Massimo Cellino continues to divide opinion among fans of Leeds United as he goes about assessing the nature and extent of the undoubted mess behind the scenes at Elland Road. He appears to be a decisive sort of bloke, to say the least. Draconian, even – just how severe and ruthless he can be we will probably see in the not too distant future.
Right now, his work has hardly begun. But, early days though these are, it’s proper and relevant to wonder about Cellino’s long-term aims. Part of this longer-term view has to involve the question of whether or not the King of Corn knows exactly what he’s bought into. What would constitute success for Leeds United? After all, the club has been out of the spotlight for well over a decade. Surely, expectations are on a whole different level from the days when the club was at the forefront of the game?
One school of thought is that for any owner to buy into a limited view of the potential of Leeds would be a big mistake. After all, Cellino hasn’t acquired a Leicester City here, nor even a Newcastle United a West Ham or a Sheffield Wednesday. These are all clubs whose fans will happily accept membership of the Premier League, albeit two-thirds of the way or so down the modern pecking-order. At Elland Road, the club anthem is “Marching On Together” – but a shorter, more tribally-assertive chant is heard with even greater regularity. “We Are Leeds”, it states – quite simply and without qualification. In those three short words, the fans sum up the identity of a club that knows it’s out on a limb – and of those fans themselves, who expect such a massively loaded chant to be taken as confirmation, were any needed, that this is not just any club.
On the last two occasions that Leeds United has motored into the top flight, it has had a brief look around, settled in – and then taken over at the top. It actually took longer for Revie’s troops to do this than it did for Wilko’s Warriors – but the Revie dynasty compensated by lasting longer. In both cases though, there was a distinct lack of respect and trepidation as the Whites moved on up. There was no suggestion of timid apprehension. They came, they saw and, in due course, they conquered.
The top flight is, it almost goes without saying, a very different place these days – and not necessarily in a good way. But the tradition of supporter expectation goes back a lot further at Leeds than it does at most other clubs. Some ostensibly big clubs have given up on the idea of ever being champions, and one allegedly massive outfit in the north-east has even acknowledged that winning trophies appears nowhere near the top of its agenda. For that one-time giant, the balance sheet and the income that goes along with Premier League status is first, last and everything. But what sort of message does that send out to the fans? And could you see such a state of affairs being accepted at Leeds?
Whatever the contrast between the top-level environment now, as opposed to when Leeds United last breathed that rarefied air, the assumptions of the support upon attaining that level will be that the club will then set about finding the best and most effective way to the top. It’s in the DNA of Leeds United fans to want to compete at the summit of things – and a dim view would be taken of any lowering of standards, any reduction of objectives. That begs the question of what is possible – and what kind of player will we be looking to attract?
At the top end of the Premier League, there now seems to be an acceptance that the player is King – and that those demanding egos will settle for nothing less than ever-increasing pampering and worship from clubs and fans alike. The ridiculous Yaya Touré “birthday” story is ample confirmation of that. Is that the kind of thing that Leeds United fans really want to see happening in the name of their club? So the supplementary question to the main one of “What do we expect once promotion is achieved?” might well be: “Hang on – do we really want promotion at all??” Of course we bloody do!! – I hear you say, indignantly. And yet it would seem quite possible that, once promoted, our legacy of extravagant expectations could well be at odds with our characteristic, cynical suspicion of the kind of “flash” behaviour exhibited by Mr Touré – as well as by sundry other pampered, overpaid, out-of-touch egomaniacs in the self-proclaimed “Best League in the World”.
As you might have gathered, this blog finds itself in somewhat of a dilemma. The question of whether Cellino is sufficiently aware of the historical expectation levels associated with this club is one that has troubled me for a while. It is quite possible that he might be looking at turning us into Premier League survivors-and-little-more, such as Newcastle. That would be bad enough, at least on the face of it. But what if he did then want to go the extra mile and get us up there into that top four? It’s an almost impossible dream anyway; the competition would be hot and ludicrously expensive. But if we did make it – how would we, as fans, relate to the kind of players and egos that would inevitably then populate our first team squad? Would we feel any connection with them at all? Or would we long for the days of Jermaine Beckford (for the younger ones) or Gordon Strachan, or Billy Bremner (for the lucky and really lucky ones)?
Football is a competitive sport and, over time, you have to be aspirational; you have to be aiming higher. In the case of Leeds United – whether Massimo Cellino is aware of this or not – you have to be aiming for the very top. But now there is that baffling conundrum: in aiming for and reaching that summit -would we be mortgaging the very soul of the club? Look at Manchester City – how on earth can the City fans, many of whom were visiting third tier outposts of the game not so long back, possibly relate to the fact that their best midfielder appears to have the mental processes of a four-year old?
Where Leeds United are right now – stuck in the league below the top one and about to embark, we must hope, on a rebuilding of the club – is a good place and the right time to be considering what we actually want for our club in the longer term. It’s the right time and place, because what we demand now, in this comparatively normal and down-to-earth league, might just have an effect on where we end up in the next few years, depending upon the readiness of Cellino to listen. And what this comes down to is that old saw “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it”.
Does Cellino really know what “We Are Leeds” means, and the pride and ambition behind that raucously-assertive statement? If he does – is he game for trying to get the club eventually back up to that old, accustomed place near the top of the game? And if he actually manages that – in these new days of footballers with world-class talent, massive egos and wage packets, but tiny brains – would we end up thanking him for it? Or might we instead damn him?
Just what do we want? I feel that the answer might eventually lie in a radical restructuring of the game in this country, possibly on the German model of fan-owned clubs and a more affordable product for all – and almost certainly a FIFA-ratified wage cap that escapes the beady eye of the European pay commissars. That could take years and would certainly meet with stiff opposition from the current interested parties. But that sounds to me much more like the kind of environment I’d like to see Leeds United promoted into. The current set-up invites along those ambitious enough to want merely to be cannon-fodder for the “big” clubs – the likes of Southampton and Leicester. Try as I might – I can’t see Leeds United, the club or the fans, wanting to settle for that as a way of life.
It’s a conundrum alright – ambition versus dissatisfaction with what we’re shooting for. I’d love to know what Massimo thinks, and what his understanding really is of the Leeds United mentality. And I’d love to know what you think – so your views are, as ever, most appreciated.