Conor Heffernan discusses the bizzare world of Leeds United owner Massimo Cellini, and his hatred for the number seventeen.
In 2010, Massimo Cellino attempted to buy West Ham United for a rumoured £68 million. It was big money from the Italian tycoon and when it became apparent that West Ham had refused the offer, it seemed that English football missed out on one of Italy’s most eccentric chairmen.
In his 22-year stint as owner of Italian side Cagliari, Cellino had gone through 36 managers, been in prison twice and was known for his outbursts in the media. The English press were disappointed and fans of the Hammers would go on to see porn barons take over the club.
Hope was restored however, for the media at least, when news came in February 2014 that Cellino had bought 75% of the shares of former footballing giants Leeds United. Now a Championship team, the Whites were struggling to make it back to England’s top flight. Things had grown stagnant at Elland Road. Cellino would change all that.
Straight out of the starting block Cellino made his mark on the club by sacking Leeds’ Manager Brian McDermott. Pundits were baffled and things only got stranger when it became apparent that there were two important catches. Firstly, McDermott was highly popular amongst the Leeds fans and secondly Cellino hadn’t actually bought the club yet. McDermott was soon re-instated and Cellino was briefly banned from Elland Road when thousands of furious fans marched to the stadium in protest at McDermott’s dismissal. Not the best way to endear yourself to your new fans and Cellino quickly blamed others for the decision.
Once owner of the Whites he gave his full support to McDermott…only to sack him again a few months later. Only Newcastle’s Mike Ashley possesses a similar knack of baffling his Club’s fans. Cellino was only getting started.
Once instated as Owner, Cellino began to make his mark on the club to the amusement of the tabloids. A firm believer in superstitions, Cellino revealed his hatred of the colour purple and his fear of the number 17. His fear of an inanimate number even saw him remove all all seats labelled 17 at his former club of Cagliari and replace them with seats labelled 16b.
Rumours also emerged in the press of players having to wash their own kits and Paddy Kenny being released because he was born on the 17th. The tabloids could hardly believe their luck and began publishing story after ridiculous story.
Six months into his tenure with Leeds, Cellino had already sacked two managers and sold his former club Cagliari. His latest appointment to the managerial hotseat was the relatively unknown coach Darko Milanič and when questioned by journalists as to why he picked such an unknown coach, Cellino shrugged his shoulders and said
“I don’t know. The coaches are like watermelons. You find out about them when you open them.”
Logic dictates that fans should dislike such an eccentric owner, but at Leeds, Cellino has quickly become beloved. Before Cellino came Gulf Finance House, a Qatar investment firm which was seemingly the only group of Qatari men who didn’t have money. Before GFH, Ken Bates. Leeds haven’t had the best luck when it comes to owners and despite all his flaws, Cellino is a breath of fresh air. Phil Hay, football writer for the Yorkshire Evening Post, and the go to man on Twitter for Leeds transfers, described the fans’ love for Cellino as follows
“He calls a spade a big fucking shovel and the supporters like that.”
So whether it’s sitting in the away end with Leeds fans or buying pints in the local, Cellino’s madness has been embraced by the fans. Results on the pitch have been slow this season but at least fans are getting their entertainment from the boardroom.
Considering the last decade at Leeds was characterised by fights between Ken Bates and the club’s supporters, Cellino is new, bizarre and frankly, fun. Time will tell whether Cellino can bring the Whites back to the promised land, but at least Leeds are enjoying themselves again.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.