A PENSIVE Massimo Cellino admitted he was “worried for the club, not just the season” as he prepared to mount an appeal against his disqualification as Leeds United owner.
The 58-year-old warned that Leeds faced financial damage if he was forced to relinquish short-term control and said he was unsure whether a failed appeal would lead to a demand from the Football League for him to sell the club.
Cellino was banned from running Leeds on December 1, the result of a conviction for tax evasion imposed on him in Italy last March, and his challenge against the Football League ruling will be heard by a three-man panel in London today.
The former Cagliari owner was granted permission by the League to remain on United’s board until a verdict from his appeal arrived but he will have 48 hours to quit as a director if the governing body’s Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) upholds his disqualification.
Cellino said he expected a decision to come “quickly” and sources at Elland Road have indicated that the outcome of today’s appeal could be known as early as next week. The dispute comes with Leeds in the grip of a relegation fight and the January transfer window already two weeks old.
Cellino claimed that the combination of doubts about his ownership and the transfer embargo imposed on United for a breach of Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules – a penalty which limits their spending power, rather than preventing signings altogether – was obstructing attempts to bring new players in.
The club are yet to finalise any incoming transfers and Cellino took the unexpected decision to allow captain Stephen Warnock to join Derby County this week.
Speaking to the YEP last night, Cellino said: “I worry for the club, not just the season. Tomorrow is a big day.
“If I’m not here, if I can’t help, then who looks after the club? I don’t know what the League will do. If they force me out and tell me to sell, do I go or do I fight?
“I didn’t buy the club to sell it again and anyway, how long does it take to sell a club? I worry about what would happen in that time and how the club would survive. But at this moment I feel like I am forcing England to accept me.
“This is hurting us. I try to sign players but many players want to know if I’ll be here. And if not, what then? We have the embargo and that hurts us too. We aren’t free to buy the players we want.
“A couple of new signings would help the team. New faces would take a little bit of pressure off. But I don’t want to make concessions or sign someone who is no good, just to show off. We need good players.”
Cellino blamed “instability” caused by the announcement of his disqualification on December 1 for undermining the club’s Championship form.
Leeds beat Derby County at Elland Road two days earlier but their squad have not won a league game since. They are 21st in the Championship, two points above the relegation zone.
“I’m not saying that’s the only reason (for the club’s form) but it didn’t help,” Cellino said. “It started something, it gave us instability.”
Despite banning the Italian, the Football League has not instructed Cellino to sell the 75 per cent stake in Leeds owned by his UK firm, Eleonora Sport Ltd, but his position will come under renewed strain if he fails to avoid disqualification.
Though Cellino’s existing tax conviction will be spent under UK law on March 17 – allowing him to return to Elland Road as owner and director before the end of the season – he faces similar charges in Italy, raising the possibility of future bans.
The PCC panel hearing today’s challenge will consist of chairman Tim Kerr – the QC who approved Cellino’s takeover of United on appeal in April – and Football League directors Greg Clarke and Richard Bowker.
Cellino declined to comment on a contingency plan for managing Leeds if he is barred from holding any influence over the club and did not explain how a ban might affect United’s transfer plans. The club have been looking at numerous targets, many of them playing in Italy, but Cellino has dismissed a recommendation from head coach Neil Redfearn that they move to sign Luciano Becchio on loan from Norwich. Cellino said: “Becchio was a good player for Leeds in the past but this is not the past. He has been injured, he hasn’t played so much. It is dangerous to sign a player like that.”
Asked whether any of Redfearn’s other recommendations would be considered, Cellino said: “We talk about players but we have to sign the right ones. That’s my view.” He also defended his decision to sanction Warnock’s move to Derby – a move which was still awaiting completion last night – saying: “He asked me for two more years on his contract. I told him that I couldn’t commit the club to that. He’s 33. A few days ago he wanted to stay, now he wants to leave. But I couldn’t renew his contract for another two years.”