Massimo Cellino is close to finalising his proposed takeover of Leeds United. Luca Cetta profiles the eccentric owner and wonders if fan consternation is warranted.
It looked to be headed south before the adventure actually began. Late last week news filtered through that Leeds boss Brian McDermott was sacked. He was not on the bench a day later as Leeds thrashed Huddersfield Town 5-1. The finger was pointed at Massimo Cellino, their potential new owner. Cellino has agreed to buy 75 per cent of the club - was this the first step in a rocky journey?
Not according to the man himself. “I want the Coach back and have been trying to call him,” Cellino claimed last weekend. “I don’t mind this Coach. How could I sack anyone anyway? I need the approval of the Football League before I own the club. GFH are still running Leeds United.”
Rumours of an impending takeover have been brewing for weeks. On Saturday, Leeds released a statement acknowledging an agreement had been reached between GFH Capital and the Italian entrepreneur. This is not the first time Cellino has showed interest in English football. In 2010 he was close to taking over West Ham. The deal fell through, as did a potential bid for Crystal Palace.
A barricade of angry fans protested the McDermott decision on Friday – the manager has since returned – and perhaps they can be forgiven for thinking Cellino will bring more negativity than rebuild towards a Premier League future.
After all, stories of his fiery and outspoken nature are well documented. He plays guitar in a local band, but when not slinging that axe, he wields one precariously over the head of Cagliari’s tacticians. In two decades, 36 have come and gone.
The Chain-smoker has been frustrated by Cagliari’s stadium debacle. When the Stadio Sant’Elia was deemed incapable of hosting Serie A football in 2012, Cellino shifted Rossoblu home fixtures to Trieste, about as far away as you can get.
Trieste last season shared home duties with the hastily-built Is Arenas. The stadium’s short history was punctuated by safety issues and a reduced capacity. It was slapped with a fan-ban for the visit of Roma, but undeterred, Cellino insisted spectators come anyway. The match was called off and Roma handed the points.
Its construction sent Cellino to jail last February - not his only brush with the law - for suspicion of fraud and embezzlement, along with the mayor of Quartu Sant’Elena, where the stadium is located. “Twelve months after my arrest,  I still do not know why I was arrested. I am being made out to be a criminal, but in 21 years I have never disrespected anyone,” he said in a recent interview.
Cellino has frozen players from the first-team squad who have expressed a desire to leave at the end of their contract. Federico Marchetti went from representing Italy at the 2010 World Cup to training on his own in a matter of weeks. Michel Agazzi suffered the fate and was sold to Chievo last month. In Cellino’s mind he, nor the club, are to be taken for a ride.
That’s the other side of Cellino. At the core is a person who loves Cagliari. Born in the city – but now residing in Miami – he has owned the club since 1992. Together through highs and lows. Cagliari were UEFA Cup semi-finalists in 1993-94, but twice suffered relegation to Serie B. Since their 2003-04 promotion, the Isolani have remained in the top flight.
Of his Leeds interest, Cellino noted “I am not a hack, I do not go around buying teams just for fun.” It’s true too of Cagliari. He has poured money into the club for two decades and wants to see it grow. Unfortunately, the 57-year-old has been frustrated by the inability to get the proposed Karalis Stadium, near the city’s airport, from blueprints to steel.
He’s fed up with the lack of development. “We play in a stadium worthy of Serie C and the players had to travel all around Italy for two years because we weren't allowed a home stadium. I can’t keep Radja in these conditions,” alluding to the January transfer of Radja Nainggolan to Roma, despite the player’s desire to stay.
Local newspaper L’Unione Sarda last week reported talks between Cellino and Qatar Sports Investment. The report suggests if a takeover of Cagliari occurred, he’d like to remain President.
Back in England, Cellino has already fostered links between the clubs, loaning Andrea Tabanelli to Leeds. He claims were it not for paperwork hold ups, more deals would have gone through before the transfer deadline. Does he see the club in a similar fashion to the Pozzo-led Watford?
There’s no denying Cellino is somewhere in the Maurizio Zamparini category of Italian club owners. Yet disillusioned by calcio, Cellino’s arrival at Leeds could be the breath of fresh air he - and the club – need. It’s going to be some journey.