightly worrying characteristic in the executive of Leeds fans’ dreams. Festa or McDermott, Carbone or not Carbone, Hockaday or not Hockaday are just some of the personnel decisions he’s erred upon, while talk of stadium cut-backs and training ground moves have fluttered in and out of the realm of things that are definitely happening. Given we’re a flock with hope stretched so thin it could be used as a lasso for the Higgs-Boson; I am not sure he can be trusted with us, or us with him.
Fifteen new players have arrived in the summer transfer window at the time of writing, and it’ll probably be more by the time this is published; the only certainty is it won’t end at 17 – Cellino’s famously most-hated figure. Most of the personnel are unfamiliar to a British audience, meaning matchday programmes should come with a photo-fit key and white rose-tinted glasses.
There have been notable exceptions to the recruitment of modest-waged foreign players: Billy Sharp’s arrival from Southampton suggests both that someone lurking on the scene knows something of what it takes in succeed the Championship and that Cellino might have broadened his ideas about what weekly packet might attract footballers to do just that. Liam Cooper from Chesterfield also provides two points of note: a touch of excitement at actually signing players on the rise for once, tapered by the realisation that the English scouting policy may well be little more ‘who did well in the last game against us’.
This far into the first draft of this piece was a section on poor old David ‘Dave’ Hockaday – far enough in to emphasise his irrelevance in a micro universe so ruled by the whim of one man; a man whose only solid attachments seem to be aviators sunglasses and nicotine. This lowly placement has proved correct, but there again it wasn’t much of a punt in the dark. Most fans would have been able to brew up moderate excitement about a spunky lower-league manager with a few promotions under their belt and a reputation for exciting football, but Dave was not such a figure.
Broadly-speaking, English football could probably use a few more experimenters, but as scientific process goes, Cellino’s ill-fated dabble with Hockaday at Leeds was like throwing a stray cat into a box full of chainsaws, live-streamed online, then expecting to find the cure for cancer. We’ve already be warned that whoever comes next will likely not be a ‘big name’ – the majority would be satisfied with Steve Clarke, a man who may just be enough of a straight man to create a reasonably cohesive double-act.
The neutrals like Cellino. Well, my mate says he likes him – but he would, he’s a QPR fan. That’s another brood of replica shirts fallen hard for the cult of moneyed eccentricity if ever there was one. Among the not-neutral, there are Cellino ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ camps arranged carefully on the internet, but chances are that when it comes to it, we’ll piggy-back on whatever is decreed by our charismatic, occasionally cuddly fraudster. Perhaps we’re so hooked on drama we don’t want it to stop.
You may derive from this word-blurt that I’m struggling to form a coherent idea of the reign so far of Massimo Cellino, and you’d be entirely correct. I remain ludicrously hopeful that it’s a deliberate campaign of mixed messages belying a totally coherent master plan. At very least, some heart can be taken from the fact that some of the fans’ worst fears (namely appointment of Instagram-friendly progeny to key executive roles) have not been realised. So far.
Leeds United could use some stability – this much is obvious. It’s entirely dubious, however, as to whether we want it. If football is our religion, our distraction from the banal, should it not be all about rapid change and constant spectacle, a good story to chew over with the disciples down the pub in lieu of interesting plotlines on Emmerdale or Eastenders in the second decade of the 21st century?
And while it’d be easy to slip into xenophobic generalisations about ‘foreign owners’, you only have to look at Mike Ashley at Newcastle, or even Steve Parish at Palace lately, to derive a theory that impulsive and contradictory behaviour may be more attached to the nature of modern money, filtered through power games and complex financial models, than any nationality.
In spite of everything, our model yacht is probably on far less choppy waters than a fish tank illustrated over a decade ago. That said, it is hard to see it going anywhere fast. Any fan who claims a sure handle on the ownership narrative of the club over the last few years is almost certainly kidding themselves, and I’m tempted to make all my Leeds predictions using a homemade die printed with the words LIQUIDATION, RELEGATION, PROMOTION, MID-TABLE, RELOCATED TO SARDINIA, ROLL AGAIN. It’s loaded, though. You just roll again every time.
With no notable footballing outcome probable except by an astonishing alliance of luck and circumstance, in a league where stringent preparation and the presence of wingers usually make a more telling difference, all we’ve got left is to just light up our carcinogen of choice, strap on our Stratocaster and hope the one-liners keep rolling. Breathe in, breathe out, just a game, all a bit of a laugh, breathe in, breathe out.