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Inside FutbolInside Futbol


Leeds Continental Structure Myth Leaves Fans No Recourse if Cellino Fails

Phillip Buckley

There is a myth being peddled around Elland Road. It is claimed Leeds United are following a continental management model, with a sporting director responsible for buying and selling players, and a head coach whose job is simply to prepare, pick and manage the team. Yet the signs point to a meddling owner, installed as president, who runs the club as a fiefdom. And it may be this that leaves the Whites lurching from one disaster to another as they seek to regain their status as one of the biggest clubs in the English game.

In truth the arrival of Italian businessman Massimo Cellino at Leeds offered a financial panacea, a cure to the constant worries of implosion and winding up orders. Cellino swooped in, beating off an attempt by the Football League to stop him taking control, and enthusiastically dumping Serie A side Cagliari in a show of commitment for his new team. For Cellino it was the fulfilment of a dream, taking over an English club after long eyeing such a move, with an interest in buying West Ham having become public in 2010. The Italian tired of football in his homeland, with Cagliari playing in a decrepit Stadio Sant’Elia, constantly losing their most talented players to bigger clubs and thus having little chance of challenging the established elite. For Cellino, Leeds was the ultimate package, with a fan base capable of supporting a side in the wealth and splendour of the Premier League, and a club which offered the chance to keep hold of any unearthed gems.

He quickly set about assessing the club from top to bottom, making cost cutting measures and casting as fresh look over years old practices at Elland Road. The Italian quickly judged the club’s expensive Thorp Arch training base unlucky and set upon moving the players’ facilities closer to Leeds. Cellino, who admits he is “very superstitious”, believes Thorp Arch is cursed. “Thorp Arch was built in 2002”, he explained. “Since then we are down. I don’t think it’s a very lucky place. So there’s something wrong with that place. It’s too far away.” He also insisted that players must live in the city. “Next season I do not want one single player who lives outside of Leeds, no way. That is mandatory”, the Italian said. 

However, Cellino’s off-the-pitch work, cutting costs, putting the club on a good financial footing, moving training bases, planning for years in advance, is not the limit of his activities. Indeed, the Italian appears to believe he knows the game inside out, can judge a player’s talent and dictates transfer policy. The businessman might have brought Nicola Salerno into Leeds as sporting director, a continuation of his role under Cellino at Cagliari, but few believe Salerno is in charge of transfer policy at Elland Road. And it is this which makes a mockery of the continental structure said to be in place at the Championship club.


In a continental system the sporting director manages player transfers, in and out, player contracts and other matters pertaining to squad personnel management. He is expected to take a long-term view, without the day-to-day pressure of earning results, as is the coach’s fate, and safe in the knowledge that if the coach fails he can nevertheless continue his work; often the sporting director is also responsible for identifying and recommending a new coach.
The system has its flaws, notably a coach often paying the price for being presented with substandard players by the sporting director, who survives unscathed – although in a true continental structure the sporting director can also pay with his job for repeated failures, as both Frank Arnesen and Oliver Kreuzer discovered over the last three years at Bundesliga side Hamburg. Each were sacked as the northern German club floundered.

But Leeds do not operate a continental system. Cellino drives the purchase and sale of players, passes judgement on coaches and generally meddles in every aspect of the club. The appointment of David Hockaday earlier this summer, a former non-league manager who lasted just 70 days at Leeds, was the Italian’s initiative, something he recently apologised for, writing in the club’s matchday programme: “After the cup game at Bradford I know that I had to act and I did. We have to face our mistakes when we make them and I have done that.” The problem for Leeds fans is that Cellino’s record points to more mistakes than pasta courses in the club’s hospitality lounge, with 36 coaches worked through during his time as Cagliari owner.

There are also dangers with Cellino running the club’s transfer policy, or large sections of it. A sporting director should keep an owner/chairman insulated from agents and allow a dispassionate view to be taken of a side’s dealings. But agents flock to Cellino, massaging his ego and feeding the view that his football knowledge is supreme. The agent of a young Italian midfielder who nearly joined Leeds this summer, told Cellino that his interest had “once again proven himself to be a connoisseur of football”, while another agent, who moved a Brazilian talent, Adryan, successfully to Leeds, took a similar line. “Cellino was crucial”, he admitted. “Cellino is a wonderful person and a great connoisseur of football.” With constant praise, would it be surprising if Cellino decided he knew best, regularly? An Emperor’s New Clothes scenario beckons.


And therein lies the problem. Leeds cannot sack Cellino in the way Hamburg sacked Arnesen. Leeds’ failures will be Cellino’s failures, but there will be no removing the owner. Coaches will pay with their job, sacrificed on the altar of results, while transfer policy continues to be dictated from above, with little in the way of accountability. Even at clubs where presidents do play a role in influencing the occasional signing, such as Real Madrid, there are often presidential elections to hold them to account, a mechanism for their removal; Leeds fans have no such departure tool. 

One thing which remains unclear at Elland Road is how much influence Cellino has on team selection. A suspicion persists that there is influence had over the matchday squad, the question being asked to the club’s latest coach, Darko Milanic, at his presentation press conference. Milanic appeared to dodge the question, but few Leeds fans would regard it as surprising if Cellino did drop in on the coach at some point to champion the case of a particular player. Such a thing would again make Cellino partly responsible for results, to a degree that chairmen across England would rightfully shy away from. And again, it is hard to see Cellino taking the responsibility which would come with any mistakes in team matters to fall on his sword. His forthright views could also have an influence throughout the course of a match and no coach can afford to be looking over his shoulder, wondering if the owner is second-guessing his substitutions.

Cellino certainly wants to stick his fingers into the many pies at Leeds, recently sacking a club consultant for agreeing to a rearranged fixture without telling him, reportedly sidelining a goalkeeper for being born on the 17th – he considers the number 17 unlucky and had all the seats sporting that number at former club Cagliari changed to read 16B and comparing coaches to watermelons, ready to pass instantaneous judgement. Managers across English football are hoping the Leeds experiment ends in complete disaster, lest they too have to make do with owners thinking they know the game better than they themselves do. 

And problems really stack up when an owner believes they know better than the qualified people they themselves drafted in to run the team. Brian Clough summed up the situation well in the days when chairmen did not meddle half as much as Cellino appears to. “An ICI foreman was almost certainly once on the shop floor; a bus inspector once drove a bus. But how many FA officials and club directors have ever been footballers?” And Clough’s advice to owners unhappy with results is as relevant today as it was when he uttered it. “The ideal director raises money, manages it and passes it on to me to spend as I see fit. If they don’t like what I do with it, they can sack me and get someone else.”

The problem at Leeds is that no one can sack Cellino, regardless of results.



Published: Monday, 29th Sep 2014