My year with Cellino: Neil Redfearn's story
Written by Simon Austin — January 23, 2017
NEIL REDFEARN achieved a lifelong ambition by taking charge of his boyhood club, Leeds United, in 2014.
His single season in charge turned out to be highly memorable, though often for the wrong reasons. Here he recounts life as manager under eccentric and unpredictable Italian owner Massimo Cellino:
Neil Redfearn: "We used to go in the West Stand, about halfway down to the right of the tunnel. We’d get the 226 bus onto Leeds Road and get off at the pub at the top and walk through the underpass. I can remember the excitement I felt. We'd get to the ground early and I'd just want to see the pitch, that green oasis.
There's one match I remember in particular - in the West Ridings Senior Cup. It was Leeds United against Halifax Town and we beat them 4-1. I’ll never forget that night. It was rainy and thundery, close and warm. The pitch was immaculate. They were all blue and Leeds were all white. There were about 20,000 there and it just got you, the theatre of it. It shapes who you are.
After school, we'd go out and play football, all in Leeds kit."
ALMOST A LEEDS PLAYER
"When I was at Barnsley, Leeds came in for me and apparently offered money plus Alfie Haaland when George Graham was boss. Barnsley turned it down because they thought they had a chance of staying in the Premier League and they kept hold of us. I learnt about that after. They also came in for us in the summer when I went to Charlton. I didn’t get to find out about that either, until it was too late. I had an agent, Mel Stein, and the Charlton deal was obviously best for the club."
BACK AT ELLAND ROAD
"A role with the Academy became available and I thought it was a good chance to further myself as a coach. I took the Under-18s. It was my club. Simon Grayson had just come in as manager and was bringing it all together. He'd made some good signings and got some good backing.
People might not like me saying this, but my experiences with Ken Bates were always good. I know how he is, that he has a ruthless side, but he was good, supportive. I can’t say bad about someone I’ve not had a bad experience with."
"I could see these young players coming through. Cook was under 13, Mowatt was under 14. Phillips, Taylor and Byram were in the under 16s. I was looking at the best ways to develop them as individuals within the team. We had a system – a diamond to start with – and they were learning together and bringing each other on. We won the Under-18s league. I could see how good they were getting.
With Alex Mowatt, we worked on how to get him round the box and getting those shots off. With Sam Byram, we’d work on these positions where we’d get him further forward and receiving it round the box. That comes from the stuff I did with me dad and the experiences I had with him as a coach.
My only concern was opportunity. Gwyn Williams could see how they were starting to develop. It’s about your manager being responsive to it. Neil Warnock didn’t really put kids in, he liked to bring in his own group – Brown, Tonge, Kenny.
I remember he came into the office one day and said ‘have you got any players?’ I laughed and said 'we’ve got about 300'. He said, 'I need someone to take to Cornwall for pre-season. I told him, ‘I’ve got the best right back at the club – Sam Byram.’
I think he thought I was having him on, but he put him in and Sam took off, he was brilliant. Nothing phased him or flustered him. Then one or two others started getting in. They saw Sam and thought, ‘we can do this.’ They relaxed. There was the basis of a good side there for years to come.
Our smart targets were to get two from pro to first team every season. We were getting four or five. Warnock came in at the time we were in transition with the EPPP. The philosophy and coaching programme ran through the club and had to be agreed from the top. That's meant to be the identity of your football club, providing continuity. I wrote the club philosophy and coaching programme right through the age groups, from pro development to youth development to foundation.
It used to be on the academy website, but they took it down under Cellino because they associated it with me. When he got the hump on with me, they tried to cut off everything to do with me. It’s still there in place because, with respect, no-one there has the acumen to put it down. It was to be comfortable receiving and playing anywhere on the pitch and to play a structured passing game going through the thirds."
"I had a call off an agent and had to go down to Elland Road. Cellino was there and said, ‘can you take this group of players in the morning?’ I rang Brian [McDermott] after and said ‘what’s happening?’ He said ‘they’ve sacked me.’ Fucking hell. I took training Saturday morning before the Huddersfield game. It was a mess. The players were asking what’s happening and I had to say I didn't know.
That Friday, Cellino came in. The supporters barricaded him in at Elland Road. I remember first meeting him - there were all these people buzzing round him. I didn’t know who they were, they must have been agents. He said, ‘Neil, you need to take this group of players for tomorrow morning.’ He said Gianluca Festa was going to be in charge, with me helping. He hugged me and said ‘you be my coach’. It was surreal.
Chairmen at English clubs are usually roast beef and Yorkshire pudding - you never see them. But there was this guy who looked like someone who was moving house and had been given two hours to do it. Everything was a rush and nothing made sense. Brian didn’t come to that Huddersfield game because GFH had advised him not to. They scored after about three minutes, through Danny Ward. I thought, 'fucking hell, we’re gonna get battered, it can’t get any worse', but then they went in one after another and it ended 5-1 to us. You can’t call it, can you?
I didn’t really see Cellino that much to start with. He'd come up to Thorp Arch now and again. His son Edoardo would come up, ‘just show him round the Academy.’ So I’d sit down with this kid, who was going ‘wow,’ explaining 'we’ve got the foundation group, under eights, nines,' and he’d be ‘we’ve got a lot of players.’ And you’re thinking, ‘what’s he going to go back and tell his dad?’
Cellino got one of the corporate boxes right at the end at Elland Road, like a makeshift office, with (personal assistant) Debra Ware’s office on the other side. That was where you used to go in. That was where he had Benny Carbone based to start with."
"It seemed they liked what they saw with the Academy and I thought we’ll plough on with them and see how many of the lads we can get in the first team. But they were cutting costs. I thought ‘this is Leeds United, what are you doing?' Dave Hockaday came in - and, to be fair, he was a lovely bloke - and Junior Lewis was a nice guy too, but you’re thinking, 'jesus, you’re like lambs to the slaughter here.' Dave didn’t have a chance.
Then Cellino stopped everything at Thorp Arch - he closed the kitchen and stopped the food. But we had a duty of care to these kids, it’s in the contracts. Lucy started cooking so the kids had something to eat.
He drained all the water out of the pool. The pressure of the water had kept the tiles in place and they started buckling. It cost £25k a year to heat and treat and he said ‘we’re not having that.’ He made the cleaners redundant, getting the apprentices to do it. That’s when the bug went round. Spores from the swimming pool area caused a sickness bug. He got rid of security. On a night when we had hundreds of kids in, anyone could walk in.
We had to have people deliver the food in the end from Elland Road, not refrigerated. Lucy was cooking for about 80 people a day.
We were leaving at about eight every other night following a 14-hour day. They brought in Mishcon de Reya to do the redundancies. They got all the heads of department to help in this. I met Andrew Umbers and he said, 'right, you’ve got to sit these people down and say they’re going to be made redundant.' I said, 'I’m not doing that, I’m a football coach.' The process was illegal, but you had cleaners who didn’t have the money to do anything and there was no union.
There was this fear and people did what they were told, even if they didn’t agree with it. I remember taking Benny Carbone to Thorp Arch and the grass was about three feet long. The whole place smelled. There was no electric. We were trying to sort out the running costs of the academy because he wanted it all cut down - and you’ve got Cook £5million, Byram £4million – it pays for itself for the next 20 years.
But no-one would ever dare say that to him, because you couldn’t question him. That first time I went down to see him, I said ‘you look like you need some help.’ And he said ‘yes.’ We got talking about football. He asked me about young players and said, ‘I love this system.’ He listened more. The more I got to know him the less he listened."
"It was after Wolves at home and we got beat 2-1. I had an idea what was happening because I had the call from Nicola Salerno on the Friday, ‘come to the game on Saturday.’ I said 'do I need to? There’s an 18s game.' 'You need to sit with Mr Cellino.' I thought he’s gonna do him. Milanic had only had six games.
We went ahead through Antenucci and battered them and I thought 'good, I don’t want to be in the middle of this shitstorm.' But they scored again and Cellino got up and stormed off.He can’t sit still through a game - he’s holding your leg, twitching, shouting in Italian. Fans were calling up to him. This time he'd been even more agitated than usual.
I got to my car and had the phone call, 'come back in'. He said ‘you take the team. Get them in tomorrow.’ Cardiff was my first game. My dealings then were with Matt Child, so it was quite a sane environment. I said, 'if it gives me chance to get these young lads in and get em playing, then I’ll do it.'
Matt fought for me to get Thommo in. There was a clause in my contract that I’d pick the team. I think he knew it wasn’t the be all and end all for me, so he never had that hold over me. I just need the right people round me, like Thommo. And I knew what these kids were capable of. The first time we did the running the Italians were blowing. I used to say to the players, 'if you lose it, run after it and let them see you run after it. That’s it. We’ve got to be brave enough to pass it, I’ll give you a plan. This is your theatre. If they see you run after it you’ll be like gladiators.' If there wasn’t the influence of Cellino over the Italian lads, I would have helped them too, because you could see them thinking 'I like this'.
They’d speak to him. Perhaps in their culture that’s what happened. The president brought players in and the coaches came and went. They were always quite respectful. The bit I like is on the grass with the players. I’m a tracksuit manager. As a coach I’m at my strongest. I’m honest and genuine."
DOING IT MY WAY
"We beat Derby at home 2-0, then got beat at Derby. I’d persevered with the Italians, but our season is that intense it caught up with them all. They looked leggy. I said to Thommo 'we’re gonna have to radically change this and become a functional Championship side.' We played Murphy and Austin at Sunderland away and they ran the game.
Recruitment wasn't ideal. He’s brought Nicola Salerno in as head of recruitment, who is a very nice guy. But I'm not sure he understood the demands of the Championship or what it took to do well there. He said, ‘we’ve got this Albanian centre forward, he’s brilliant.’ I saw the footage on Scout 7 and got Alex Davies to do some more clips for me. He just looked raw and the level he was playing at just wasn’t good.
When he scored a goal you could hear one bloke clapping, because there was no-one there. Cani came in and trained and I’m thinking 'you’re miles away.' He was a nice enough kid. I think he was Bellusci’s mate. He worked hard enough but was nowhere near. I had people like Steve Morison, who was not scoring but playing well and working hard. And he’s an experienced big man. He came to see us and I went ‘I’m sick of you. You think everything should be on a plate. Why don’t you man up and show us how good you are?’
And it was like a relief for him. He found himself again. I saw him grow as a person. He was massive in us doing alright. We played one up top and everything that went into him he got hold of it or shook it up. He was great for Mowatt and Byram. Billy Sharpe was itching to play but we weren’t strong enough to play 4-4-2.
I knew Thommo from when we played. We were good mates at Bolton and I knew what he’d bring - a human touch, which is what the group needed. The crowd is brilliant but harsh and hostile and between them you need some safe ground. Cellino would phone me up and say 'you don’t need an assistant. You’re my coach, we’ll do it together.' But we had 30 odd players. You’re like 'fucking hell, I'm doing this on my own.'"
"Before the Bournemouth game, he called me in and said ‘we need to win tonight. I don’t want to be relegated.’ I said ‘you know these are top of the league?’ We’d come off the back of some hit and miss results. He said ‘I’ll come and cook for the boys, I’ll cook proper pasta.’ He must have helped, or told them what to do, and they cooked it. It's just a bit odd, isn’t it? The players ended up taking things on board that shouldn’t be happening. When the supporters first meet him he’ll have a selfie. He’ll let people in, and then some get right in. For him to become better, he needs better people around him.
We kept getting done in the wide areas and overloaded. Before we played Ipswich, we spent hours and hours with a back four and two in front and did waves against them attacking. It allowed everything else to start flourishing. It was four-two-fuck off and play. Murph came in and Austin.
We said when they break they’re gonna hit that wall. Mowatt started playing off behind the front and found little pockets because his gamecraft is brilliant. And you know that if you can get him half a yard round the box on his left foot he’s a scorer. He got 10 goals that season from midfield. We found little niches for the wide ones. We put Byram and Taylor there. The number of games we started winning 1-0 and 2-1. We nilled Bournemouth and Boro. It was all about not having it, but we knew where we’d go when we got it."
"First thing in the morning there was a knock on the door. Ally, the secretary, gave Thommo a letter. He’s opened it and read it and his face changed. 'Fucking hell, have you read this?'
I rang Andrew Umbers, ‘what the hell’s going on?’ ‘It’s nothing to do with me, it’s Nicola Salerno.’
So I make another call, ‘Nicola, what’s going on?’ ‘It’s not me, it’s Andrew Umbers.’
Apparently they said he’d bad-mouthed Nicola Salerno, but when I spoke to him he said nothing had happened. You could never meet two nicer guys in football. Thommo would never disrespect anyone and Nicola’s not like that. So I don’t know where they cooked this story up.
They took it out on Thommo because of the Antenucci thing. It’s like 'I’m in charge'. His contract stated that when he got to 12 goals, he got a new deal. I spoke to Cellino, whether I was supposed to or not. He said 'don’t let him get to 12 goals. He’s one of these that downs tools.' You’re talking about another year - in the scheme of things that's pence. I said, 'if that’s what you want to happen, you have got to tell him and publicly tell him. Because if I don’t play him, how does that make me look?
He was starting to nick a goal or two. They were trying to make me fall in line – 'we’re in charge, you do it like this'. But they’d put me in charge of football matters. And I thought he was worth another year. If he got 12 goals and that was in his contract, then fair play to the lad.
In the end it was childish. Just get on the phone and be grown up about it. And show your humility. It was little bombs all of the time, like Stix phoning the players and saying 'you’ll be back this time and not that time for pre season' the day before a game."
"Antenucci came to me on the Thursday before the Charlton game and said, ‘my hamstring’s a bit tight.’ I said, 'will you be alright for Saturday?' And he said, 'yeah, I should be fine.'. Then on the Friday, we were doing a warm up and Del Fabro went in, then Doukara, Bellusci. Doukara said ‘coach, my groin, my groin,’ and leapt over the fence at the edge of the pitch. At least make it look official.
They’d obviously got their heads together. It wasn’t the time to have an inquiry, because we had to set off at half one from Elland Road. We got on the bus and went. Berardi travelled. All the lads got round and he went right up in their estimations, you could see it. Because he must have been approached. The lads knew what had been going on. Steve Morison came out and said something about it after the game. And it all soured after that. We lost five on the trot.
My day to day dealings were with Andrew Umbers, who just wasn’t a football person. He was relaying info from Cellino. Cellino got frustrated because he wasn’t there, hands on. I think he thought Thommo got between the relationship of me and him, which was bollocks. All this, 'he stopped ringing me.' No I didn’t."
CELLINO'S CRANKY WORLD
"This lad Andrea just used to come up and watch training. He’d work out from the shape what the starting 11 was going to be and would relay that. Ipswich was the one. At that point Cellino wanted Berardi in and had a bee in his bonnet about that. It was like the Chuckle Brothers – I had the phone held out at arm’s length because he was shouting so much.
Andrea would just come up from Elland Road. He was never introduced. He was called the spy. He’d obviously come up to find out what was going on. We used to take a bag of balls before training and spank them all over the training pitch and say ‘Andrea, do us a favour mate, get 'em in.’ And he’d be gone for half an hour picking them all up.
That’s Cellino’s cranky world. He’s taken to this guy and given him an opportunity, but you have to have a skillset.
He’s been looking at players. He spoke different languages as well. Nicola’s English wasn’t great, so he was the linguistic link.
We played Brighton away. Cellino was banned and said ‘Andrew Umbers is coming to the game and he’s bringing his wife. His wife has never seen us win. You need to get something lucky. You need to wear something purple - socks or a belt. Or you need to shake Eddie Gray’s hand, he was born on the 17th.’ He sent it me in a text.
Matt Child had resigned in March, which was a big blow. He was good for the club and good for me. Then there’s no barrier or sounding board, you’re straight into it. Andrew Umbers came to me and said 'you need to write a list of players you want.' I wanted Jason Shackle, Joey Barton, Matty Phillips, Charlie Adam. Thommo drank with Charlie Adam and he was receptive to it. He said ‘big club.’ They would have been marquee signings.
They all went to Championship clubs. These were the right type of people. They leaked it to have a go at me. We approached Barton’s agent and he said would he be interested."
THE END AT ELLAND ROAD
"Cellino said I’d disrespected him by not turning up to his welcoming do. What welcoming do? Nobody had told me. Nobody had even told me he was coming back. The only disappointment was you know you’re capable. I honestly believe I could have made Leeds United great again.
The season had finished. We gave everyone a date to come back. We did the spark testing and gave everyone a personal fitness sheet. We were going to get them back halfway through the close season for a testing week. Then there was the press conference when he rubbished me. It was just childish. He was trying to rubbish something that had been successful.
I don’t think he surrounds himself with good people. He’d listened to bad advice. I would have had far more respect for him if he’d rung me up, like a man. Even if he’d said, 'I didn’t like this and that and I’ve taken someone else on.' I wouldn’t be happy but I’d say 'fair enough, that’s football.' At least he’d have had the arsehole to sit down with me and say it face to face. I got 50 points from 36 games.
It was just badly handled. And it was the vindictiveness that went with it. There’s just no need. Tell the truth and look after people. Nobody spoke to me at all. I got a call from Adam Pearson, who had just come to the club - 'can I meet you at Wentworth Hotel.'
He said, 'I tell you now, he’s looking for another manager.' I said, 'I’m not stupid. Just make him be right with me.' They put the release out that they were offering me my old job as academy manager. I had the meeting with him at the Mercure Hotel at Wetherby. He said, 'you’ll come back in on your new contract on the 1st of July and until the 30th of June you’ll be put in the garden.' 'So you’re not giving me my old job back?' 'No, you’ll be put in the garden.'
I had a meeting with Pearson at Thorp Arch. I got there and there was only the groundsman and another car, and Uwe Rosler was in there. It was when he’d just come in and I was going. He’d gone for a cup of tea and said, 'I’m really sorry'. I said, 'it’s not your fault mate, you’re just a pawn in the game like me.' He was camped watching our games from Christmas onwards."
COOK HAS THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS
"He was one of these, Cooky – you’d tell him and he’d get it, like that. That’s the difference between a top player and the rest. He’d take it in and evolve it himself. Football is not that complicated – get ‘em fit, show them their jobs and everyone else’s, and then develop them as people. That psychological element is so big. It controls everything – your confidence, belief. Young people are impressionable. You’ve got them at a really good age to grow. Senior professionals are set in their ways. Give them something they can hold and feel good about. We all want to feel good about ourselves.
I was pleased for Sam and Lewis when they moved, because they’re getting on. But I was disappointed for the club, because they should be the foundation. You can only put it down to mismanagement. There’s not a structure or long-term plan. They had the tools to be good for a long time, but it’s not viewed like that. The kids when I was there they wanted to stay. Agents get involved and they get involved for a reason - because there’s money in it.
Leeds were never in control of it because of one man. I think they could have made better moves if I’m honest. I think if they’d have been at Leeds now, with the right information being put into them and the right eye over them, developing em, they could have got better moves out of it. And they might not have needed to move.
What these lads have got is humility. Last year they’d stopped learning, because they were not in a learning environment. I think now they are, because Monk is a coach based manager. They’ve had seven or eight years of being really open and receptive. Steve Evans is not a coach. He’s not brought a coach with him. He’s a wheeler and dealer.
He’s not going to go out and make these players better, he’s going to sign players who are better. The nearer you get to the top, the margins become finer. You have to build something sustainable. I could see Cooky captaining England. I remember when we got absolutely battered by Ipswich and he was unbelievable. It was the best I’ve ever seen him play.
You’re talking about a 17-year-old kid, and he was getting hold of seasoned professionals and making them close down and get back. We’re getting battered and he should have been with his chin in his boots, and I’m looking and thinking, ‘wow, what a player and what a person. 17 years old with that leadership quality.’
Lucy speaks to them still and we want them to do well. When you’ve been with them that long you know how much they’ve put in. You want them to do well and be successful. The shame is we are for Leeds, we want them to be successful. It’s just a shame they can’t see the bigger picture. I would have given them five year contracts and sat them down and said 'how are we gonna chart our way forward now?' And I don’t mean getting promoted in two seasons, I mean being calculated.
When we get there, we’re going to be ready. These players will be cooked, they’ll be ready, bordering internationals, because we’re going to put that much into them. We’ll allow them to fail. But there’s that short termism at Leeds, that McDonalds quick fix, got to have it now. You’ve gone from having Lucy to go to, to put her arm round them, something to lean on, and they’ve been exposed now.
They’ve got a move, but for their long-term development, was that really the best thing for them as footballers? Byram will become another player at West Ham. Where does the development come in that? That personal touch makes them more accountable. They feel they’ve got people on their side and owe it to their parents, who’ve been bringing them in. They owe it to them and to themselves."
"I had the best part of a season there, which is a long time for a Cellino manager. I would have gone back to the academy. If somebody had said to me ‘you’re gonna be manager of Leeds United’ when I was eight years old, I would never have dreamt of it. You can look back and be bitter but I’m not. What I did was good. I was offered the Kilmarnock job after Rotherham, but I needed some time out.
I love working in football. I like to see people get better. He set me on. If it had gone well, he would have got the credit. If the timing was right and the right people were in charge, I'd go back, but I can’t see it. I don’t think he’s well, I think he’s got a problem. I definitely think he liked me, he set me on. I was on his side, in his corner.
There’s a lot of history with Leeds and the people know it. It’s more than a football club to them, it’s their life. We were all Leeds fans. If anyone ever got hold of it, wow. It’s that big."