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Is Massimo Cellino The Worst - Or Best - Owner In Football?

Everyone’s had a temperamental boss, right? You know the sort: one day they’re inviting you out for post-work drinks, the next they’ve got your balls in a vice. But however bad you think your line manager may be, however irrational their outlook or volcanic their temperament, they’re not nearly as bad as Massimo Cellino.

Currently the proud owner of Leeds United and formerly the master of all he purveyed at Italian club Cagliari, Cellino has the rather dubious honor of having sacked a grand total of 40 managers over a 23-year period: that’s a new coach every seven months. What’s more, during his two decades in charge of Cagliari he was convicted of embezzlement, fraudulent misrepresentation and false accounting - and, for part of the 2011-12 season, he relocated the club 500 miles north ast in protest against the Mayor of Cagliari’s refusal to help fund a new stadium.

Cellino has absolutely everything you’d want from an eccentric football club owner: an occasional evil goatee, a perpetually mahogany skin tone, an irrational hatred of the number 17 (at Cagliari, the seat numbers went 16, 16b, 18) and a wrap sheet so long you need the Hubble telescope to view it from end to end. Put bluntly, the man’s a box of frogs.

All of which must have sounded like nails down a chalkboard to Leeds fans as Cellino completed his acquisition of the club back in February. 15 years ago, Leeds were duking it out at the top of the Premier League, regularly playing European football and signing players such as Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Keane and Robbie Fowler. Following a decade of relegations, bankruptcies and absent ownership, they currently reside in the bottom half of the second tier of English football, and own neither their stadium nor their training ground.

Cellino wasted no time in putting his distinct mark on the Yorkshire club. Indeed, before he’d even formally acquired Leeds he’d already sacked incumbent manager Brian McDermott, only to reinstate and then sack him again within the space of a few months. Goalkeeper Paddy Kenny was apparently released because his birthday falls on May 17 (unlucky), while Dave Hockaday – McDermott’s replacement – was sacked after only six games in charge. Cellino is now onto the fourth manager of his 10 month reign, with Neil Redfearn having been awarded a rather optimistic one-year contract at the start of November.

Unsurprisingly, England’s Football League don’t consider Cellino a “Fit and Proper” individual to own a football club. They initially tried to stop him acquiring Leeds in February, and have just banned him again this week having received the details of a tax fraud conviction for failure to pay $500,000 of import duties on his super yacht (natch).

Cellino is appealing, but even if unsuccessful he’ll still be able to resume ownership of Leeds in just four months time once his conviction is deemed spent. In the interim, Leeds will, theoretically, be left ownerless and rudderless.

All of which is right about Cellino’s speed. One would think that such a destabilising and inherently petulant individual would be unpopular with fans, but the opposite is true. When Cellino was briefly in prison in 2013 for embezzlement, Cagliari supporters gathered outside his jail to chant ”there’s only one Cagliari President!” Similarly, following the Football League’s ruling this week, Chairman of the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust Paul Keats said: "He has done more for Leeds United in seven or eight months than previous owners did in 12 years…. Under Cellino, progress has been fantastic.

Because despite the perpetual shit-storm that seems to accompany Cellino wherever he goes, his methods bear fruit. Cagliari are a small, provincial side yet for 19 of the 22 seasons under Cellino’s ownership they played in Serie A. Cellino attracted managers of quality such as Roberto Donadoni and Giovanni Trappatoni, not to mention top-drawer playing talent including Gianfranco Zola. In 1994 they reached the semi finals of the UEFA Cup: no small feat for a team with an average gate of just 4,700 (by contrast, Inter Milan’s average attendance is 46,000). 

Upon taking charge of the fallen Yorkshire giants earlier in the year, Cellino declared: “Me, I sort out the f*cking problems at Leeds.” While the man undoubtedly comes with more baggage than a cruise ship, United supporters will forgive him his peccadillos if he proves true to his word.

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