Two years of Massimo Cellino at Leeds United: A review

Written by Simon O'Rourke

Two years is a long time in football. In the two years since Massimo Cellino was officially allowed by The Football League to take over Leeds United, Bournemouth have gone from tenth in The Championship to thirteenth in The Premier League. Watford have gone from twelfth in The Championship to fourteenth in The Premier League. Leicester have gone from Championship table toppers to Premier League table toppers. Leeds United have gone from fifteenth in The Championship (on 47 points) to fourteenth in The Championship (on 47 points).

In this article, we break down Cellino’s reign in to categories, in order to be as fair as possible: League performance. Staff turnover. Financial performance. Player sales/acquisitionsOverall performance.

League Performance

It would be easy to summarise Leeds United’s league performance by looking at the league standings two years ago, and comparing with now. Simply put: the club have stagnated, becoming the very definition of a mid-table club in the second tier of English football.

Statistical breakdown:

April 4th (2014) is the date used for the start of Cellino’s reign. Massimo Cellino was informed that he had won his appeal on the evening of April 4th (source: Andrew Umbers, former Leeds United director)

League games played: 91
Won: 29
Drawn: 26
Lost: 36
Goal Difference: -21
Total points gained: 113
Average points per game: 1.24

It is worth noting, despite the poor overall league performance, that Leeds United’s best league form came in the early months of 2015, a period which saw Massimo Cellino banned by The Football League. Massimo Cellino’s ban was enforced on January 19th, 2015. This period of blistering league form was abruptly halted by the firing of assistant manager Steve Thompson on April 2nd (more on that in “Staff Turnover”).

January 19th – April 2nd:
Games played: 13
Won: 8
Drawn: 2
Lost: 3
GD: +7
Average Points per game: 2.00

League performance rating: 2/10, for maintaining mid-table anonymity.

Staff turnover

One of Cellino’s first acts as President of the club was to introduce a redundancy scheme. An estimated 60 people immediately lost their jobs. Speaking on the redundancy scheme, Cellino told the Yorkshire Evening Post ““I don’t sack staff who want to work with me and who do what they’re paid to do.”

On the same day, Cellino took to publicly declaring that he could not locate Head Coach Brian McDermott, asking the public question “Where’s Brian?”. McDermott, as Cellino was aware, was in London at the time visiting his sick mother.

Well known staff who left the club in the summer of 2014:
Richard Naylor (Redundancy), Leigh Bromby (Redundancy), Andy Leaning (Redundancy), Paul Dews (Walked away), Brian McDermott (Sacked), Nigel Gibbs (Sacked), Benito Carbone (Sacked).

Graham Bean joined the club as a consultant in May of 2014, and was axed in September after the rearrangement of a fixture involving Leeds United and Reading FC. “I wish the club and all the staff at Leeds all the best, I’ve enjoyed working with them,” he said, when asked about his departure. “But I can’t say the same about Mr Cellino. I can’t really comment, But if anybody thinking of working at Leeds United under the current regime asks my advice, I’d say stay well clear. The club deserves much better.” Bean infamously wrote on a white board at Thorp Arch following his exit: “Cellino is a c**t”.

With McDermott fired in the summer, the man chosen to replace him was David Hockaday. Hockaday brought Junior Lewis with him as assistant manager. Hockaday’s only previous experience as a manager was a three year period in charge of Forest Green Rovers. Under his charge, Forest Green Rovers avoided relegation only on a technicality after Salisbury were demoted in their stead due to financial irregularities. Forest Green Rovers’ highest finish under Hockaday was 10th place in The Conference Premier (despite having the largest budget in the division), and he was eventually sacked after seven losses in eight games. Eight months after being axed by Forest Green, Hockaday was handed the reigns at Leeds United after he met Massimo Cellino in a London hotel, impressing the Leeds United President with his use of salt and pepper shakers when talking about tactics.

Hockaday and Lewis lasted a mere 70 days in charge following a defeat in The League Cup by Bradford. Hockaday left after just four league games which saw the club pick up just three points.

Following the dismissal of Hockaday, Neil Redfearn assumed the reigns in a caretaker capacity, stepping up from his role as Head of Academy. Redfearn’s stint was very successful, leading the club to three wins and a draw from his four games in charge, catapulting Leeds United from 21st to 12th in the division. Instead of appointing Redfearn as permanent Head Coach, Cellino instead turned to Darko Milanic.

Darko Milanic was hired on September 23rd with the club in 12th place in the table. Milanic brought with him Novica Nikčević as his assistant, with a combined wage of approximately £690,000 per year on a two year contract. Six games and a mere three points later, Milanic and Nikčević were sacked. Milanic was not aware of his sacking until it was pointed out to him by reporters following a 2-1 loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Immediately following the dismissal of Milanic, Neil Redfearn was offered the role of Head Coach on an initital one year contract, with an option of a second year. A clause in the contract allowed Redfearn to return to his previous role as Head of Academy should things not work out. In late December, two months after his appointment, Redfearn was finally granted his wish to have an assistant. Steve Thompson came on board and after an initial bumpy period, the two led Leeds United on an impressive run in early 2015 (see above).

The appointment of Thompson was said to have been a result of new Chief Operating Officer, Matt Child, pushing for an appointment. It is rare to see a club operating without an assistant, and this was an issue resolved within two weeks of Child’s arrival. Andrew Umbers was appointed as interim Chairman a month later, with Cellino facing a three and a half month ban from The Football League.

While Massimo Cellino was banned, Leeds United became the in-form team in the division, averaging two points per game over a thirteen game period. Players such as Luke Murphy, vilified for his early-season performances, thanked Thompson and Redfearn publicly for their support and help in returning to form. Youngsters such as Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt, Sam Byram and Charlie Taylor all played pivotal roles as Leeds United made light work of most opposition sides.

The sparkling form came to a grinding halt, however, when Steve Thompson was suspended by Sporting Director Nicola Salerno. Salerno, allegedly acting on Massimo Cellino’s behalf, suspended Thompson and gave an official reason of “under performing in his role as assistant to the head coach”. This was news to his Head Coach, as Redfearn was not made aware of the suspension. In fact, the suspension was publicly slammed by Redfearn, who felt that his position as Head Coach was being threatened by the clubs directors, and that he “was being left out to dry”. Ten days before Thompson’s suspension, Matt Child left his role at the club. Child had been a big advocate of keeping Redfearn and Thompson in charge, aswell as signing youngsters to long term deals. It was rumoured that Child did not appreciate being ostracised by Chairman Andrew Umbers (Umbers allegedly withdrew Child’s right to sit in the directors box), and felt that his position was untenable.

Salerno immediately stepped away his role as Sporting Director, and returned to Italy until the official return of Massimo Cellino to his role as President on May 2nd, 2014. A few weeks and a well scripted Sky Sports interview later, Salerno officially quit his role at the club before joining Watford.

Charged with leading the club to safety in the 14/15 season, Redfearn and Thompson achieved their goal with relative ease. With three games of the season remaining, and safety mathematically achieved, six players famously withdrew from the matchday squad twenty four hours before a game versus Charlton Athletic on April 18th, leaving Redfearn with only seventeen available players. The remainder of the squad was made up by Gaetano Berardi, who sat on the substitute bench even while injured, offering his support to the remaining group.

Edgar Cani, Dario Del Fabro, Mirco Antenucci, Souleymane Doukara, Marco Silvestri and Giuseppe Bellusci all refused to play the final three games of the 2014/2015 season. Redfearn saw out the remainder of the season with his automatic contract renewal due on May 1st 2015 eventually ignored. He took charge of his final game as Leeds United Head Coach on May 2nd, a 0-0 draw versus Steve Evans’ Rotherham.

I spoke with Andrew Umbers on the evening of May 2nd, Umbers welcomed the return of Cellino, describing the returning President as “a surgeon, here to cure Leeds United“. Mr. Umbers was axed five days later, with Cellino saying of Umbers’ period in charge “Nothing has been sorted out and instead there is just s***“.

In the same interview, Massimo Cellino said of Neil Redfearn on May 7th “I am in love with Neil and I don’t want to talk to anyone else about the job. I have always believed in him and I gave him his big chance

Ten days later, Cellino gave an interview to The Sunday Mirror: “Neil Redfearn does the [Leeds United fans’] salute. He challenged me. If you are good I can accept the challenge. But not if you are a bad coach. He has to respect the chairman. He has to respect the club. He’s like a baby. He’s been badly advised and used by someone. He is not a bad person but he has a weak personality

This interview came just three days after Cellino had refused to discuss Redfearn’s future in a bizarre seventy minute press conference alongside newly appointed Executive Director, Adam Pearson. During the press conference, Cellino mocked the use of The Leeds Salute by Redfearn and Leeds United fans. Press coverage of the madcap Italian’s return to Leeds United went in to overdrive, with Cellino’s various rants during the seventy minute disaster picked up by many major news outlets.

On May 20th, Leeds United announced Uwe Rosler as new Head Coach of Leeds United. assistant head coach Rob Kelly, goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis and first team coach Julian Darby. Neil Redfearn had not yet been relieved of his duties as Head Coach, and the official website made no mention of him.

Redfearn’s contract allowed him to return to his former role as Head Of Academy, though it became increasingly clear that such a role was untenable, and while the club maintained that such an offer had been made, they had allegedly threatened to put Redfearn on immediate gardening leave should he choose to take up his old role. Redfearn left the club officially on July 16th. Redfearn described the offer to resume his former role as “not genuine“. The offer was made by Adam Pearson. Pearson left his role at Leeds United in after just four months in the role, citing personal reasons.

Redfearn was replaced as Head of Academy by Paul Hart on August 29th, 2015. Hart quit the role on March 28th, citing personal reasons.

During the manic two months following Cellino’s return Redfearn’s partner and long-time Head Of Education & Welfare at Leeds United, Lucy Ward, was also dismissed from her role. She was often described by Academy graduates as pivotal to their success. Ward was given multiple different reasons for her dismissal, though Adam Pearson told me in early August that the club had not chosen to fire her because of her relationship with Neil Redfearn and that the club had simply decided to go in a different direction. Ward’s hearing for wrongful dismissal continues this week, with details of the hearing set to be publicly viewable.

In late July Steve Holmes, another long-time employee at Thorp Arch was axed from his role. First Team fitness coach Matt Pears was next in Cellino’s crosshairs, axed for missing the pre-season friendly win over Everton despite having permission from the club to attend his brothers wedding in Portugal.

Further staff turnover came in the way of the bizarre hiring and firing of proposed new Head Of Recruitment, Steve Head. Head was hired on a Friday then fired five days later for going on vacation, a vacation booked well in advance of talks with Leeds United. Leeds United was reportedly made aware of the planned vacation during contract talks.

Martyn Glover was hired a few days later. Glover left the post after six months, joining Sam Allardyce at Sunderland. Prior to Glover’s arrival, scouting had reportedly been the task of a young man named Andrea. Andrea was appointed during Cellino’s exile as a general assistant. His previous work experience had been a furniture shop in Key Biscayne, Florida, where he met the Cellino family. He was joined in Leeds by another friend of the Cellino Family, Kit Michaels. Michaels assumed the role of webmaster of the official website, a role vacated by Matt Diamond.

Back to the football, Uwe Rosler took charge of his first game of the season on August 8th, a 1-1 draw with Burnley. Ten points from his eleven league games later, Rosler was fired as Head Coach on October 19th, and immediately replaced with former Rotherham manager Steve Evans with Paul Raynor as his assistant. That same day, Cellino described Evans as a “motherf****r”.

Along with Uwe Rosler, Julian Darby and Rob Kelly were also axed. It was Darby who allegedly had a run-in with central defender Giuseppe Bellusci before the season had even begun. Reports from the training ground on the morning of the pre-season game versus Harrogate said that Darby had told Bellusci to remove his expensive (and very heavy) watch during training. Bellusci allegedly told Darby to “f*** off”, and trained the whole session with his watch firmly attached to his wrist. Not the greatest of starts.

In October, Evans was told to avoid relegation and that he would have his choice of first team coach. At the time of writing, almost six months later, Evans still does not have his first team coach and is not expected to be offered a contract renewal come the end of the season.

Of the six permanent managers under Massimo Cellino, Neil Redfearn’s reign remains the most successful, just ahead of Steve Evans. It is estimated that since Cellino took over, over £3m has been spent paying off axed members of the coaching setup.

In summary, the higher profile staff hired/fired/departed under the Cellino regime:

Brian McDermott, Nigel Gibbs, Richard Naylor, Leigh Bromby, Andy Leaning, Paul Dews, Benito Carbone, Graham Bean, David Hockaday, Junior Lewis, Darko Milanic, Novica Nikcevic, Matt Child, Steve Thompson, Nicola Salerno, Neil Redfearn, Steve Holmes, Steve Head, Martyn Glover, Lucy Ward, Matt Pears,  Andrew Umbers, Adam Pearson, Uwe Rosler, Julian Darby, Rob Kelly, Harvey Sharman, Paul Hart.

Staff turnover rating: 0/10, for the sheer nonsense of it all. The names above tell their own story.

Financial performance

The financial performance is best summarized by George Dyer, who is much more qualified than I to discuss such matters.

14/15 Accounts: Downward Spiral Continues, by George Dyer.

After a bullish statement on the upturn in the financial performance of Leeds United being published by the club prior to their release, the accounts for 2015 make an intriguing read. Whilst this blogger is somewhat skeptical of Massimo Cellino’s ownership of the club,  the headlines of a reduction in net losses to 2m versus a loss of 22.9m in 2014 had to be applauded, as should be the reduction in cost of sales from 6.2m to 3.9m. The true financial position of the club however is a bit more nuanced, and the ability to get to that P&L position is driven by one-off elements which flatter the underlying financial position of the club.

Starting firstly with the profit and loss statement, the turnover has continued to decline, with a drop of 3.4% for 2015. This has been driven by a decline in merchandising income of ca. 750k which was partially offset by an increase in gate receipts of 200k. The continuing drop in the turnover (down 25% since 2011 and now rapidly approaching the Bates League 1 nadir of 2008 and 2009 of ca. 23m). Given average attendances are down again this year, it is unlikely that the turnover position will have improved, and the somewhat knee-jerk reactions (such as the pie tax) could well be a reaction to shore up a declining turnover position.

This has been partially offset by the decrease in cost of sales, and the gross profit position is better than last year, however it is still the worst position since 2009, when Leeds were in League 1.

The administrative expenses remain high, especially in the context of a club generating a gross profit of ca. 20.5m. Whilst these have dropped 10%, driven by ca. 2.4m reduction in the overall wage bill (500k of which relates to director remuneration), they are still 40% higher than in 2010 when turnover was 3m higher than today. Ultimately the operating loss position of 12.64m is unsustainable in the long term, and whilst an improvement on the previous year, it is still not a stabilized platform for growth.

Ultimately, therefore how do you square the circle? It remains clear that both the turnover is too low and the administrative costs are too high. Whilst the wage bill has increased, few fans will argue that the overarching squad and wider coaching staff are sufficiently resourced to mount a comprehensive promotion challenge, therefore if we say that the wage bill is at or around the correct level, we would need to reduce other costs, namely the significant rental outflows which act as a significant drag on expenses. Ultimately this needs to be coupled by a boost to turnover, and Leeds should be able to get back to gross revenue of ca. 32.6m which we saw in 2010. In order to do this we need attendances up, and more spend on merchandising revenue. This requires a club able to mount a promotion challenge, or at the very least one with a coherent medium term strategy for getting there. The current lack of direction with the club will continue to bleed attendances and put further pressure on administrative costs. This ultimately risks sending the club into a death spiral of cost cutting to meet declining turnover and risks threatening the financial stability of the club.

The balance sheet position of the club has improved substantially, driven by a conversion of 11.6m of debt to equity over the year. In addition, a further 4.9m of equity was invested into the club over 2015. It is clear from the financial position of the accounts (and the cashflow position) that Leeds remain reliant on Massimo Cellino to provide cashflow support to the club. The position has also been helped by net player profits of 9.8m over the course of 2015 which has significantly improved the overall loss position. This however isn’t a sustainable source of revenue and the operating position of the club can’t rely upon this to provide support over the long term, not least because as mentioned above, the sale of our best players make it increasingly difficult to mount a promotion challenge and ultimately lead to further pressure on attendances and turnover.

Ultimately whilst there have been some small improvements in the financial position, the continued decline in turnover represents the biggest threat to Leeds United. as has been mentioned before, a medium term strategy in terms of a promotion challenge, investment in and retention of the players able to mount a successful challenge and a long term coaching plan are required to stabilize the club. Without this, any owner will be forced to keep funding cashflow shortfalls for the club, and the club risks long term decline with the threat of administration and relegation. Time will tell whether either Massimo Cellino or any subsequent owner appreciate this and take the steps necessary to ensure the long term stability of Leeds United.

Financial performance rating: 3/10, for stopping GFH from further bleeding the club dry, temporarily at least.

Players sales and acquisitions:

Players In:

Stuart Taylor, Marco Silvesrtri, Tommaso Bianchi, Souleymane Doukara, Gaetano Berardi, Zan Benedicic (loan), Nicky Ajose, Giuseppe Bellusci, Billy Sharp, Liam Cooper, Mirco Antenucci, Casper Sloth, Adryan Tavares (loan), Dario Del Fabro (loan), Brian Montenegro (loan), Granddi N’goyi (loan), Edgar Cani (loan), Sol Bamba (loan, then permanent), Stuart Dallas, Chris Wood, Jordan Botaka, Liam Bridcutt (loan), Toumani Diagouraga.

Players out: Ross McCormack, Matt Smith, Jamie Ashdown, Luke Varney, Lee Peltier, Simon Lenighan, Adam Drury, Lewis Turner, Danny Pugh, Paul Green, Michael Brown, El-Hadji Diouf, Omogbolahan Ariyibi, Nathan Turner, Tom Lees, Dominic Poleon, Marius Zaliukas, Paddy Kenny, Stephen Warnock, Stuart Taylor, Rodolph Austin, Nicky Ajose, Billy Sharp, Sam Byram, Chris Dawson.

Disclaimer: Some players may be missing from this list. It’s a long list.

Transfer totals:
According to the 2014/2015 accounts, Leeds United netted a profit of approximately £6million from transfer activity. This was helped largely by the sale of Ross McCormack, though the club also received fees for Stephen Warnock, Tom Lees, Dom Poleon and Matt Smith.

In the 2015/2016 season, Leeds appear to have netted a profit of approximately £2million as a result of the sale of Sam Byram, plus contingency payments for Max Gradel and Fabian Delph. Between Gradel, Delph and Byram, the club collected an estimated £6million. Nicky Ajose and Billy Sharp both brought in undisclosed fees thought to be in the region of 100k and 300k respectively.

Leeds acquired Chris Wood for an initial £2million, Sol Bamba for £600k, with Dallas, Botaka and Diagouraga combining for an additional £1.6million.

Both season have left Leeds United with a tidy profit from player transactions, which I think reflects in the performances on the pitch. Of the players Leeds United have signed during the Cellino era, Gaetano Berardi appears to be the firm favourite with fans, while Adryan and Giuseppe Bellusci left fans most disappointed according to a social media poll. It should be noted that most acknowledge that there’s a talented player hiding somewhere inside Giuseppe Bellusci, but it’s masked by the fact that the man is seemingly an avatar for Massimo Cellino. As I’ve said before: If I try and imagine what Massimo Cellino would be like as a player, I see only Giuseppe Bellusci.

It would be safe to say that no signing made by Cellino has had the desired effect. Players are typically brought in to make an immediate impact. Even Berardi, largely adored by fans, took a long time to settle in. It wasn’t until the back end of the 2014/2015 season that we saw the real Gaetano Berardi.

When reviewing transfer activity both in and out of the club, I suppose it says a lot when I can genuinely say that I would not shed a tear if every new player brought in under Cellino was to leave this summer. I would, however, consider handing over one of my testicles in order to see Ross McCormack and Sam Byram back in a Leeds United shirt. Not because I see them as “Leeds”, not because of their nationality, and not because they both had rather public issues with Cellino, but simply because they are incredibly talented players. McCormack was meant to flop at Fulham. He didn’t, he’s still the most dangerous striker in the division. Byram was meant to be out of his depth at Champions League hopefuls West Ham. He isn’t. Not one player, including Gaetano Berardi, would be missed.

Transfer policy rating: 2/10


Overall performance

It’s time to go, Massimo.

From top to bottom, the club feels broken. Sure, previous owners have helped nudge it in this direction, but there always seemed to be a togetherness about the fanbase.

For every positive move that Massimo makes, a countdown begins to the next implosion. With every court case comes the expectation then realisation of more chaos. For every manager hired, there’s a countdown to when he will be fired, regardless of his record. If Cellino is not adored, he feels personally insulted.

At what point did it become acceptable to chastise players and managers alike in public? At what point did it become acceptable for the owner of a football club to increase prices just because his feelings were hurt as a result of a few chants? At what point did Leeds United fans embrace apathy? At what point did it become acceptable to put Self before Side? It’s too much. But it’s not you, it’s him. It’s always been him.

I don’t care what side of the divide you sit. I care that there’s a divide. I know that most people reading this article are Leeds United fans. When Massimo Cellino mocks the Leeds Salute, he mocks you. When Massimo Cellino introduces “Pie Tax”, he is doing it to hurt you.

If you love Massimo Cellino, I’m here to tell you that he does not care. He does not love you back. When he insults Leeds fans, he insults us as a collective. If he sees us as a collective, then why don’t we? Why, for the love of all that’s holy, are we as a fanbase allowing this man to make us his plaything? Don’t embrace the chaos. Fight it. Don’t sell yourself down the river morally just so you can say you’re going against public opinion. This is not Massimo Cellino’s Leeds United. He won’t care what happens to it when he’s finally banned and heads back to Miami with his profit. You’ll be here, though. That could be all we have left.

Massimo Cellino, you have failed the city of Leeds.

Overall performance rating: 0/10

About the author

Simon O'Rourke

A lifelong Leeds United fan, Simon moved to Nova Scotia in 2002. Married for seven years with three children, Simon's first love has always been Leeds United. Simon is the owner of 1919 Media, a website design and development company whose name is a homage to Leeds United.

  • Colin Spence

    Well put.