Leeds United were consumed by chaos last night after new owner Massimo Cellino began his reign at Elland Road by ruthlessly sacking Brian McDermott and losing two major club sponsors.
Cellino, who is on the verge of completing a £25m buy-out of Leeds, dismissed McDermott within hours of securing a deal for the club – prompting shirt sponsor Enterprise Insurance to dramatically withdraw its support in protest.
Yorkshire-based theme park Flamingo Land, which backs United’s academy with a deal worth a six-figure sum each year, followed suit soon after as anger over the treatment of McDermott spread.
Andrew Flowers, the managing director of Enterprise Insurance and until Thursday part of a consortium who were bidding to buy Leeds from current owner Gulf Finance House, said the sale to Cellino and his ruthless dismissal of McDermott was “a disgraceful decision which brings the club into disrepute and one which we won’t be associated with.”
Enterprise Insurance paid its sizeable sponsorship fee in full and up front earlier this season and the money is understood to have been used to tie top scorer and club captain Ross McCormack to a new four-year contract in August.
Flowers told the YEP: “I’m devastated for Brian and we’ll be looking to end our sponsorship of the club. In no way do we wish to be associated with this regime.”
McDermott took training at Thorp Arch on Friday and held his regular press conference shortly after 1pm, voicing uncertainty about his future at Elland Road with Cellino close to finalising a 75 per cent takeover.
The former Reading was dismissed later in the day and informed of Cellino’s decision to sack him by an unknown lawyer.
Acting chief executive Paul Hunt is also understood to have left Elland Road.
Gianluca Festa, the former Middlesbrough defender and a long-time ally of Cellino’s, is set to take charge of United’s squad for today’s game against Huddersfield Town at Elland Road, exposing him to an inevitable backlash from the club’s supporters. Cellino attempted to place Festa in the Leeds dug-out for their 1-1 draw with Ipswich Town on Tuesday, a request that was denied by the club but which many saw as a blatant attempt to undermine McDermott.
United have not parted company with assistant manager Nigel Gibbs or first-team coach Neil Redfearn and both could assist 44-year-old Festa this afternoon.
Gibbs in particular is highly unlikely to remain at Elland Road beyond this weekend.
Festa has little in the way of prior management experience, all of it coming during a short stint as manager of Italian lower league side Lumezzane during the 2012-13 season.
He is, however, a close confidant of Cellino’s and made a number of visits to Thorp Arch while Cellino was tying up his takeover.
The owner and president of Cagliari is believed to have agreed all necessary terms with
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GFH and the club were expected to make an official announcement today. No comment was made by them last night as tempers flared in the wake of McDermott’s exit.
The Football League is now facing a key decision over whether to sanction the 57-year-old’s takeover with Flowers poised to mount a legal challenge if the takeover gains official approval.
Flowers was one of the figures behind Sport Capital, the consortium who tried and failed to buy Leeds from GFH last month and conceded defeat in their bid on Thursday. “I’m considering all legal options,” he said.
The Football League’s Owners and Directors Test appears to be all that stands between Cellino and full confirmation of his buy-out, and the governing body will come under intense scrutiny when it begins considering a record showing two conviction in the Italian courts for fraud.
Football League rules require anyone purchasing more than a 10 per cent stake in any of its member clubs to pass the test, and the League’s regulations ban anyone with “unspent convictions for offences of dishonesty, corruption, perverting the course of justice, serious breaches of the Companies Act or conspiracy to commit any of those offences” from becoming an owner or a director.
It is not known whether Cellino intends to take up a seat on the board at Elland Road - his son Ercole, who spent time in Leeds last week and took tours of United’s stadium and training ground, has been suggested as a possible figurehead for Cellino’s regime - but the Italian’s involvement will bring the Football League’s policies into sharp focus.
Those doubts, however, did not aid McDermott, who was appointed by Leeds on a three-year deal in April and oversaw just 36 games.
A source close to the 52-year-old said: “The things that have gone on at Leeds are unbelievable. He’s shocked and devastated to be leaving. It’s very, very wrong.”
As Cellino and GFH tied up loose ends, a desperate attempt was made by another group of potential buyers to drag GFH to the negotiating table.
Leeds Together, fronted by ex-Manchester United International managing director Mike Farnan, urged the Bahraini bank to engage it in meaningful talks and consider an offer which they said was “the best way forward.”
But Cellino’s bid found more favour with GFH and he and his associates are understood to have flown into England from Italy yesterday to put the finishing touches to his takeover.
There were no confirmed transfers in or out of Elland Road last night, with Leeds turning down a flurry of approaches for captain and top scorer Ross McCormack.