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Massimo Cellino's Leeds mad house! The Italian owner once rejected chance to sign Virgil van Dijk

Massimo Cellino's capricious nature made working in Leeds a strange experience

Graham Bean was the FA’s ‘trap buster’, but he also worked with a number of clubs in English football, most memorably at Leeds, where he worked closely with the club’s controversial former owner…

Massimo Cellino’s reputation preceded him when he bought Leeds United. The controversial Italian businessman was known as the ‘Manager Eater’ in his homeland after going through more bosses in his 22 years in Cagliari than pepperoni pizzas, and he felt as if he reveled in the notoriety.

I found myself parachuted into the eye of the storm inside Elland Road. Cellino had no experience of the English game and had already sacked the chief executive and head of football administration within weeks of taking control of the club. In effect, the club was rudderless.

Staff morale was the lowest I had seen in my career. They didn’t like Cellino, and they certainly didn’t trust him. They feared the consequences of getting on the wrong side of him. I once suggested that he put £50,000 into the staff salary budget to give everyone a raise, as they hadn’t had one in years, it would have given them a boost and made them more receptive to what he was doing at the club. Cellino fired at me with his usual tantrum, wondering why he should give them extra money.

Massimo Cellino's capricious nature made working in Leeds a strange experience

Massimo Cellino’s capricious nature made working in Leeds a strange experience

Having flatly refused my request, he inquired about buying an Audi R8 sports car for his son’s birthday, as I had already procured a Mini for the same son a few weeks earlier. He told me that he was willing to pay up to £80,000! He would not share £50,000 between all those who worked so hard for him at the club, but rather spend £80,000 on a vanity project for his spoiled and spoiled son. He summed it up perfectly.

My first encounter with Cellino had opened my eyes. The first thing he did was get the fuck out of my weight, with a string of insulting comments. This went down like a lead balloon, but it was clear that he was a very charismatic man with a cheeky sense of humor. As the weeks and months passed, it became clear that he was prone to severe mood swings and frequently lost his temper, sometimes over the most trivial matters. Then, almost immediately, he was able to activate the enchantment again. It was like flipping a switch, so the other staff members and I were very wary of the irrational side of him.

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Working in Leeds was one of the strangest experiences of my professional career. Sometimes I really felt like I was working inside a madhouse and I seriously questioned continuing to work for him, because of his nasty tantrums, which were like dealing with a spoiled child. It was exhausting and stressful.

However, I quickly learned that the only way to deal with it was to face it and do my best. He once blamed me for a costly mistake regarding a loan deal from Catania’s Souleymane Doukara. He was ranting and raving, but I had had no part in it. I snapped at him, it was too much of him, and I threw myself on the desk with my finger pointed near his face, yelling, “Never blame me for something that has nothing to do with me. You fuck this and no one else.” Cellino he bit himself, quickly backed off and ended up blaming someone else!

The Italian faced Graham Bean over the signing of Souleymane Doukara

The Italian faced Graham Bean over the signing of Souleymane Doukara

Due to his volatile temperament, it was difficult to separate when he was simply expressing himself with his passionate personality and Italian mannerisms and when he was actually losing his temper. But as time went on, it became much easier to distinguish between the two.

I was the only person prepared to stand up to him, because everyone else in the club lived in fear of him. His temper was such that he would sometimes become irrational, raising his voice to the point of not being able to decipher what he was saying, building up into such a frenzy that he began to foam at the mouth.

He would be rude to many people without realizing it, using offensive language, his most common phrases being “mother******” and “shithead”. Whenever I raised issues with him regarding the FA, his standard response was “F*** the Federation”, a sentiment he tended to agree with most of the time!

One of the biggest problems with working for Cellino was that he didn’t seem to work in the mornings. He seldom appeared on Elland Road before lunchtime. This meant that you were restricted in what you could actually do, because his micromanagement was so intense that no one in the club dared to do anything that might have caused him to blow up.

He also had some weird and wonderful superstitions, like removing the number 17 from the club and not wearing the color purple. One day he even told me to make sure I got goalkeeper Paddy Kenny out of the club because he was born on the 17th and he couldn’t risk him being in Leeds.

When I arranged delivery of the Mini for his son, Cellino refused to allow it to be delivered on a Friday, because “Friday was an unlucky day to deliver cars”. Like I said, a madhouse.

A month after I joined Leeds, Cellino surprised the club’s supporters by appointing the relatively unknown Dave Hockaday as the new first-team manager. Hockaday’s managerial experience amounted to youth coaching at Watford and Southampton, then four years as manager of Forest Green Rovers when they were in the National League. From her first day it was obvious to me that everything would end in tears.

I got along with Dave and he was a very nice guy, as was his assistant Junior Lewis, but the reality was that they were both out of place in Leeds. However, Dave identified two standout players who would have transformed the club.

Cellino ignored the opportunity to sign Virgil van Dijk when the Dutchman was at Celtic

Cellino ignored the opportunity to sign Virgil van Dijk when the Dutchman was at Celtic

One was a certain Virgil van Dijk, then at Celtic. Unfortunately, Cellino ignored him and signed Giuseppe Bellusci on loan from Italian Serie B side Catania. Known as “The Warrior” in his native Italy for his playing style, Bellusci thrived on an undeserved reputation as a tough guy. He made his debut in a 4-1 loss to Watford and things didn’t get much better from there, not to the liking of many of his team-mates or club staff.

The other target Dave suggested was Andre Gray, but instead Cellino sanctioned the signing of Mirco Antenucci from Ternana, which lasted just two seasons. Hockaday had identified two players who, had Cellino decided to sign, would have seen Leeds make a big profit in due course and might even have resulted in promotion.

He knew Hockaday wouldn’t last long, and he was right. After just 70 days, he and Lewis were fired. Cellino called me and all he said was, “Sack Hockaday.”

I told him that he should do the right thing and talk to Dave, but Cellino “didn’t like confrontation” so he refused.

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Most normal club owners would have done the sensible thing and hired a replacement manager before sacking the current one, but Cellino was far from normal. In effect, he was playing a real life Football Manager game.

Real Madrid assistant Paul Clement was Cellino's first choice to replace Dave Hockaday.

Real Madrid assistant Paul Clement was Cellino’s first choice to replace Dave Hockaday.

That same afternoon I was summoned to his office where he asked me who I thought we should name. I made it clear that he had no input, so Cellino decided at that point that he wanted Steve Clarke as the next boss. Clarke wasn’t interested so Cellino immediately resorted to Plan B and decided that he wanted Paul Clement, who was Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant at Real Madrid. Cellino called Ancelotti and wanted to know what Clemente’s salary was. When Ancelotti told him that he was over a million euros a year, the conversations ended very quickly!

Cellino then went back to Plan C, which was to put academy manager Neil Redfearn in charge temporarily while he looked for a permanent boss.

Surprisingly, given the talent brought to Leeds such as Lewis Cook, Charlie Taylor, Sam Byram, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Alex Mowatt and Kalvin Phillips, Cellino initially intended to close the academy before he was convinced it was a viable concern. .

The Italian felt that future England star Kalvin Phillips is not good enough for the Leeds first team.

The Italian felt that future England star Kalvin Phillips is not good enough for the Leeds first team.

Cellino had told Redfearn during one of his spells in charge of the first team to get rid of future England international Phillips because “he wasn’t good enough”. It shows how poor Cellino’s judgment was on the players.

With Redfearn temporarily in charge, Cellino returned to Plan D, which was Gary Megson. I knew Gary well and arranged a meeting at Cellino’s apartment in Leeds city center the next day. However, about an hour before the meeting, Cellino called to say that he had changed his mind and that he didn’t want Gary after all, so the whole thing was called off. It was another example of how ridiculous things were getting.

Things then went very quiet before a little-known Serb named Darko Milanic appeared on the scene. I’ve never heard of him and neither have most Leeds fans. After hearing his first press conference, he knew it wasn’t going to last long, his only surprise was that it lasted a month.

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