Time flies and on Tuesday of next week, Leeds United’s Italian regime will be six months old. They say that today’s newspapers are tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrappers so revisiting history is not in order here.
Massimo Cellino has seen a few watershed moments and none more profound than his appeal against the Football League but his seventh month as owner will present another. It is almost time for him to deliver on the £16million promise he hung his hat on at the outset: the repurchase of Elland Road.
Bought by November, Cellino said, and November is coming round quickly. Time does fly. Ownership of the stadium was the golden ticket in his public addresses when he and Leeds were formally married and it is still his way of proving that he is on a higher plain. Other owners used Elland Road’s deeds to dangle the club’s support. Gulf Finance House did so with cynical intent, possessing neither the money nor the inclination to buy the ground back. Still, the bank’s spin sold a few more tickets for Brighton at home.
There is an attitude in certain circles that United’s supporters are being sucked in by Cellino; that they are blinded to the nuts and bolts of ownership by obscenities in the press and an appearance in the away end at Brentford. Every club has a percentage of blinkered followers, and even GFH enjoyed purple patches of popularity, but delusion is not the trait of the majority in Leeds. They see a hotdog at Griffin Park for what it is – an eccentric sideshow which makes for good photos but not a lot else. Cellino’s epitaph here won’t include that story.
As with every owner, reputation comes down to a tally of concrete achievements minus the list of acknowledged failures. Cellino takes credit for 15 signings in the transfer window. He takes criticism for naming David Hockaday as head coach and for his close proximity to playing matters. The cuts under him have been deep and severe but they will tally if Leeds rein in losses of £1m a month. These are pros and cons, which most people can see. But the repurchase of Elland Road would be progress on a different scale – an indisputable step forward for a club who are “guests in their own home”, as Cellino puts.
The difference between his promise about owning the stadium and GFH’s nods and winks is that Cellino is on the record as guaranteeing it. His preference is to fund some or all of the £16m buy-back provision with a mortgage, in order to leave cash in bank for other projects and expenses. But Leeds are a credit risk after their insolvency in 2007 and did not engender financial confidence during GFH’s time as owner. Those working on the repurchase of Elland Road say United’s ability to borrow has been weakened recently by the threat of another attempt by the Football League to ban Cellino from running the club.
The fallback, according to Cellino, is money in the pot. Speaking in July, the 58-year-old said the £10.75m fee raised from Ross McCormack’s sake to Fulham would give Leeds the equity they need to pay for the ground in full and in one hit.
“If we have a mortgage, instead of paying £1.6m a year in rent we pay £600,000 on the mortgage,” Cellino told the YEP. “But there is no bank in Leeds that will give us a mortgage. What’s the risk? If we’re paying £1.6m in rent, how can we not afford £600,000 a year?
“The money we have we might need to renovate the stadium, to make a new stand, to clean it up or do something else nice. But by November, we’ll buy the stadium. If we have to pay cash then we will. The money is there.”
An annual lease of £1.6m is the main concern for Leeds. Paid to Teak Commercial – the anonymous, offshore, BVI firm which is nothing to do with anyone but seemingly leads back to Jacob Adler – the rent rises by three per cent each year. A precise calculation agreed when Elland Road was first sold sets the buy-back provision at exactly 11.38 times the cost of the rent. It is due to increase again during the middle of next month, a decade after United used their ground to pay up a sizeable loan. Cellino’s rush to do the deal is purely to avoid a higher price.
The message from his camp earlier this week was that the repurchase is “on track” with a matter of weeks to go before his own deadline.
At a cost of around £16m, this for Cellino is a two-pronged opportunity – from the club’s point of view, to remove a financial burden which gets worse with each passing year, and from his own perspective, to shore up his credibility in a way that hotdogs and hilarity never will. As progress goes, buying Elland Road is beyond reproach.