Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Independent - Massimo Cellino: Fear and loathing at Leeds United

SPECIAL REPORT: The corridors and offices of Leeds United Football Club are not a pleasant place to be because of owner Massimo Cellino’s erratic, irrational and unprofessional working patterns
Ian Herbert Chief Sports Writer
The punch to the stomach routine is something Massimo Cellino’s staff at Leeds United have learnt to live with. It entails the boss drawing back his arm and making to hit an unsuspecting employee who has the misfortune to cross him in a corridor, then withdrawing it at the last minute, the grin revealing that this is a joke. They’ve not exactly been shrinking violets at Elland Road down the years. Just ask Kevin Keegan about Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner thumping him at Wembley in 1974. But this can be unsettling.
It is one of the many reasons why no one is grieving about the fact that Cellino was last week barred from running Leeds and, pending an appeal, that he will be out until next June. There’s a vague notion that Leeds need Cellino because he has the money to put the club back together again, but the evidence to support that proposition is hardly overwhelming, either.
It’s a measure of the way that staff are on edge that an investigation into the inside story of working life at Cellino’s Leeds has to be told without names, because despite the initial sense the 59-year-old gives new employees that they’re the answer to all his prayers, things can turn sour very quickly. The man seems to have a temper. “One minute you’re the best thing since sliced bread. Next minute you’re out,” says one of the many senior executives who has been and gone.
Employment law does not seem to form a part of his universe, as the case of Lucy Ward, the former Leeds Ladies midfield player who worked in the club’s academy, reveals. Her disciplinary record is unblemished, yet she was suspended for an act of “gross misconduct” in May: ostensibly spending too long working as a BBC analyst at last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada. The employment tribunal’s court papers suggest she gained the permission of her line manager and that her BBC engagement was an excuse to dismiss her. The tribunal will hear evidence that she was sacked because she happened to be the long-term partner of the former manager Neil Redfearn, who was shown the door on the same day.
The preliminary hearing threatens to drag the club’s name through the mud, though Cellino may seek to settle out of court. One of his favourite sayings is “a bad settlement is better than a court settlement”. Settling on time seems a less common strategy. A source who has worked at the top of the club suggests there are currently no fewer than 30 legal claims for payment against Leeds. These include the High Court suit served by his own lawyers Mischon de Reya, relating to £150,000 of unpaid fees, run up when he got the Football League’s attempt to block him buying the club overturned. “He doesn’t pay, then changes firms,” says one source.
Cellino did not even seek a settlement in the case of Cameron Stewart, the Manchester United academy graduate Leeds had agreed to sign on loan with a three-year permanent deal to follow, last year. The player’s contract was signed and he was playing for Leeds at the end of the 2013-14 season. But after the paperwork proved to be flawed – the Leeds signatory, David Hague, was unauthorised because he’d left the club – the Football League sent it back.
Cellino then arrived at the club, decided he didn’t want the player after all, and ripped up the contract. It was when Stewart pursued a compensation case, through the Football Association, that Cellino’s management of the club was laid bare. He suspended club secretary Alison Royston because of his dissatisfaction with the way Stewart’s contract had been drawn up, hired her back on a consultancy basis when he lacked the expertise required for the arbitration hearing, which he admits he did not attend, then dismissed Royston again when the proceedings went disastrously wrong.
Stewart, now at Ipswich Town, was awarded £750,000 compensation which equated to the wages he would have earned in the entirety of his contract, though it took the threat of a transfer embargo from the Football League to get Cellino to pay it. “Fortunately, in this country we do have a way of ensuring things are done,” says a source involved in fighting the 24-year-old’s case. “Cellino could have settled for so much less,” says the former Leeds executive.
Cellino, who tells The Independent today that he has “never heard” of Lucy Ward, says that the first he knew of Stewart was a letter from the Football League informing him that the contract – agreed before he had bought the club – was invalid. “When I came to Leeds I didn’t know who this player was. There were lots of things to face when I took over,” he says. “We did not know the rules in England. Apparently the player had signed a contract.”
Cellino claims he was poorly advised on the case by his lawyers, the experienced sports specialists McCormicks, and was forced to change advisers. He also castigates Stewart’s agent, Peter Morrison of the James Grant agency, whom he claims he had employed to help him buy players for Leeds. Only after two of those players had come in did Cellino discover they had been on Morrison’s books all along: the forward Nicky Ajose, as well as Stewart. “I feel a bit stupid about that,” Cellino says. “[If I had known] I would not have worked with him when I first [arrived] at the club.” Others have a different view of Morrison. “He has done more work to help Leeds than anyone,” says one source. “He has done nothing whatsoever wrong.”
The dozens of staff and contracted professionals shown the door include Steve Holmes, player liaison officer and academy staff member, whose “offence” appeared to be the absence of ballboys before last year’s pre-season friendly against Dundee United. He was told to remain away from work for a month and subsequently dismissed. He is now thriving at Sheffield United. “His workload at Leeds was immense,” says a source.
Managers keep coming and going, too. Steve Evans, whose first home game against Blackburn Rovers is on Thursday, is the sixth in 18 months and the payouts due to the dismissed keep mounting. Cellino is thought to be the only owner in British professional football to be paying, or paying off, four managers concurrently (Evans, Redfearn, Uwe Rosler – dismissed last week – and Darko Milanic.)
Given the desperation to see off the club’s last owners, Bahrain-based investment bank, Gulf Finance House, some feel Cellino is well placed to buy them out of the mess. But the notion that he can put the club on a path back to glory is contradicted by his struggle to secure finance to buy the lease to Elland Road from its holder, Manchester businessman Jacob Adler, who is ready to sell.
It has been widely reported that the cost of buying out Adler is £15m – the kind of investment or borrowing limit that would be within the means of most wealthy owners. Cellino is struggling to find a lender, with one source suggesting his two tax evasion convictions in Italy are a deterrent to finance houses. Cellino admits attempts to buy out Adler are proving difficult. “Every day I try to start to do this, there is a new problem,” he says. He insists the price is more than £15m, though will not say what. “I don’t like to say how much. It’s not very nice to talk about money,” he says.
Without the unholy operational mess that has engulfed Leeds, some of the smaller details of day-to-day working life with him – his failure to make it from his apartment behind the Leeds Malmaison Hotel for a very significant recent player/agent meeting; his smoking in his office; employing his son in the club shop – would be less consequential. But each seems to be an incremental addition to Leeds United Football Club becoming a godforsaken place, from top to bottom.
To look around the leagues and see the modestly rich British individuals who own modestly sized clubs – Peter Coates at Stoke, Michael Wynn-Jones at Norwich City, Crystal Palace’s four-man consortium– is to wonder why Leeds United have not been a source of attraction. Located in a wealthy one-club city, with a history which, with due respect, dwarfs each of those three named sides, Leeds is surely a greater football investment opportunity than any in the British game.
The fan base brought 27,672 to the opening fixture of this season against Burnley. Instead, with no salvation in sight, the club’s staff await news of Cellino’s latest legal fight with the Football League, knowing that sooner or later the Range Rover or Audio X5 will swing into the car park again and they will need to be careful how they go in the corridors.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Amid The Drama, Leeds United Face A Dangerous Test

Sabotage Times
Just in case you'd forgotten, amidst the ever-spinning whirlwind of madness that has been the last 5 days, Leeds United have a football match tonight.
Patrick Gunn
Yes, it may seem fanciful to expect a drama production team such as the one based at Elland Road to play a game of professional football from time to time, but that's the reality of things. Less than 24 hours after being confirmed as the club's new manager, after which the man who hired him was effectively banned from the club by the Football League, Steve Evans hopped on the team bus down to London to take his new side to face Fulham at Craven Cottage. What can possibly be expected of Evans in his first game is hard to say - Leeds have been in poor form for weeks now, and the circumstances surrounding his appointment are typically muddled. Going by his press conference, however, Evans seems fairly confident of his chances.
Saturday's game against Brighton was an unfortunate end to the short tenure of Uwe Rosler, a man I felt would have done well given more time to build a side capable of playing his preferred style of football. Cruelly reduced to 10 men for the last 5-10 minutes after Liam Cooper's injury, Leeds were put to the sword by Bobby Zamora with just a fraction of the game left to play, after impressing in spells against the league leaders. Not a great result, all things considered, but a promising performance against a good side following the previous capitulations to Middlesbrough and Birmingham. Chris Wood's shocking miss in the second half could even have put Leeds in a winning position come full time, but his free header was atrociously off the mark, flying wide of a half-open goal. The last time Wood missed such an opportunity, it was immediately repaid with a crushing, game-winning-strike against Derby. He would do well to pull out one or two against Fulham tonight.
Rosler's dismissal on Sunday was kept quiet by the club, who chose to announce his departure on Monday morning, hours before the Football League announced that Cellino was once again being disqualified from his position as owner. Eagle-eyed readers pointed out that the 2-week appeal period for this decision ended on the 28th of the month, meaning that Cellino had seemingly known about this decision for 5 days already, 5 days in which he forcibly limited the number of away tickets available to fans in a shockingly ill-conceived "protest" against the League and Sky TV, before sacking yet another manager a mere 11 games into his first season. With all the wildly optimistic talk in summer about Cellino's perceived "transformation" into a calmer, more laid-back owner thanks to the presence of Adam Pearson, it's no surprise that a day like Monday would come at some point, like the cork firing out of the shaken up champagne bottle that is Massimo Cellino's entire existence.
While Monday was simply another day to those fans who had grown tired of the Italian's antics long ago, it seems to have sparked a fire in the bellies of those who had been willing to give him more time in the past. As the football world once again pointed its mocking fingers towards Elland Road, another section of the fanbase decided that enough was enough, Cellino had to go. Has any announcement of an owner's disqualification ever received such unequivocal praise as the one released by the Football League on Monday afternoon?
Regardless of the fallout from the announcement, and the general uproar that followed his surprise appointment, Steve Evans is, for all intents and purposes, the Leeds United manager. As such, it is up to him to make sure that his team is focused and prepared for a stern test come Wednesday night. Fulham may not be the best team in this league, but they possess dangerous talent going forward, talent that Leeds fans will be well aware of. After Brian McDermott, Ross McCormack was one of the first victims of the Massimo Cellino dictatorship at Elland Road. Having spoken out staunchly to defend his manager and voice his distaste for the direction the club was heading, McCormack was purposefully kept at Leeds at first by his new President, who refused him the opportunity to head out to the preseason training camp in Italy, before being sold to Fulham for a reported £11 million. Many will look at McCormack and form images of a man who was unwilling to pledge his loyalty to the club he had almost single-handedly kept in the Championship, but regardless of your personal opinion of him, he will always represent a goal-threat at this level.
Alongside McCormack at Fulham are former Leeds men Matt Smith, Luke Garbutt and Tom Cairney. Garbutt & Smith have played minor roles for Kit Symons' team this campaign, and Cairney is suspended for tonight's game, but their presence at the club gives this fixture an extra kick, though given the importance that 3 points would represent to Leeds, that kick seems irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. With Charlie Taylor out with illness, Gaetano Berardi is likely to cover at left back, meaning that Evans will be forced to choose between Scott Wootton and Sam Byram on the right side of defence.
In his final game, Rosler went for the first option, provoking accusations of interference in his team selection. Evans however, like so many other before him, has promised Leeds fans that he, and only he, will pick the team on matchdays. Tonight's team selection could play a huge part in determining whether Evans is justified in his assurances, or simply deluded. Playing Byram tonight would represent, not only a show of authority to the fans, but also a strong backing of a young player that has been through a troubling few weeks. This is the perfect opportunity for Byram to prove that he still has the talent and desire required to play for Leeds.
Evans is likely to revert to a basic 4-4-2 formation, one that Rosler had switched to at times, but ignored in the long run in favour of his preferred 4-3-3. While it allows 2 up front, which looks to work well for Wood & Antenucci, the drawback of the 4-4-2 is that the central midfield can often be over-run by more modern, midfield heavy formations. If Lewis Cook advances, one or more of the wingers will have to drop back inside, leaving the team light in width, while the alternative of not allowing Cook the opportunity to move forward would, frankly, be madness. Against Brighton, Cook once again looked magisterial in comparison to some of his more experience team mates. The 18 year old seems to glide over the turf at times, but now finds himself under his 5th permanent head coach in his short professional career. Cellino's trigger finger has been responsible for a lot of negativity at Leeds, but if it ends up ruining the development of a player like Cook, who has the world at his feet in terms of pure, raw talent, then there will be hell to pay.
Look, I really don't know. Form books go out of the window with a new manager, could go well, could go wrong, you just never know. Evans has only had 2 days with this team, which doesn't seem long enough to learn their intricacies and strengths as a squad, but going back to a simple formation could help the players after the constant rotations under Rosler. 3 points would be huge for Leeds tonight, but I don't see that kind if impact coming straight away. All things considered, I'd be happy with a draw tonight, and hopefully Ross has a quiet game.