Leeds United's 16 crazy years: Part 4 - The Cellino era
Leeds United fans made their feelings towards owner Massimo Cellino known in February 2015 with messages projected onto Elland Road during a match against Middlesbrough. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images.

Part One: Living the dream, Bates and play-off despair

Part Two: Administration and League One

Part Three: The end of Bates, GFH and Massimo's madness begins

2014-15: ‘Coaches are like watermelons’

Following Brian McDermott’s inevitable departure as manager, all manner of names were linked with the vacant job at Leeds United. After three weeks, his replacement was revealed, and it would comfortably be the most bizarre appointment in the club’s history.

Dave Hockaday enjoyed a solid playing career in the Football League as a right-back before going into youth coaching with roles at clubs including Watford and Southampton. His only managerial experience had come in four unspectacular years at Conference side Forest Green Rovers, where he departed in October 2013. Eight months later, a remarkable recommendation put him in eyesight of Massimo Cellino, who made Hockaday his first appointment as Leeds owner.

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Hockaday did his best to justify his shock instillation into one of the biggest clubs in the country, saying: “I wasn’t surprised to get the call because I’ve talked to lots of people and when I met the president we talked and it was very obvious he knew what he was talking about. I played for 20 years in over 650 senior games, I’ve coached at every level in every league, from the Premier League to the Conference.” More tellingly, in an analogy that would explain a lot about the events of his time as owner, Cellino said: “Coaches are like watermelons; you only know how good it is when you open it.”

Hockaday joined not as manager but as the specifically-defined ‘head coach’, reflecting that Cellino would have the final – and usually, only – say on signings. Junior Lewis became assistant coach, joining a team which included the curious appointment by Cellino of Benito Carbone, the Italian former Sheffield Wednesday forward, in a ‘consultant position’ which lasted only until August. A more powerful figure would be Nicola Salerno, who previously worked with Cellino at Cagliari, in the new position of sporting director.

While his treatment and appointment of managers was making Leeds something of a laughing stock to the outside world, some dangerous moves were going on behind the scenes. Cellino disbanded the Leeds United’s twice-FA Cup-winning women’s team, cut the costs of the youth set-up, and made savings at the training ground by making staff such as cleaners redundant and stopping meals being provided. He also retired the number 17, believing it to be unlucky, and demanded that all players live in the city.

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A host of first-team regulars were allowed to leave, including Tom Lees, Lee Peltier, Paddy Kenny and Danny Pugh. Top scorer Ross McCormack was a wanted man, and Cellino was happy to sell to Fulham for £11m despite the Scottish international not even wanting to leave. McCormack described being “hung out to dry” to Sky Sports, saying: “I felt it was pretty nasty in the end… that was somewhere I honestly thought I was going to finish my career. I believed it was my club.”

Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi were among 11 new signings, with the team given quite the Italian makeover by the additions of Marco Silvestri, Mirco Antenucci, Guiseppe Bellusci and Tommaso Bianchi. Hockaday fought tooth and nail for at least one established Football League signing, Billy Sharp.

Few events sum up the chaotic Cellino reign better than the pre-season training camp in the Italian mountains that July. They had two matches scheduled, against amateur local team FC Gherdeina and Romanian side FC Viitorul. Gherdeina proved as competitive an opposition as might be expected, losing 16-0 with second-half substitute Matt Smith scoring six of the goals. They did better than Viitorul, who didn’t even show up, leaving Leeds to play an inter-squad friendly instead. Back on home soil, Hockaday received some less-than-glowing praise after their final friendly against Dundee United, with Cellino telling the Telegraph that his head coach “needs some babysitting”.

Leeds fans were given little encouragement that Hockaday’s appointment was a stroke of genius by a poor Championship opening-day 2-0 loss at Millwall, even if they squeezed past Accrington Stanley in the League Cup, and then secured a late win against Middlesbrough. Defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion was followed by a 4-1 thumping at Watford, after which Cellino was ready to wield the axe only to have a change of heart. “It’s too simple to sack him,” he told BBC Radio Leeds. “I am more responsible than him now.”

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However, he was of a different mind again after Leeds conceded two late goals to be knocked out of the League Cup by neighbours Bradford City, and Hockaday was gone the next morning after 70 days in charge. Cellino would say: “After the defeat at Bradford I realised that my decision to keep David at the club following the defeat at Watford was wrong and I had to change my mind on the coaches' position.” 

Hockaday would later describe life under Cellino to the Guardian, describing the set-up at Leeds as on-par with non-league. “We had just one match analyst, one strength and conditioning coach, and it just felt unprofessional. I was thrown to the dogs,” he said. Hockaday claimed that he put in a host of requests for players including Andre Gray, Virgil van Dijk and Conor Coady, but: “I was scratching my head being told ‘no’ about those I had recommended while we were getting in these Italian-based players who were nowhere near it and, I have got to say, that’s what killed me.”

Of his relationship with Cellino, Hockaday said: “He used to ring me every day, and at weird times – at midnight, 1am, all sorts… He had spies and they were reporting back to him.”

Neil Redfearn took caretaker charge and secured three wins and a draw, before Hockaday’s replacement was named on September 23. The new head coach was Darko Milanic, who captained Slovenia at Euro 2000 and became the first non-British or Irishman to lead Leeds in its history, joining from Austrian side Sturm Graz alongside assistant Novica Nikcevic.

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It would prove a second doomed appointment, with Milanic losing three matches, drawing three, and winning precisely none before getting the sack after just 32 days, a reign shorter even than that of Brian Clough. Cellino said to the Yorkshire Evening Post after sacking Milanic: “I made a mistake with this guy. He’s negative, he has a losing mentality”. It was a costly mistake with Milanic officially on gardening leave for the next two years, costing almost £1m, and the next appointment would be a safer one with Redfearn given the job on a one-year rolling contract, joined in December by Steve Thompson from Huddersfield Town as assistant coach.

Just as Redfearn brought some stability on the field, problems were mounting for Cellino off it. The Football League had still been waiting to receive the full judgement from the Italian court which convicted him of tax evasion earlier in the year. The Italian was under investigation for failing to pay import duty on a yacht, with his ban initially overturned because it wasn’t clear that it was a ‘dishonesty’ offence which would breach the ‘fit and proper person’ test. The full details were now in, however, and on December 1 the Football League disqualified him from being a director at Leeds until March 18, 2015, a year after the original ruling when the conviction would become spent.

The Football League struck another blow on December 15 by ruling that Leeds had broken Financial Fair Play rules by exceeding the permitted losses of £8m or operating losses of £3m. The club were put under a transfer embargo until the end of the season, restricting Redfearn to loan signings in January.

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Meanwhile, Cellino resigned from his post as mandated on December 23, initially planning to return when the ban was up but soon stating he would continue the fight for longer to clear his name by challenging the legality of his ban. He was still in plenty of hot water though; in Italy he was fighting against two other tax evasion prosecutions, on a Range Rover and another yacht. All the while, he and Leeds faced a further misconduct charge for refusing to give the Football League a copy of the written reasons for Cellino’s conviction. On March 5, the latter resulted in his ban being extended to May 3, the day after the end of the season.

Things were steadier on the pitch at the beginning of 2015, with a run of five wins in six matches briefly taking them into the top half before things would implode in April. Redfearn’s assistant, Thompson, was suspended out of the blue by Salerno at the start of the month, never to return, with Redfearn despairing: “I don’t understand why he’s been suspended” and adding on the impact over his own future: “From before where it was a no-brainer, now I need to have a good think.” It emerged on the same day that the boss was under pressure not to play Antenucci, who had scored 10 goals over the season, because if he reached 12 it would trigger an extra year onto his contract.

The biggest achievement of Redfearn’s reign was the flourishing of the latest batch of youth talent under their old academy boss, with Kalvin Phillips making his debut for the club late in the season after the likes of Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook had been key cogs throughout the campaign.

Other players would give him problems in an embarrassing episode in late April though. A group who went on to be referred to as the ‘sicknote six’ included the likes of Antenucci, Bellusci, Silvestri, Souleymane Doukara, Edgar Cani and Dario Del Fabro, all pulled out of a trip to Charlton Athletic claiming to have picked up injuries in what appeared an attempt to undermine Redfearn. They lost the game 4-1, a fifth consecutive defeat as Leeds limped to a second consecutive 15th-place finish.

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The relationship between Redfearn and Cellino was always tense, and there was a decision to be made at the end of the season when the Italian was allowed to return. Things didn’t look good for Redfearn when Cellino delivered an outburst to the Sunday Mirror: “He thinks he’s so strong that he can put me in the shit because I’m worrying about the fans?...  He challenged me. If you are good I can accept the challenge. But not if you are a bad coach… 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.” 

Three days after, on May 20, former Brentford and Wigan Athletic manager Uwe Rosler was appointed as head coach. There was not even an announcement of the departure of Redfearn, who was anticipating his old academy job back but found a different offer fell short of his expectations. He left the club, as did his partner Lucy Ward, a former Leeds United Ladies player who was working as the academy welfare officer until she was sacked that summer. In July 2016, she won an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination. Salerno also departed the club, believed to have been told to go by Cellino after the Thompson debacle, with the sacking of Redfearn “only Massimo’s decision” as the owner moved into his second full season with a fifth head coach.

2015-16: Open warfare

It would be yet another season with far more action off the field than on it, and the problems started early for Cellino. On June 23 he was found guilty in Italy of tax evasion on the Range Rover, receiving a €40,000 fine for failing to pay VAT when importing it from the US. He was safe in his position at Leeds for now though as, after the to-ing and fro-ing with the previous ban, the Football League would this time hold out for the full judgement before making its verdict.

At least their transfer ban was at an end, allowing Rosler to make additions including Sol Bamba, who became captain after moving from Palermo, Brentford’s Stuart Dallas, and Chris Wood from Leicester City for around £3m - remarkably their biggest outlay on any player since 2002. Rodolph Austin and Aidy White were among those released.

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Rosler could take solace in lasting longer than both Hockaday and Milanic, but not by much. He was unbeaten in his first six Championship games but five were draws, and they were also eliminated from the League Cup by Doncaster Rovers on penalties. After a loss to Ipswich Town and win at Milton Keynes Dons, three defeats on the bounce, the last at home to Brighton courtesy of a last-minute Bobby Zamora goal, saw time called with Leeds down in 18th place. Cellino said of the style of football under the German: “I wanted them to play heavy rock football, but instead it was like country music.”

The dismissal of Rosler would be just the beginning of a dramatic day on October 19. His replacement was swiftly named too, with Steve Evans taking charge a month after leaving Rotherham United. Evans was already becoming a controversial figure in football, as he acknowledged on his appointment: “All I can ask the Leeds United supporters to do is to give me the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I wouldn’t be the chosen manager for many Leeds United fans… if I win football matches then people will embrace me.”

The day was still not over, as the Football League’s latest verdict on Cellino was revealed with dramatic timing. Having received the full details of his latest conviction from the Italian courts, they ruled that he had again breached its ‘fit and proper person’ test, and would face a 223-day ban. This was deferred as Cellino appealed, both against the League and the original conviction, and uncertainty would rumble on throughout the season.

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This was not helped by Cellino himself. It appeared that the ban had convinced him it was time to sell, and on October 30 a deal was agreed in principle for Cellino to pass his majority stake to Leeds Fans United (LFU), a group first formed in April. The chief executive of this supporters’ group, Dylan Thwaites, said: “We've been speaking to Massimo Cellino for some time now about buying a share in the club. Massimo no longer feels he has the support of the fans and subsequently has agreed to sell his shares to us.” Cellino told BBC Radio Leeds: “I'm sad and embarrassed. My dream was to do my best but I've achieved nothing.” 

Yet by November 4, the deal had collapsed. LFU said that Cellino “no longer wishes to sell to Leeds fans. Our insistence on him confirming his verbal offer of exclusivity in a legally binding agreement has forced transparency on his motives.” The Italian said in response that he was still looking to sell the club, but that LFU “say a lot of fairytales. They really are like kids in a sweet shop.”

Relations with fans were only getting worse. Despite going eight months without a home win – a run brought to an end against Cardiff City with the help of a priest who blessed the pitch and dressing room ahead of the game at Cellino’s request – the club raised the price of tickets in the South Stand by £5, including a ‘meal deal’ voucher in what was labelled a ‘pie tax’. Cellino later claimed in an interview with Italian newspaper L’Unione Sarda that the increase was a punishment to fans for criticising him.

He had also attempted to limit ticket sales to Leeds fans for away games, in protest against being “exploited” by the Football League and Sky Sports with the number of televised matches they were involved in. He backed down after criticism from supporters but drew new battle lines on December 29, when Leeds hosted Derby County in an evening kick-off and he tried to bar Sky cameras from the ground, claiming in a statement that the League were “unfairly prejudicing Leeds (and certain other clubs) by allowing Sky to unfairly disrupt Leeds United for their own commercial purposes”. So began a dramatic stand-off as former Leeds chief executive Shaun Harvey, now in the same role with the Football League, came to Elland Road to try and resolve matters, and the club eventually relented.

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With price increases resulting in average attendances dropping below 22,000, another unambitious transfer window seeing the latest loss of their best young talent as Byram moved to West Ham United for £3.7m, and the team under Evans continuing to plod along in mid-table with one win in 11 league games after Christmas, the open warfare between fans and owner stepped up.

In February, a ‘Time To Go Massimo’ advert and a series of messages were projected onto Elland Road during a game against Middlesbrough. A few weeks later Cellino’s sons Ercole and Edoardo, who were both club directors, hit back at criticism on social media with the former calling one woman a “whale” who should “stop eating”, and the latter calling another fan a “moron”.

In a passionate Telegraph interview in April, Cellino said: “I can be a pain in the arse but I’m not a bad person. So when people say I’m dishonest, it hurts me… When the fans call me a bastard, it hurts me a lot, but I understand the fans who are pissed off. Maybe if I was in their position I’d say the same thing.”

He also showed his disproval of working with Evans, saying that “he has to learn to shut his mouth”. With the team failing to build a consistent run they slumped to a fifth mid-table finish in a row, ending 13th. May saw endless speculation about managers elsewhere being approached to take on the job for the 2016-17 season. Karl Robinson and Darrell Clarke both turned down the role and Evans saw the inevitable, leaving the club at the end of the month. He said: “If Mr Cellino has an option on me to extend my contract and sees fit to speak to other people, I had to ask myself, ‘One, was he doing it because he doubted me or, two, he wanted to see if there was something better in the market? For a time I believed it was the second of those two but the last week I saw there were other people in for the job and I took the opinion it was not going to be me.”

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For a third season running Cellino would be appointing a fresh manager for a new campaign, though he did so with a little spring in his step after finally seeing a resolution to his own status. On May 9, he was acquitted on appeal in Italy for that non-payment of VAT on his Range Rover, and the Football League ban that had been deferred pending the appeal would now be thrown out of the window. It looked like Cellino would be there to stay for the long term, but change would soon be around the corner.

2016-17: A true saviour

On April 12, 2016, Manchester City beat Paris Saint-Germain to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time, but the action on the pitch would arguably not be the most significant thing to happen on that night at the Etihad Stadium.

Over a meal, Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish got talking to a 41-year-old Italian working in sports media rights, and the topic of hypothetically buying a football club came up by chance. Dalglish suggested Leeds United as a sleeping giant with huge potential and, after some consideration and months of discussions, Andrea Radrizzani had his hands on one of England’s biggest clubs.

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As Radrizzani first made contact with Cellino in the summer of 2016, Leeds were undergoing another change of head coach. It just so happened to be the first appointment of Cellino’s reign to generate any positive reaction, Evans was replaced by Garry Monk. The then 37-year-old had been sacked the previous season by Swansea City just months after leading them to an eighth-place Premier League finish in his first full season in management.

Monk, who would be joined by old colleagues Pep Clotet and James Beattie, said: “I feel really honoured to be here and I’m really looking forward to the challenge ahead. The passion of the fans, the history and the ambition of the owner all ties in with what I wanted to do. I want to be challenged and really get my teeth into a big project.”

His summer recruitment showed more ambition than in previous years at the club, including Marcus Antonsson, Kemar Roofe, Luke Ayling, Rob Green and Eunan O’Kane, plus Liam Briductt who would be appointed captain. Some of the best additions were on loan though, with Monk bringing in a playmaker he had managed and played alongside at Swansea, Pablo Hernandez. Pontus Jansson also arrived for the season from Torino, joined by Kyle Bartley and Hadi Sacko. There was still the familiar feeling for fans of seeing their best young player move on though as Cook headed for Bournemouth, while Antenucci, Scott Wootton and Bamba also departed.

Cellino was demonstrating some smarter sense to appease supporters, offering a unique season ticket deal where 25% of the price would be handed back if the team failed to reach the play-offs. Even the ‘pie tax’ meal deal was scrapped, and the average attendance would increase by more than 6,000 on the previous year.

It was as well that relations were improving, albeit minimally, as the Cellino family’s Eleonora Sport Ltd purchased all of the shares still held by GFH Capital to become the sole owner of the club. However, talks continued as Radrizzani remained in the background, potentially with some influence over decisions.

One early impact of his presence may have been a different approach to dealing with coaches, as Monk failed to pay the price for a poor start to the season as Hockaday and Rosler had before him. He took only four points from the first six games to leave them languishing in the relegation zone, but was spared the axe and went on to win the next three, prompted by a late Bartley win against Blackburn Rovers.

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It proved the correct move as another three-match winning run going into November saw them climb into the play-offs for the first time in almost three years. After a loss to Newcastle United, they won at Rotherham to return to the top six and would remain there until a draw in the reverse at Newcastle in April.

At the same time as their best league form in years, Leeds were also impressing in the League Cup, with dramatic home successes over Blackburn and Norwich City taking them into the quarter-finals. There they faced Premier League leaders Liverpool at Anfield and they put up an admirable fight, but two late goals denied them a place in the semis.

Things were on the up but off-field matters again took over. On December 8, Cellino received a ban from all football activities for 18 months, and both he and the club were fined £250,000, for breaching FA rules on players’ agents. The offence was from the sale of McCormack to Fulham in 2014, when Cellino was approached by an unlicensed agent, Barry Hughes, who told him that he could secure an eight-figure transfer in return for a £250,000 fee.

Neither Cellino nor Graham Bean, a former FA compliance officer who was employed by the club at the time, were aware that Hughes wasn’t authorised to carry out agency work. When the club received Hughes’s invoice for his commission, the payment was made via a consultancy agreement with McCormack’s licensed agent, Derek Day, who was also convicted for his part. Cellino and Bean later fell out and Bean was dismissed from his job, after which he blew the whistle to the FA.

Cellino played victim, saying: “I feel that I am guilty of one thing - protecting Leeds United since I took charge of the club.” He launched an appeal and saw the ban reduced to 12 months and the fine cut in February. The FA allowed him to make a second appeal though, and by the time it reached a verdict in October 2017 Cellino was out of English football.

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Radrizzani’s involvement was stepped up heading into the winter and on January 4, 2017, his company Aser Group Holding were confirmed to have acquired a 50% stake in the club, with the intention to consider a full takeover in the summer. Radrizzani, who had the title of co-owner alongside Cellino, said: “I am making a long-term commitment to Leeds United and will work to bring stability through ongoing investment. I aim to bring sustainable growth. I won’t do anything that will put the club’s future at risk.”

January brought further good news with the permanent signing of Hernandez, while Jansson’s move was sealed for the following season. Leeds were as high as third in the Championship table after a win over Derby, and again on February 1 after victory at Blackburn. The Whites had suffered an FA Cup humiliation three days earlier though, slipping up in the fourth round against Sutton United. Against a team in the bottom half of the National League, a dire performance resulted in a 1-0 defeat through a penalty scored by builder Jamie Collins.

Back-to-back league losses saw them slip but they were still unbeaten in the next seven, including a 2-0 win over Premier League-bound Brighton, with Wood scoring a couple of his 30 goals in all competitions across the season. That result put them seven points clear of seventh-placed Fulham with eight games to go, and it could have been more if not for an injury-time equaliser at Craven Cottage a couple of weeks earlier when Leeds had led 1-0 for 90 minutes.

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But from that fantastic position, Leeds would collapse in spectacular style. They won just once more, beating Preston North End after back-to-back losses at Reading and Brentford without scoring, and they then scored a late equaliser at Newcastle but the draw saw them fall out of the top six. It was followed by two poor losses to Wolves and Burton Albion, leaving them three points adrift of Fulham with two to go. Unfortunately, a heroic comeback from 3-0 down to draw at Norwich was not enough, leaving them needing a mathematical miracle on the final day which didn’t come. After the Carrow Road result, Monk reflected: “The reality is, the majority of the group were not quite ready for this situation. That's not a criticism. It's just a fact.”

Radrizzani became full owner of the club on May 23, purchasing the remaining 50% from Cellino with the total takeover costing £45m. On taking outright control he said: “I am delighted to have the opportunity to become a custodian of this great football club… This is a long-term commitment, there is a lot of hard work ahead of us and I am aware of my responsibilities as owner of Leeds United. I can assure all supporters that everyone at this club will be doing all we can to build a successful team at Elland Road.” They were words that fans had heard from the mouths of many people over the years, but Radrizzani would be the one to live up to them.

His top priority was a new deal for Monk, but they failed to agree a deal and the head coach departed. More upheaval would be ahead but, with the improvement brought by Monk and the full takeover of Radrizzani, this was the year that the feelgood factor finally returned to Elland Road. As Cellino said in his parting shot: “If you can survive working with me, you can survive anything!”

Part Five: Return to the Premier League