Leeds United president Massimo Cellino has admitted that his planned purchase of Elland Road is on hold, claiming a dispute between him and former owner Gulf Finance House is making the £16m buy-back “too dangerous”.
A promise to reclaim ownership of United’s stadium before the end of this month wasone of Cellino’s key promises when he took over the club in April but that target is unlikely to be met due to what he called “a problem with my partners.”
The 58-year-old bought a 75 per cent stake in Leeds from GFH but allowed the Bahraini bank to retain a minority shareholding and effectively control the remaining 25 per cent.
Cellino’s initial buy-out saw him take on almost £25m of debt but his deal with GFH was renegotiated in July, with the ban agreeing to waive half of that sum and delay repayment of any debt until United were promoted to the Premier League.
But in an interview with the YEP, Cellino revealed that the new deal remained unsigned, despite his belief that the terms of his arrangement with GFH were in place and finalised two months ago.
The Italian described the repurchase of Elland Road at a cost of £16m as a “a big risk” while debts owed to GFH were still under discussion and said he would not proceed with the buy-back until the matter was resolved.
United, who sold Elland Road for £8m amid heavy financial pressure in 2004, currently lease the stadium for £1.6m a year but have the right to repurchase the ground for a set fee at any time before November 2029.
Cellino had previously promised that the club would regain ownership of Elland Road before the rent and buy-back cost increased this month, but speaking tonight United’s president said: “The situation is more complicated.
“With my partners (GFH), I was trying to get along and do a deal with them but we didn’t get to the solution. We cannot buy the stadium before we solve that problem.
“If we invest all this money without having solved the problem, it’s a big risk. We would be investing in the stadium while this situation is unstable.
“I thought two months ago we found a solution. I was happy. But for the last two months I’ve been trying to fix everything and I haven’t fixed it yet. I can’t take any more of it. There’s no respect for me.
“I came here to save this club, not to rush into something that could hurt the club. So not buying the stadium now is protecting the club. Because of legal issues I can’t say much more but buying the stadium today is giving a chance to someone else to hurt the club more. I cannot allow that.”
GFH, which bought Leeds in December 2012 but sold the club again less than 16 months later, no longer has any influence on day-to-day operations at Elland Road and is not thought to be injecting funds, despite having two representatives - Salem Patel and Salah Nooruddin - named as directors of the club.
The value of its stake in Leeds, however, would be likely to increase in value with Elland Road back under United’s control.
Cellino inherited a club who were losing more than £1m a month and agreed to pay around £11m for his 75 per cent shareholding, on top of the debt owed to GFH.
The former Cagliari president planned to use the fee raised from the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham in July to help buy the ground, alongside a mortgage of £7.5m. Cellino said all applications by the club for bank loans had been turned down.
In an interview with the YEP in July, Cellino claimed he had enough money to finance the buy-back regardless of his ability to borrow funds.
And speaking ahead of United’s game against Charlton Athletic, Cellino said: “We can buy the stadium. We are financially strong enough to buy the stadium.
“It’s not because of the price - the price is fixed and we can save nearly £2m a year in rent. It’s stupid not to buy the stadium but if I do that in the situation we’re in, it would be a big mistake.
“We can still buy it in six months’ time, one month’s time, three months’ time. It doesn’t change much. But my first wish here was to buy the stadium back. Renting our stadium is embarrassing and against my mentality.”
Asked if he thought United’s supporters would be disappointed by his failure to deliver the buy-back this month, Cellino said: “I’m disappointed. I’m more disappointed than them.
“I don’t need to show anything to people but it would hurt us more to buy it today. It’s dangerous for the club, not dangerous for me.
“We have to clean up something from the past or it’s going to be poison. Nobody else is worrying about that but I’m worrying about this club. I’ve invested a lot of money, I want to invest more, and the best investment I could do is buying the stadium. So I’m disappointed. Nobody is more disappointed than me.”
In a statement, GFH Capital – the private equity arm of GFH which bought Leeds on the bank’s behalf in 2012 – denied Cellino’s claims, saying: “There is no truth to these comments.
“GFHC sold the club to Massimo Cellino under specific terms which he is now trying to renegotiate. Further, he was seeking financing from GFHC to purchase the club, which GFHC was willing to consider.
“However, we wanted Mr Cellino to show commitment to his obligations under the sale agreement since he has only paid part, not all, of his obligations.
“Further, GFHC agreed to the sale of Ross McCormack on that basis that Mr Cellino would proceed with buying the stadium. GFHC is surprised that this has yet to happen.”