Leeds United Turnaround


Massimo Cellino famously said in April 2014 that Leeds United would “survive” since “he’s driving the bus now1. In August 2014, after the friendly match with Dundee, he expanded on what he meant by this:

The former Cagliari owner admits he is a control freak. “I work 20 hours a day and, if I could, I would cut the grass on the pitch as well,” he admits. “I have never had a chief executive and never will. People tell me I take too much on and maybe they’re right, but that’s just the way I am. I don’t need to kiss the a— of anyone, I am driving this bus.2

Following this interview there was a series of sackings that appear to confirm his admission of being a control freak and unable to work as part of a managerial team in the way other company owners and Chairmen do: McDermott had already gone and Hockaday was the next of many coaches to leave; various senior staff left the club, sacked by Cellino or leaving without credible explanations, some staff being long-standing employees and others having only recently been brought in by Cellino. Rumours of staff disquiet and Cellino interference in team selection added to the belief of many fans that not much progress was being made behind the scenes and the yearned-for stability was far from being achieved.

The club had a volatile time during 2015, dicing with possible relegation and suffering further operating losses that were only mitigated and afforded through the profit received from player sales. Cellino continued to alienate fans and sponsors with his historical, alleged misdoings that resulted in court cases in Italy and tribunals and football sanctions in England.

The causes of many fans’ dislike of Cellino continued during 2016: the sales of players Sam Byram and Lewis Cook; losses reported for the financial year ending mid-way through 2016; a summer disposal of players to be replaced by players on lower wages, many on loan; a further ban from football matters imposed by the English FA.

Yet, despite these negative factors, the club started to thrive. New stands and shirt sponsors have been signed up and as the new season rumbled on the team started performing much better than expected.

The reasons for this improvement are probably complex but some that I believe may be significant are: the cost cutting exercises Cellino performed to stem huge losses have largely finished resulting in a period of stability behind the scenes; key administrative personnel have been employed and a new management now controls team matters. However, much the same was true in 2015 and didn’t result in success, so why did it work in 2016?

The answer, I believe, is found in a change to Cellino’s management style: during 2014 and 2015 he was, without doubt, a man under extreme stress having to turn round a company that was, by many measures, already bankrupt and possibly could be accused of trading while insolvent under GFH’s sole tenure. By Cellino’s own admission “he drives the bus”, makes all the managerial decisions himself and struggles to trust others to do their jobs. For the first couple of years of Cellino’s tenure this was evident by Cellino’s constant contact with the media explaining or excusing how the club was faring. Many psychologists have written of the effects of stress and erratic, unpredictable behaviour, snap decisions and a lack of trust in others are often characteristics of someone under too much stress.3

During 2016 this management style changed; why I do not know, but change it did. A journalist who knows him told me Cellino was the calmest and most relaxed he’d ever known him, fans started to notice that Cellino was not appearing in the press as much and was even thought to be away from Elland Road more than previously yet decisions were being taken and the club was still running, in fact it was running well.

2016 coincided with the arrival of some key personnel: Paul Bell arrived in January 2016 as Executive Director and he was joined in June by Ben Mansford as Chief Executive, a role Cellino said he would never sanction within his club; these top jobs have been boosted by the arrival of James Mooney in September as Head of Media & Communications amongst others.

Cellino has clearly adopted a new strategy of stepping back from his previous, self-admitted, control-freak methods and allowed these key personnel to make their mark; fans now experience much improved communication via social media through the club’s official accounts and a degree of management of players’ own accounts; leaks, rumours and bad news stay within the club; dialogue with the Supporters’ Trust has restarted; LUTV clips are used much more effectively; financial revenues are expected to have improved through better interactions with sponsors, costs are thought to be under better control and losses could well now be into the sustainable level Cellino tried to achieve on his own.

Cellino, in his previous style, used to summon coaches to long afternoons discussing players & fixtures and Steve Evans was highly enthusiastic about these meetings with his boss; he acknowledged Cellino’s extensive football knowledge and the help Cellino had given him in “matters on the grass”. Other coaches have been open about working closely with Cellino personally, whether by their choice or not. In his new 2016/17 mode Cellino has stepped back from micro-managing not just the club’s administration but also the football management. Garry Monk in interviews indicates there is now a distance between the coaching staff and top club management and, in contrast to Evans who interacted directly with Cellino, Monk talks of interacting with “the club”.4

Back in August 2014 Cellino laid out his plans that Leeds United “will only make losses of £3 to £4 million a year and I can sustain that for 100 years2. It seems to me he is close to achieving that objective although, perversely, it seems he’s achieved it by recognising he cannot do it as a Sheriff5 riding alone but needs a team of experienced professionals at the sharp end while he takes a more normal, overseeing, stress-free Chairman’s rôle.

1. https://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/apr/10/massimo-cellino-owner-leeds-united
2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/leeds-united/11013554/Leeds-United-owner-Massimo-Cellino-tells-fans-We-will-do-this-my-way.html
3. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987
4. http://www.express.co.uk/sport/football/759037/Garry-Monk-Leeds-United-Transfer-News-Rumours-Gossip
5. http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/sport/football/leeds-united/leeds-united-the-town-has-a-new-sheriff-says-cellino-1-6736431