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

Graham Bean was the FA’s ‘sleazebuster’ but 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 at Cagliari than he’d had pepperoni pizzas, and it felt like he revelled 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 CEO and head of football administration within weeks of seizing control of the club. In effect, the club was rudderless.

Staff morale was the lowest I’d ever seen during my career. They didn’t like Cellino — and certainly didn’t trust him. They feared the consequences of getting on the wrong side of him. I once suggested he invest £50,000 into the staff wages budget to give them all a pay rise, seeing as they hadn’t had one in years, it would have given them a lift and made them more receptive to what he was doing in the club. Cellino shot me down in his usual tantrum manner, questioning why he should give them extra money.

Massimo Cellino’s capricious nature made working at Leeds a bizarre experience

Having bluntly refused my request he then asked about sourcing an Audi R8 sports car for his son’s birthday, as I had already secured a Mini for the same son some weeks earlier. He told me he was willing to pay up to £80,000! He wouldn’t share £50,000 between all those who worked so hard for him at the club, but would blow £80k on a vanity project for his spoiled and indulged son. It summed him up perfectly.

My first meeting with Cellino had been an eye-opener. The first thing he did was take the p*** out of my weight, with a string of insulting comments. This went down like a lead balloon but it was clear he was a very charismatic man with a brazen sense of humour. As the weeks and months went by it became blindingly obvious he was prone to serious mood swings and would frequently lose his temper, sometimes over the most trivial of matters. Then, almost immediately, he could turn the charm on again. It was like flicking a switch, so me and the other members of staff became very wary of his irrational side.

Working at Leeds was one of the most bizarre experiences of my professional career. At times it genuinely felt like I was working inside a madhouse and I seriously questioned continuing to work for him, due to his nasty temper tantrums, which were like dealing with a spoiled child. It was draining and stressful.

However, I quickly learned the only way to deal with him was to stand up to him and give as good as you got. He once blamed me for a costly mistake regarding a loan deal for Souleymane Doukara from Catania. He was ranting and raving but I’d not had any involvement in it. I snapped — it was one rant too many from him — and launched myself across the desk with my finger pointing close to his face, shouting “Don’t you ever f****** blame me for something that’s nothing to do with me. You f***** this up and nobody else.” Cellino s*** himself, quickly backed down and ended up blaming someone else!

The Italian clashed with Graham Bean over the signing of Souleymane Doukara

The Italian clashed with Graham Bean over the signing of Souleymane Doukara

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

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

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

One of the biggest problems working for Cellino was that he didn’t seem to do mornings. He rarely turned up at Elland Road before lunchtime. This meant you were restricted in what you could actually get done, because his micromanagement was so intense that no one at the club dare do anything which might have caused an outburst from him.

Goalkeeper Paddy Kenny was axed due to Cellino's superstitions around the number 17

Goalkeeper Paddy Kenny was axed due to Cellino’s superstitions around the number 17

He also had some weird and wonderful superstitions, like eliminating the number 17 from the club and not using the colour purple. One day he even told me to make sure I got high-earning goalkeeper Paddy Kenny out of the club because he was born on the 17th and that he just couldn’t risk him being at Leeds.

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

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

I got on well with Dave and he was a really nice bloke, as was his assistant Junior Lewis, but the reality was they were both out of their depth at Leeds. Dave did, however, identify two outstanding players that would have transformed the club.

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

Cellino ignored a chance 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 because of the way he played, Bellusci thrived on an undeserved hard-man reputation. He made his debut in a 4-1 defeat to Watford and things didn’t improve much from there — he wasn’t liked by many of his teammates or the club staff.

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

I knew Hockaday wouldn’t last very long — and I was correct. After just 70 days he and Lewis were sacked. Cellino rang me and all he said was, “Sack Hockaday”.

I replied that he should do the decent thing and speak to Dave himself but Cellino “didn’t like confrontation” so refused to do it.

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

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

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

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

Cellino then reverted to Plan C, which was to put academy manager Neil Redfearn in temporary charge while he sourced a permanent boss.

Remarkably, given the talent brought through at Leeds such as Lewis Cook, Charlie Taylor, Sam Byram, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Alex Mowatt and Kalvin Phillips, Cellino had initially been intent on closing the academy down before he was convinced it was a viable concern. 

The Italian deemed future England star Kalvin Phillips not good enough for the Leeds first team

The Italian deemed future England star Kalvin Phillips 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 just how poor Cellino’s judgment was over players.

With Redfearn in temporary charge, Cellino reverted to Plan D which was Gary Megson. I knew Gary well and set up a meeting at Cellino’s apartment in Leeds city centre the following day. However, about an hour before the meeting, Cellino rang to say he’d changed his mind and didn’t want Gary after all, so it was all cancelled. It was another example of how farcical things were becoming.

Things then went very quiet before a little known Serbian appeared on the scene called Darko Milanic. I’d never heard of him and neither had most Leeds fans. After listening to his first press conference, I knew he wasn’t going to last long — the only surprise was he lasted a month.