Leeds United: Sackings, debts, appeals, fall-outs – another crazy year at United

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Don Warters, the YEP’s long-time football correspondent once said: “Everything that happens in football happens at Leeds United,”. Everything that happens in football happened at United in 2014.

JANUARY

The new year begins with defeat to Blackburn but salvation is at hand with the Sport Capital takeover. The buy-out is nailed on, a sure thing.

Brian McDermott wants players – even moreso after a bruising FA Cup exit at Rochdale – and he gets them: Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart on loan. United owner Gulf Finance House refuses to add Ashley Barnes to the squad, deeming him a worse player than Luke Varney. The deals pay off as Leeds are beaten 6-0 at Sheffield Wednesday the following weekend.

GFH toy with the idea of sacking McDermott but are more concerned about selling the club. Another defeat to Leicester City follows (watched by a certain Massimo Cellino) and within days, the members of the Sport Capital consortium lose patience with each other. Their takeover is off and the club is Cellino’s if he wants it, though certain people want to see the colour of his money before passing any authority to him.

His attempt to place Gianluca Festa on the bench for a 1-1 draw at home to Ipswich is as warmly received by McDermott as Festa’s impromptu appearances at Thorp Arch. But on January 31, Cellino agrees a 75 per cent buy-out and takes the club under his wing.

McDermott is sacked, acting chief executive Paul Hunt is sacked and club captain Ross McCormack – the subject of a bid from Cardiff – is refused an audience with Cellino after driving to Elland Road to ask what is going on. The Italian is rather more spooked by the fans who show up at the stadium to point out the error of his ways; or, as Cellino puts it, “kick my a**e” and chase his taxi around the ground. As the bell chimes midnight on ‘Mad Friday’, control of the first team lies with Festa.

FEBRUARY

By 3pm on February 1, Cellino and Festa have sensibly retreated into the background. Nigel Gibbs and Neil Redfearn take charge of the squad and United annihilate Huddersfield Town 5-1.

Talks aimed at re-instating McDermott are in progress and he sweeps back into Thorp Arch 48 hours later for a packed, 53-minute press conference. Nonetheless, Cellino and GFH sign off his takeover on February 7, meaning the club will be his if the Football League approves him. Leeds need his money. No-one is paying any bills and Enterprise Insurance, the club’s shirt sponsor, serve United with a winding-up petition over a loan of £1.5m.

On the footballing side, poor old Andrea Tabanelli spends a week in England, only to find that his loan from Cagliari on transfer deadline day – a Cellino signing – wasn’t registered properly. Leeds subsequently take Jack Butland and Connor Wickham on loan but are 12th in the Championship by the end of the month.

MARCH

Cellino has become a fixture at United’s matches, pictured away at Middlesbrough and at Queens Park Rangers on March 1. He and McDermott are talking but McDermott suspects his time is up. On March 18, however, Cellino is convicted of tax evasion by a court in Cagliari. The Football League checks its Owners and Directors Test and decides to block the 57-year-old’s takeover. Cellino immediately appeals.

United are up the creek financially and those at the top start passing the buck. The installation of a 3G artificial pitch at Thorp Arch grinds to a halt as the money dries up and worse still, staff and player wages go unpaid as Cellino refuses to fund a club he might not be able to buy. As a ‘source’ tells the Daily Mail: “GFH are refusing to put in any more money and Cellino has told them to **** off.”

APRIL

Crucial moments as Cellino’s appeal is heard. A date is set for announcing the verdict – Friday, April 4 at 5pm – but the Football League decides that 3pm on Saturday might be better, 45 minutes after the end of Leeds’ 1-0 defeat at Wigan.

When the verdict comes, Cellino wins. In a statement the League says this was “never about individual personalities” and qualifies that by suggesting it will revisit Cellino’s fit-and-proper status at a later date.

Cellino gets to work quickly, paying off an overdue tax bill and settling a few scores. David Haigh, Leeds’ managing director (or “the devil” as Cellino calls him), resigns in the knowledge that his relationship with the Italian is cooked. Before long, the two sides are making allegations about spy cameras in the boardroom and the use of class A drugs at Elland Road.

McDermott waits for a no-holds-barred meeting with Cellino which never comes and mentally, United’s boss is already packing his bags. Cellino officially buys Leeds on April 7 and United take a pasting at Watford the following night. The play-offs and the season are long gone.

MAY

McDermott signs off with a 1-1 draw against Derby. Leeds finish 15th in the table. He and Cellino both attend the end-of-season awards ceremony but barely speak.

Soon after, United’s training ground at Thorp Arch is closed for the summer and a huge redundancy process starts at Elland Road. Club secretary Ali Royston is suspended over nobody-is-quite-sure-what (she’s back at Thorp Arch now) and Under-16s coach Leigh Bromby is allowed to move on. Under-18s coach Richard Naylor is also put on notice of redundancy. Meanwhile, Leeds release 13 players including Michael Brown and El-Hadji Diouf. No arguments there.

A bolt from the blue comes from the Middle East as GFH invites David Haigh to Dubai to discuss a job offer, only to have him arrested for alleged financial misconduct. But McDermott is the priority – United’s manager in name alone by then. He and the club are communicating via terse emails, and Cellino – in his infamous “where’s Brian?” speech – accuses McDermott of going absent without leave. The former Reading boss is actually with his terminally ill mother in Berkshire. There is only one conceivable outcome and on May 30, Cellino agrees to pay McDermott off. Mutual consent on this occasion means very much that.

JUNE

Cellino – who is preparing to sell Cagliari to actual buyers, the Giulini family – wants McDermott’s assistant, Nigel Gibbs, to involve himself in the new coaching team. Gibbs says he would rather move on and is subsequently made to sit through daily 9-to-5 shifts at Elland Road.

United’s players are recalled from their holidays early for one-to-one meetings with the club’s president. There’s doubt over Ross McCormack’s future and more again when Fulham bid £5m for him.

By now, Cellino has ideas in place for his next head coach. He likes Reading’s Eamonn Dolan but Reading want more than £500,000 for their academy boss so Cellino works Wikipedia hard by naming David Hockaday as McDermott’s successor, with Junior Lewis as his number two. Pre-season training starts on June 26.

JULY

Leeds go to Italy for a pre-season tour. They rattle 16 unanswered goals past a village side, FC Gherdeina, and then play a game amongst themselves later in the week after their Romanian opponents fail to show up.

Leeds blame the Romanians and the Romanians blame them. McCormack hasn’t travelled and his transfer to Fulham is well down the line.

He moves to Craven Cottage on July 8 for a massive fee of £10.75m. It all ends very bitterly but as with a lot of deals, both sides do pretty well out of it.

As McCormack goes, the influx starts. Cellino signs Marco Silvestri, Tommaso Bianchi and Souleymane Doukara in the space of a few days. Swiss defender Jonathan Rossini is primed to join but promptly proves in training that all is not right with him. Hockaday, meanwhile, is having a hard time winning over the crowd. Leeds lose 2-0 at Mansfield in a pre-season friendly, a match watched by Roma midfielder and prospective new signing Federico Viviani. “Bad,” say Viviani’s advisors when asked about the performance. He is never seen again.

AUGUST

In a Sunday afternoon meeting, Cellino reads the riot act to Hockaday after a pre-season win over Dundee United. Not good enough, his owner says. Nor is the league form.

United started the season with a limp defeat at Millwall, after which the club sign Billy Sharp, Giuseppe Bellusci and Liam Cooper.

Bellusci and Cellino came to blows over wages earlier in the summer but after the collapse of talks with another centre-back, Frederik Sorensen, the owner lets bygones be bygones.

Sharp scores on his debut to take the scalp of Middlesbrough but Hockaday is under permanent threat and Cellino effectively sacks him after a 4-1 defeat to Watford. The following day, Cellino relents and gives him another chance – a League Cup tie at Bradford City which United promptly lose.

On August 28, Hockaday departs. Neil Redfearn takes caretaker charge and more signings arrive – Mirco Antenucci, Dario Del Fabro, Brian Montenegro and the much-fancied Adryan. In the final hours of the window, Matt Smith and Dominic Poleon are sold – much to the annoyance of Twitter users who stayed up for a last-minute treat.

SEPTEMBER

Leeds accrue 10 points from four games under Redfearn but Cellino opts to appoint Slovenian Darko Milanic as head coach. Milanic is so keen on the job that he buys his way out of his contract at Sturm Graz (at a cost of £200,000, apparently).

Sturm buy him a plane ticket home from England just in case. His first match ends with a bit of a beating at Brentford but in its own way, September has been a quiet month – apart from the sacking of consultant Graham Bean over a fixture rearrangement, and apart from Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey telling the Soccerex conference in Manchester that Cellino’s status as fit-and-proper might soon receive a bullet in the post.

The Italian’s tax conviction is still “a cloud” over the club and the sport, Harvey claims, before adding that Leeds would be given “a reasonable period of time to organise its affairs” if Cellino was disqualified as owner. Every cloud.

OCTOBER

Bad times for Milanic as he goes six games without a win. Bad times for Giuseppe Bellusci who is accused of aiming racial slurs at Norwich’s Cameron Jerome.

A 1-1 draw at Norwich makes Cellino think that Milanic might not be the man for him and he fires the Slovenian after a 2-1 defeat to Wolves on October 25, saying he has a “losing mentality”. Thirty-two days Milanic got, fewer than Brian Clough. Cellino is full of contrition and asks Redfearn to quit his post as academy boss and take the first team on – initially for the same money but eventually for a pay rise after Redfearn fights his corner. Milanic insists he is on gardening leave, meaning Leeds effectively have four managers (or head coaches) on the payroll. “In six games I made a big step forward,” Milanic says. “Cellino says I’m a loser? He should look at my CV.”

NOVEMBER

After a 3-1 loss at Cardiff on November 1 (where Redfearn officially signs his contract as head coach), Leeds get the show on the road with a draw against Charlton and a win over Blackpool. But Cellino looks exhausted. His promise to buy back Elland Road before the end of November isn’t going to be met and he and GFH – United’s minority shareholder with a 25 per cent stake – are arguing bitterly over the restructuring of debt.

Redfearn’s side get mugged away at Blackburn but turn over league leaders Derby County brilliantly at Elland Road. Noel Hunt leaves on loan and (naturally) scores on his debut for Ipswich.

Unbeknownst to anyone, the Football League is preparing to disqualify Cellino over his tax conviction. His eccentric Italian lawyer, Giovanni Cocco, makes private submissions to the League before the end of the month.

DECEMBER

December 1. Cellino is banned by the Football League and told to resign as a director within 28 days. December 2. Cellino announces that he will appeal. He and GFH, he says, have agreed a capital injection of £23.5m and Cellino seems altogether more interested than that.

A few days later, annual losses of £23m are revealed for the 2013-14 financial year and the League confirms that United will face a transfer embargo in January; albeit an embargo riddled with holes.

There’s better news for Redfearn who, after eight weeks of waiting, gets an assistant boss with the appointment of Steve Thompson. United stared out Huddersfield for so long that Huddersfield found themselves waiving compensation. But back-to-back defeats to Ipswich and Fulham left Leeds 19th in the Championship ahead of tonight’s visit to Forest – after which Cellino will leave for Christmas in Miami. And they all lived happily ever after.

****

The Football League wanted Massimo Cellino’s appeal against his disqualification to be heard and resolved before Christmas but at this late stage the governing body will be lucky.

Leeds United’s plan was for proceedings to start early in the new year and for an agreement to be reached which delayed the date of Cellino’s resignation until after his appeal. As it stands, Cellino is required to quit as a club director a week on Monday. His representatives think it would be nonsensical to enforce that deadline with a challenge just around the corner.

Neither side has made any comment on a potential date for the hearing but they have been speaking all week about a possible schedule. What is interesting in the meantime is the issue of how the appeal panel will be structured - and who will sit on it.

This appeal is being handled in the same way as the appeal which Cellino mounted (and won) when the League tried to prevent his takeover of Leeds in April. It will fall to the League’s Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) to decide if the governing body was right to say that the Italian’s conviction for tax evasion is in breach of its Owners and Directors Test. For obvious reasons, and not least because Cellino faces similar charges in Italy, the decision is hugely important.

PCCs are made up of three individuals - two Football League directors and a solicitor or a barrister. Prior to Cellino’s previous appeal in April, Leeds and the League agreed to dispense with the two directors, as the rules allow them to do. It was left to Tim Kerr QC to judge Cellino’s case alone and overturn his disqualification.

The YEP understand that Kerr is likely to be given the job of chairing the appeal panel again. But on this occasion Leeds are more likely to insist on the involvement of two League directors. Those directors are not allowed to have any connection to the person appealing or to any other football club. In other words, of the 10 directors on the Football League’s board, at least six are barred from taking part.

That leaves four options - non-executive chairman Greg Clarke, independent non-executive director Richard Bowker, independent non-executive director Debbie Jevans and chief executive Shaun Harvey. Having abstained from the recent vote to ban Cellino on account of his past employment at Elland Road, it is inconceivable that Harvey could feature on the committee. But stranger things have happened.

Aitor Karanka.

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