‘Can you imagine staying in Leeds when the people want to kill you? Fans call me a b-----d. But I’m not going away.’
Massimo Cellino lights up his umpteenth cigarette, leans forward while drawing hard on his Merit filter and begins to tackle his reputation as one of English football’s most controversial owners and the latest perceived villain in the tragic modern history of Leeds United.
“I can be the best a---hole in the world but I’m not a bad person and I never want to hurt anyone,” he says. “I can be a pain in the a--- but I’m not a bad person. So when people say I’m dishonest, it hurts me.
“When I watch a movie, I’m the sort who wants the police to win, not the bad guys. Some think I’m Machiavellian. ‘ You see, Massimo Cellino is a motherf-----.’ I’m not. Sometimes I do things without thinking but if I make a mistake people think I did it on purpose.
“When the fans call me a b------, it hurts me a lot, but I understand the fans who are p----- off. Maybe if I was in their position I’d say the same thing. They’re so used to eating s--- that they don’t believe something good could happen. So many times they’ve had the illusion of the right thing coming along, so why should they believe Massimo Cellino is the right one?
“Can you imagine staying in Leeds when the people want to kill you? I’m depressed. People tell me to go away. F------ hell. But I’m not going away because I’m not a coward. Otherwise I’d have already run away.”
It is a bleak Thursday afternoon in Leeds and Cellino has cleared his schedule to talk to The Daily
Telegraph. His plush office on the second floor of Elland Road’s East Stand is a serene place but the ominous clouds that circle outside seem an appropriate metaphor for the fresh storms engulfing the 59-year-old Italian businessman.
A week after our meeting, Lucy Ward, the partner of former Leeds manager Neil Redfearn, won her case for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination against the Championship club, where she had worked as an academy welfare officer. A tribunal heard that Cellino had allegedly claimed in conversation with a Leeds official that women have no place in football and were better off in the bedroom or the beauticians. It followed news that Cellino’s youngest son, Edoardo, a Leeds director, had been charged by the Football Association for reputedly calling a supporter a “spastic” on social media. Edoardo has commented, saying: “I did not fully understand the severity of the words used as English is not my first language. Again, I can only apologise.”
And on Saturday, around 1,000 supporters staged a protest march against the owner before the 3-2 victory at home to Reading, who just happen to be managed by Brian McDermott, the first of Cellino’s five managerial casualties in two years at the club. For a man appealing against a second ownership ban from the Football League for tax evasion in Italy, Cellino is accustomed to having a target on his back. But the Ward case could prove damaging and Leeds are also still awaiting judgment in another alleged wrongful dismissal case brought by former assistant manager Nigel Gibbs. Cellino seems to accept the Ward process could have been handled better but he refutes the sexism charge and questions how the tribunal panel could have given so much credence to Ward’s claim about that offensive remark he allegedly made to Gary Cooper, chairman of Leeds Ladies FC.
“It’s been a trial against Massimo Cellino, not against Leeds,” he said. “I’m now supposed to be this man who hates women and has such a low of opinion of them that they’re only good for the bedroom. It’s a total lie. The only conversation I had with Gary Cooper was about money for the women’s team. I would never think of saying something like he claims. Give me the choice and I’d employ a woman over a man every time because they work better. I had two women’s teams in America that won everything in Miami for 10 years. If I hated women, why would I have bothered? Any man who doesn’t respect women is low, not a man. I can accept a lot of things but not that.”
The speed with which Cellino seems to go through staff, and managers specifically, wins him few friends, though. He had 36 coaches in 22 years in charge of Italian club Cagliari. “I have a reputation as a coach eater, yes it’s true,” he says, but points out that, at Cagliari, the high turnover was in large part due to the club’s success earning his coaches bigger moves elsewhere. Still, Cellino is now on his sixth manager at Leeds in Steve Evans, who seems unlikely to last beyond the end of the season. So does he enjoy hiring and firing?
“I become a coward,” he explains. “I’m embarrassed. I don’t want to tell them. I don’t know which way to tell them. Most of the time I call someone else and ask them to do it. I know that’s not the best thing to do but I’m ashamed. But they go away with a pocket full of money and I’m the bad guy?
What the f---?” Cellino’s main problem with English football is the power afforded the manager and his assessments of most of those he has employed, from McDermott to Evans via David Hockaday, Darko Milanic, Redfearn and Uwe Rosler, are so withering they must remain off the record. He is a staunch advocate of the director of football/head coach model, where the coach focuses on the team but leaves contracts, transfers and the rest to the sporting director. Nicola Salerno vacated that role last year and Cellino intends to appoint a replacement imminently.
“I cannot work with English managers,” Cellino says. “I never want to learn. I give up. When am I going to find a manager in England who is actually a coach? They want to control everything. But it’s wrong because when they go you have to start all over again.
“Sometimes to pretend we were f------ right we don’t fire the manager and most of the time we f--- the club because we won’t admit we took the wrong guy. Not everyone is Sir Alex Ferguson. All the other managers want to act like Ferguson but they don’t have the skills, so they cause damage.”
He would probably be prepared to cede more power to Jose Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti, though. Mourinho is in line to take over at Manchester United this summer should Louis van Gaal depart but Cellino has done his best to entice the former Chelsea manager. “I told him, ‘If you had the balls, you should come and manage Leeds. Bring Leeds into the Premier League and then the Champions League. That’s balls.’ You want to play football – come with me to Leeds. Mourinho, like others, has to ask himself if he is still a coach. How do you find out? By going to Manchester United? “Ancelotti called me. ‘Massimo, bring the club into the Premier League and I come to you because the only place I miss and want to go back to is England’. For me a good coach still has to show he’s a good coach. Come here and show me.”
Cellino is clear on what he wants from a coach. “If we lose but we tried to win I’m happy,” he explains. “We lose and we tried to draw – fired. That is Massimo Cellino.”
Reports that Fabio Cannavaro, the former Italy World Cup-winning defender, is in line to replace Evans were dismissed by Cellino. “I’m 100 per cent not looking to appoint Cannavaro as manager,” he said. “There’s not one chance.”
If there is a chance of Evans staying on, though, the ex-Rotherham United manager will have to quieten down. “He talks too much,” Cellino says. “He has to learn to shut his mouth. I’ve told him so many times to stop, you have no idea. But he doesn’t.”
At times over the course of five hours of conversation, it is hard to keep up with Cellino and, at one point, he casually drops in how he almost died – twice. The first time he was 18 when he got an embolism in a leg after deep sea scuba diving in Australia. “They brought me to hospital and I was effectively dead,” he says. “I couldn’t use my legs for two months. Everyone thought I’d be paralysed.”
Three years later, he ended up in a coma when his new Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer was written off “by a Fiat 127 that came out of a petrol station with its lights off ”. The date of the accident stuck in his head – June 17, 1984 – and was the origin of his superstition about the number 17. “Every 17 is a s--- for me,” he says. Cellino believes firmly in the paranormal and is convinced someone has put a curse on Leeds. “We were not winning at home, I brought a priest here, he blessed the field and a black crow flew away,” he whispers. “I’ve been fighting every day with this curse because I swear to God it does exist.” Cellino gives short shrift to the critics who accuse him of asset-stripping. Having reduced annual losses from £23 million to £2 million and got the wage bill under control, he believes he is now in a position to concentrate on football matters. “I couldn’t build a team before I had plugged all the leaking holes,” he said. “They can’t make me rush because if they do I can cause damage. You can’t compete in the Olympics until physically you’re ready to do so. I thought I knew everything about football but here I have had to start from zero again. Until now I’ve only spent about five per cent of my time looking at the playing side.”
A 223-day ban from the Football League would throw a huge spanner in the works if his appeal is unsuccessful but he hopes a solution is found soon. “If someone has got a brain and we really care about football we will get it sorted out,” he said. If there is a fight he is unwilling to back away from, though, it is with Sky. Cellino infamously refused to let the Sky Sports cameras in for a Championship game against Derby in December before relenting, but he is not finished with them. He is adamant he is in favour of the collective selling of television rights. His problem is with Leeds being televised around 15 times a season when other clubs are shown only a handful of times for the same money and the crippling effect he believes that and ever-changing kick-off times have on attendances at Elland Road. He is prepared to fight Sky through the courts if need be. “I am protecting Leeds,” he said. “If they weren’t hurting us financially they could put us on television every day.”
Cellino’s family have urged him to walk away but he still believes he can be Leeds’s saviour. “My daughter said last week, ‘Daddy, Leeds is killing you’,” he says. “I know but I don’t like to give up. The fans want to win but I want to win bigger. I don’t want to go into the Premier League then back. I want to go in the Premier League then compete for the Champions League.”
Talking big: Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino is ready to fight his corner to make the Yorkshire club great again