The Football League stood its ground last night and refused to give in to an extraordinary demand for an answer on the fate of Massimo Cellino’s takeover of Leeds United.
Officials at the League resisted pressure to approve Cellino’s deal before the close of business yesterday after receiving a letter from a legal firm representing club owner Gulf Finance House.
In a move which underlined GFH’s growing sense of urgency, Philip Rocher – a senior partner with Gibson Dunn – urged the League to sanction the takeover quickly, warning that any further delay would cause “potentially irreparable damage to the club and (GFH’s) investment”.
The Football League is facing equal amounts of pressure to reject Cellino – the Italian owner of Serie A Cagliari – after he was found guilty of tax evasion in a Sardinian court on Tuesday.
The conviction, which Cellino plans to appeal, appears to contravene the Football League’s Owners and Directors Test and could lead to the collapse of Cellino’s proposed buy-out – a takeover formally agreed with GFH on February 7.
The League planned to fully analyse court documents before making a ruling on Cellino, but GFH dramatically pre-empted a 10-day deadline set by the governing body last Thursday as Rocher’s letter claimed that “it will be some considerable time before it will be possible to determine the impact of the Italian court’s ruling under Football League Regulations”.
Rocher also attacked “the unprecedented backdrop of the objections” to Cellino’s bid allegedly made to the Football League by Mike Farnan and Andrew Flowers.
The two men were involved with rival groups who tried to buy Leeds before Cellino’s offer – made through the 57-year-old’s company, Eleonora Sport Limited (ESL) – was accepted.
Rocher told the League: “Neither we nor our client are aware of any other instances in which you have applied such rigour, which we note is against the unprecedented backdrop of the objections you have received from two failed bidders for the club (Flowers and Farnan/Together Leeds), who have attempted to stop the takeover by ESL and the appointment of Mr Cellino as a club director.”
A spokesman for GFH also called on the league to act quickly yesterday, telling the YEP: “Leeds United have this morning sent a letter to the Football League, demanding that the Football League hands out its decision by the close of play today.
“This is an unprecedented delay which is damaging the owners’ ability to move the club forward.”
The League did not respond publicly but senior figures there are understood to have been angered by rumours that its chief executive, Shaun Harvey, was responsible for holding up the takeover after flying to Malaysia on other business this week.
United managing director David Haigh - until recently a senior employee of GFH’s private equity arm, GFH Capital - later attempted to play down suggestions of an attack on the League, saying: “I have been in regular contact with the Football League throughout the whole process and I can say that both Shaun Harvey and other League officials have been extremely helpful every step of the way.”
Harvey - the former Leeds chief executive who has been in Kuala Lumpur - was due to return to England today.
He and the staff under him at the Football League have been running the investigation into Cellino’s takeover but a final decision on approval will be taken by the League’s board, an eight-man group headed by Greg Clarke and featuring Blackpool chairman Karl Oyston, Millwall chief executive Andy Ambler and Middlesbrough’s Keith Lamb. Harvey is not a board member.
The League said last Thursday that it planned to make a final announcement on Cellino’s 75 per cent buy-out within 10 days, a timeframe which ends on Sunday.
In his letter, Rocher wrote: “We wish to make it absolutely clear that (GFH) continues to be fully supportive of the ESL bid and firmly believes that the proposed takeover, and the appointment of Mr Cellino as a director, represents by far the best outcome for the club, the fans, and indeed the Football League, and that it should now be approved.”
Together Leeds, the group fronted by Farnan who came under attack in the letter sent to the Football League’s solicitor, Nick Craig, continue to indicate that they have funding in place to make a bid for Leeds if Cellino’s offer collapses. Together Leeds failed with one previous offer to GFH in November.
Flowers, meanwhile, was unavailable for comment last night.
The managing director of club shirt sponsor Enterprise Insurance made an attempt to buy Leeds towards the end of 2013 through Sport Capital, a consortium which Haigh also backed.