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‘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.’

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - FRONT PAGE - Mas­simo Cellino

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

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