Football’s Revolving Door: Cellino at Leeds

In three years of ownership, Massimo Cellino oversaw seven managerial changes at Elland Road.

In truth, it was Cellino’s brash outlandishness that halted the complete descent into mediocrity and irrelevancy for Leeds United. His arrival in Yorkshire was shrouded by declined bids on the club, as well as his storied past in Italy. Cellino had previously been the owner of Cagliari, a post he had held for just over two decades. His 36 managerial changes at The Islanders had earned him the nickname of ‘The Manager Eater’. A justified nickname, but one that may not have unnerved the Leeds United faithful as it should have. Fans had undergone a decade of misery by the time Cellino took over. Be it Ridsdale or Bates, supporters were not exactly in support of either, their personal desires and general despicability being leading contributing factors. The matter of fact was that fans were grateful to see the back of Ken Bates, far more so than they were worried by the front of Cellino.

Brian McDermott was in charge of Leeds United when speculation of a Cellino takeover began to arise in January 2014. The start of the month saw the talks begin and they progressed throughout the month. The 28th saw Gianluca Festa, an associate of Cellino, sit in the dugout of the 1-1 draw with Ipswich. McDermott noted that it was “tough at the moment, on and off the pitch” at the conclusion of the tie, and by the end of the month, the rumour was that Cellino had sacked McDermott in favour of putting Festa in charge of the Whites. A grand announcement of his presence and one that truly captivated the essence of Massimo Cellino; a very bold, very public managerial change. It was made more controversial given that Cellino had not completed his takeover of the club, meaning he had no authority whatsoever to sack Brian McDermott. By early February, McDermott’s position at the helm of Leeds was solid once more, overseeing the signings of Connor Wickham and Jack Butland on loan from Sunderland and Stoke respectively, noting that he had been in contact with Cellino regarding the signings, signifying a boost in their relationship.

In truth, it is hard to imagine a worse start to a relationship between owner and manager.

The owner sacking the manager, before actually becoming owner, hardly insinuates blossoming relations. It too was in this first week of February that Leeds had to announce McDermott had kept his post as manager, having never officially lost his job. Leeds too reneged the loan signing of Andrea Tabanelli from Cagliari that had been made during Festa’s tenure as ‘manager’. Cellino’s drive was respectable, as was his ambition, it was his execution that was dislikeable. Leeds saw out the 2013/14 season with Brian McDermott at the helm, with the former Reading boss guiding his side to a poor and lacklustre 15th place finish. By the end of the season, Cellino had completed his takeover of the club in traditional Cellino fashion, the furthest thing from smooth and simple. His bid had been rejected but his appeal had been won, resulting in his gaining of a 75% stake in the club, with Bates’ GFH retaining 25%. Cellino took the typically Cellino route when dismissing McDermott, openly stating in an interview with ITV that Leeds United had no manager and drawing needless attention to himself with his controversies and officially relieving him of his duties two weeks after the interview.

It’s worrying to say that McDermott was one of the more managerially sound candidates Cellino had worked with, but it’s something that rings true in hindsight.

It’s worrying because, at Leeds, McDermott was okay. That’s it though. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t good. He finished 15th, about as ‘just below average, and massively disappointing’ as you can get. From McDermott, Cellino started appointing head coaches instead of managers, an odd move, but a move none the less. Another oddity, to fans at least, was his announcement of his superstitions, sacking Paddy Kenny for being born on the 17th May and retiring the jersey number 17. Just over two weeks after the sacking of McDermott, he appointed Dave Hockaday as head coach. No, fans didn’t know who he was either. Hockaday had been in charge of Forest Green Rovers who, at that point, were in the National League. Hockaday had too been sacked for a poor run of form and consecutive seasons of 10th place finishes. Yet, this was the man that Cellino had put faith in to guide Leeds back to the top.

Hockaday’s appointment hardly instilled confidence in fans and it would seem that feeling would soon seep into Cellino who had lost faith in his employee after Leeds were beaten 4-1 by Watford. In the five days between that Saturday and the Thursday of his actual sacking, Cellino had noted that he was “more responsible” than Hockaday and that it would be “too simple to sack him”, albeit this was before Hockaday’s Leeds had lost 2-1 to Bradford City in the League Cup. Perhaps it was a vice for Cellino, a need to sack at least one manager per calendar year in order to keep the blood flowing. Regardless, Hockaday lasted only six games, winning once in the league, in the Elland Road hot-seat, quickly becoming fierier than it had ever been.

From this, Leeds had gone on a four-game unbeaten run under caretaker boss Neil Redfearn. In Hockaday’s place came Darko Milanic, formerly of Sturm Graz. Upon appointing Milanic, Cellino noted that he wasn’t sure why he had chosen the Slovenian to coach his club and that, at the very least, he was good looking. Milanic being foreign too played into Cellino’s appointment of him. A strange recruitment method, but a method none the less. Of the two-year contract Milanic signed, he served as Leeds boss for 32 days of it, beating the shortest Leeds managerial stints in history (Brian Clough and Jock Stein) by 12 days. Milanic failed to win a game during his particularly short stay in West Yorkshire and his time at Leeds was as uneventful as you would expect.

Cellino’s antics were becoming as habitual in England as they had been throughout his time at Cagliari.

Alongside this, the legal troubles that had headlined his attempt to takeover Leeds United had risen once more, with Cellino being disqualified by the Football League in December 2014. By this point, Neil Redfearn had been appointed on a permanent basis to lead the club, Cellino’s third Leeds manager in his first few months in charge. The disqualification by the FA had all the potential to plunge Leeds back into the precarious financial state they had been drowning in for so long, as for all his faults, Cellino had been a far more stable owner than Bates or Ridsdale.

Such legal complications for Cellino would present themselves for around six months, a time in which he was exiled from his presidential role at Leeds due to his ban. The Italian spent around six months away from his position, his ban stretching to the day after the 2014-15 season conclusion, May 8th. By the start of May, his ban had been cleared and he was free to take the reigns at Elland Road once more. The ban meant that, miraculously, a Leeds boss held down the job for more than a matter of weeks, with Redfearn having kept his post since November, guiding Leeds to another 15th place finish, another disappointing campaign for the Whites. With such a short-tempered owner, it could hardly be expected that Redfearn would retain his job at United, and after being branded ‘weak’ by Cellino in a public interview, his fate was all but sealed.

Cellino’s fifth head coach at Leeds (in under a year of ownership) was Uwe Rosler, formerly of Brentford and Wigan.

Rosler perhaps didn’t quite fit the bill as a Leeds head coach for Cellino, as he had past experience and had been relatively decent at Wigan, leading them to an FA Cup semi-final and a Championship play-off run in the 2013-14 season. Whilst the background of Rosler was hardly average for a Cellino appointment, his swift departure from Elland Road was about as expected as it could get. Rosler had won only two games in the 2015/16 season at the time of his departure, his exit intertwining with the climax of Cellino’s trouble with the Football League. On the same day that Rosler was relieved of his duties, Cellino was banned until June 2016 due to a tax evasion conviction from his time in Italy.

Cellino had already established Rosler’s successor, Steve Evans, by the time of the German’s dismissal. Evans saw out another poignantly average year for the Whites, the club eventually finishing in 13th place. Another finish that didn’t coincide with Cellino’s visions of returning to the Premier League, the head coach role of Leeds United was left untenured once more. Cellino had discussed the vacancy with managers Karl Robinson and Darrell Clarke of MK Dons and Bristol Rovers respectively, but had done this when Evans was still in the job. Massimo Cellino, classy as ever.

Garry Monk was the seventh Leeds manager of Cellino’s reign, his appointment coming in June 2016.

Monk was the youngest of Cellino’s wide array of past employees and was no doubt the most exciting. Monk’s signing of Pablo Hernandez was a particularly impressive coup, whilst he too was responsible for the signings of Kemar Roofe and Luke Ayling who would come to fruition later in their Leeds careers. He too signed Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley who would form the most formidable and competent backline Leeds had seen for several years. Such signings were reason enough for fans to believe in a positive change in fortune, with Leeds’ early-season momentum forwarding those thoughts into blossom. To the despair of fans, United would slip drastically in the second half of the season, their form seeing them drop to, and finish in, 7th, so agonisingly close yet so noticeably far away.

The 2016-17 season would mark the last of a hectic three years for Massimo Cellino at Leeds. At the start of 2017, Andrea Radrizzani became co-owner of the club, with Andrea completing his takeover of Leeds in May 2017, soon after the seasons conclusion, with Garry Monk being the only Leeds head coach hired by Cellino that went unfired by the Italian. That being said, Monk left two days later, resigning from his position no doubt in part due to the change of ownership.

Whilst Cellino’s pick of Leeds head coaches was poor, woeful in fact, most of them contributed in a small part to the future success of the club.

It was Monk who, as aforementioned, signed Hernandez and Ayling. Steve Evans had brought Ronaldo Vieira through the academy, Leeds’ hottest prospect in at least a couple of seasons at the time of his arrival, whilst Uwe Rosler had signed Chris Wood and Stuart Dallas during his stint as gaffer, the Kiwi being Leeds’ talisman during his time at the club and Dallas going on to find more success later in his Leeds career. Whilst Hockaday signed future captain Liam Cooper, it’s hard to imagine he had even the slightest inkling of the talent he would later exhibit. The less said about him the better, as is the case for Darko Milanic and Brian McDermott. Neil Redfearn, although not particularly impressive, was at least okay. The issue for Cellino was not his patience, but his poor choice in head coach. Owners such as Abramovich have proven that a short fuse can result in success, but only if the appointed man is qualified enough to manifest that success.

As for Cellino’s impact on Leeds, for all his faults, he at least somewhat benefited the club. His main contributing factor was his stability of United’s finance. Whilst the tax evasion conviction hardly sells Cellino as financially sound, he was something of a saint in comparison to Bates and Ridsdale, someone who did seem to genuinely care for the club, regardless of his faults. Cellino solidified Leeds as a club, which fans are forever grateful for when the issue arises in conversation. Cellino himself noted that Leeds fans could cope with anything if they could manage with him in charge of their club. Now a Premier League outfit, Cellino is looked back on as a chapter of Leeds’ exile. Just as story-filled as the rest, but with a tad more insanity than any other period of that history.