Judge’s ruling caught Massimo Cellino’s legal team on the hop but it still worked in the italian’s favour. Phil Hay reports.
Against the odds and against expectations, even those of his own legal team.
The firm representing Massimo Cellino believed he would win his appeal against the Football League on the grounds that his conviction for tax evasion was not a conviction under Italian law.
They scarcely expected the QC judging the case to reject that argument but save him on the grounds that his offence should not be classed as dishonest. Tim Kerr’s ruling came down to that point – a considered view that according to rules which say the Football League can bar a prospective owner of a club for “any act which would reasonably be considered to be dishonest”, the League had no legitimate power to keep Cellino out of Leeds United. It was victory and vindication in a single paragraph; a shock like few others at Elland Road.
There were numerous hints of impending defeat last week: Cellino gravitating towards Together Leeds to explore the option of a joint investment but also to discuss the sale of his 75 per cent stake to them in the event that his takeover failed; the insistence from the Football League that Kerr’s decision be delayed until after Saturday’s game between Leeds and Wigan Athletic, substantially to avoid unrest on the terraces. Only one outcome was ever likely to cause a riot.
The 3,500 who went with Leeds to Wigan thought the game was up anyway. They assumed Cellino had lost. The crowd aimed abuse at the Football League and accused the governing body of being “corrupt”. Then 2pm came and the leaks began to trickle. There were looks of incredulity all around as Cellino acquired the control he had been trying to buy for an ultimate cost of £35m: Leeds United owner and Leeds United president.
Whatever else they say about Cellino in Sardinia, they’ll tell you that the man can fight. The battles he has waged with Cagliari’s local council are sustained by the energy which helped him survive two months of conflict with the Football League and dangerous disagreements with Gulf Finance House, the Bahraini bank he is buying Leeds from.
He sounded close to surrender in many of his recent interviews but stuck it out to the bitter end. And when it came to it, the end tasted bitter for the Football League which has seen its Owners and Directors Test undermined in public. Cellino arrives in England from Sardinia today and is planning to be at Watford tomorrow. His share purchase agreement with GFH states that approval of his takeover by the Football League should lead to completion within two days so the should be Cellino’s by the middle of this week.
At Elland Road, they should prepare for immediate action. Not a member of staff inside the club would try to deny that Cellino has much to address.
There is a crippling dearth of authority at Leeds and a ludicrous game of politics being played by GFH in Bahrain. The bank and other minority shareholders are believed to have made sure that they will have voting rights on Cellino’s watch but he will quickly smash the inertia of a club which he now owns three-quarters of. He is single-minded by nature and ruthless when he feels the need. The wage deferral among United’s players, one which escalated to a bizarre degree when the club paid them 15 per cent of their salaries for March on Thursday, is likely to be resolved quickly.
In Cellino’s many years as president, Cagliari have been unusual in the context of Italian football by avoiding any notable problems with wages. Their squad are always paid. Cellino put money into Leeds in January and did so again in February but he stepped back last month when it began to strike him that he was paying to fund a club he might not be able to buy and in full view of an existing owner – GFH – which had no desire to commit more cash itself.
Cellino has had plenty to say about GFH, some of it scathing, and his alliance with them will be a delicate balance. But the cash will now start flowing again. Administration is out of the question. Cellino is now effectively club president, the first person to hold that position since Ken Bates was sacked last July. There in lies another problem and court case to sort out. Cellino’s contract with GFH hands David Haigh the chief executive’s job at Leeds until the end of this season, and Salah Nooruddin has the role of chairman for next season as well.
How those relationships last remains to be seen. Cellino gave Haigh a going-over in his maddening telephone conversation with a supporter last weekend and butchered many other people too. Right back at the start of all this, an associate of his told me one thing: “He’s not a man who suffers fools.” People are best off on the right side of him.
If his 22 years at Cagliari are a fair gauge of Cellino, United can expected several things of him. Longevity for one.
He bought Cagliari in 1992 and has never given them up, though he looked more likely than ever to do so during the period in which he fought for Leeds. From time to time, he will do things that upset supporters – interfere, stick his oar in, potentially accept good offers for players the masses would rather keep.
He has the capacity to be brutal with coaches, as Brian McDermott knows, and the squad will change drastically this summer. But Cagliari with Cellino have only ever been a Serie B club for two seasons.
Their fans have tired of endless years of not-a-right-lot in Italy’s Serie A but their view is relative; it beats season after season of mid-table in the Championship, a fate which Leeds have suffered due to a basic lack of investment.
If he is here for pre-season then McDermott expects to be backed, albeit while Cellino makes demands in return. And as for players, Cellino was adamant that Ross McCormack would not be sold to Cardiff City when the opportunity arose in January. The threat to the 57-year-old is that the Football League try to come at him again through a challenge to Kerr’s judgement or when other court cases awaiting Cellino are heard. Part of the reason why Kerr found that Cellino’s failure to pay import duty on a yacht he bought in 2010 did not count as dishonest was that the judge who convicted him has yet handed down a written ruling explaining her verdict.
“If the reasoned ruling of the court in Cagliari discloses that the conduct of Mr Cellino was such that it would reasonably be considered to be dishonest, he would become subject to a disqualifying condition,” Kerr wrote. “But that is not a matter before me.”
It is not a matter the club will give much thought to either, not now that Cellino has won. After 10 destructive years at Elland Road, the state of the Football League’s rules is a problem for the governing body. Leeds merely want an owner who will do the club justice. McDermott hit the head of that nail on Saturday: this doesn’t boil down to players, managers, owners or shares. Leeds United should be the bottom line. Cellino will help himself by remembering that, as others before him have failed to do.