Andrew Flowers last night withdrew from the battle to buy Leeds United, strengthening Massimo Cellino’s claim to a majority stake in the Elland Road club.
In a damning statement, Flowers accused United owner Gulf Finance House of performing a “fire-sale transaction” and accepting a “superficially attractive” offer by agreeing to sell to Cellino.
Cellino’s takeover looks increasingly likely to go ahead unless the Football League opposes it after Flowers walked away and left a group fronted by Mike Farnan as the only opposition to the controversial Italian.
Flowers tried to muster a last-minute effort to beat Cellino to a 75 per cent shareholding but, having failed to close out a deal with the Sport Capital consortium last month, he ended a second bid yesterday with Cellino’s offer set to persuade United owner Gulf Finance House to sell to him.
The Bahraini bank, which holds a controlling interest in Leeds, agreed terms with Cellino last Friday but has engaged with other interested parties since Cellino caused havoc at Elland Road by attempting to sack manager Brian McDermott. That decision was taken prior to the completion of the 57-year-old’s takeover and GFH reversed the decision by reinstating McDermott over the weekend.
Flowers, who is managing director of United shirt sponsor Enterprise Insurance and withdrew the company’s support of Leeds in protest against McDermott’s sacking, worked to put together an alternative offer over the weekend and held lengthy talks with GFH on Tuesday with the intention of blocking Cellino’s buy-out.
But he was unwilling to meet the price agreed with Cellino and in a statement issued last night, Flowers said: “I entered discussions in good faith to buy this club for the simple reason that I am a lifelong supporter and sincerely believed that I could make a real contribution towards the goal of promotion to the Premier League and at the same time provide the stability and sound financial governance the club desperately needs.
“However, the emergence of Mr Cellino’s bid and the nature of the transaction seems to have crystallised the attitudes of both GFH and the Leeds United board, enabling them to dispose of the club with no consideration for its ultimate security and well-being.
“In effect it is a ‘fire sale’ transaction which is not in the interests of Leeds United, its players, staff or loyal supporters.
“Both myself and my company, Enterprise Insurance, have been enormous financial supporters of the club for the last few years and while we may understand the commercial expediency which leads the owners to accept the superficially attractive Cellino offer, we remain firmly convinced this deal will not give the club the stability or investor commitment it badly needs.
“Despite our serious misgivings, we wish the team, the manager and fans well for the future and I remain a very enthusiastic Leeds supporter. I have no other comment to make at this time about outstanding financial and legal issues between us and the current owners.”
Flowers’ decision to withdraw Enterprise’s sponsorship of Leeds came two days after he served a winding-up petition on the club over a £1.5m loan given to the club by Enterprise in 2012.
The petition is due to be heard in the High Court on March 17. GFH responded to the petition by saying: “The winding up petition issued by Enterprise Insurance, a sponsor whose managing director, Andrew Flowers, claims to support the club, is misconceived and an abuse of legal process.
“It is being vigorously contested by the club’s lawyers and there are no valid grounds to issue the petition.”
The bank made no further comment last night.
Cellino’s £25m buy-out of United, meanwhile, remains subject to Football League approval, and two previous convictions for fraud in Italy – one expunged on appeal and the other now spent – have prompted much discussion about whether the governing body will see fit to allow his takeover.
A lawyer representing Cellino sacked McDermott on Friday in the mistaken belief that control of Leeds had passed to the Italian from GFH, and acting chief executive Paul Hunt was also dismissed amid chaotic scenes before the January transfer deadline.
The shambles cost Leeds two major sponsors – Enterprise and Flamingo Land – but the events have failed to produce a rival bid which matches the terms of Cellino’s offer to GFH.
A group led by Farnan, appear to be the only realistic competitor to Cellino, though the Irishman’s Together Leeds consortium have made little progress with GFH since attempting to establish formal discussions with the bank last week.
Together Leeds made an unsuccessful offer for Leeds in November, shortly before Sport Capital negotiated their own deal to buy 75 per cent of the club, and they attempted to bring GFH back to the table as news of a firm bid from Cellino spread.
In a statement issued late last night, Farnan said: “We have watched the events of the last week with considerable interest.
“We remain committed to delivering a fully-funded, sustainable, long-term plan to rebuild Leeds United and restore it to its rightful place in English football.
“We have assembled a team of highly regarded individuals and advisors who have substantial reputations in football and are ready to move quickly to resolve all outstanding issues.
“We have reached out to GFH with every intention of demonstrating that this is a bid backed by credible Leeds, Yorkshire and footballing people that offers them an acceptable solution and the club and its supporters a dynamic future.
“The commitment and determination shown by Andrew Flowers has made us more determined not to walk away. Together our group can and will deliver a vision that has at its heart the club we all cherish.
“In the best interests of Leeds United, our offer of constructive dialogue will remain open. We now await GFH’s response and will look forward to finding a constructive, embracing solution to ensure that the distractions of this prolonged uncertainty can be put behind the club and the focus return to football.”
The Football League said on Saturday that it had begun “preliminary discussions” with lawyers representing Eleonora Sport Ltd, the firm which Cellino is using to buy Leeds. The governing body has given no timescale for a final decision.