Dr Sandra Lepore holds the cards, whoever she is and wherever she is. The rest is hot air until she dictates whether Massimo Cellino and the Football League are going back to court.
If Lepore concludes that Cellino’s failure to pay import duty on a private yacht was an oversight, a misunderstanding or a genuine mistake then the Football League will leave him be. Or at any rate back off until another court case gives it cause to surround him again. He should know by now that nothing he does will slip below the governing body’s radar.
Were Cellino ever to forget that, Shaun Harvey’s comments in Manchester on Tuesday are in black-and-white for him to read. There were two ways of looking at the chief executive of the Football League hypothesising about a situation in which Leeds United’s majority shareholder is barred from owning the club – his organisation’s view, which is that Harvey was simply repeating well-established facts, and the view of the club who saw his remarks as “disruptive” – but it served a purpose: reminding Cellino and everyone else that analysis of Lepore’s pending judgement is high on the Football League’s ‘to do’ list.
The League hasn’t let it slip, as if the League ever would, but the delay in releasing a written verdict on Cellino’s conviction for tax evasion caused others to forget; to forget that the League tried and failed to use the case to block his takeover and to forget that Cellino’s successful appeal relied on a judgement which hasn’t appeared and could undermine him yet.
He’s been five months in the job at Elland Road and the club has changed beyond recognition. In countless respects, there is no going back.
They say that Cellino rarely speaks about Lepore’s absent judgement (expected in June but still not published). He has ideas about what he will do if the Sardinian judge classes his offence as dishonest and the Football League bars him from owning United but the club don’t intend to cross that bridge until they have to. Nor will Cellino roll over and die. His legal team were in contact with the Football League after Harvey aired his thoughts and Leeds believe the governing body will stray into “uncharted territory” by trying to enforce a sale of the Italian’s shares.
You get a picture of Cellino and Harvey as sworn enemies but the reality is rather different. The two men have been in regular contact since Cellino bought Leeds in April. Harvey spoke on the club’s behalf during their recent court case against West Yorkshire Police and, as United’s former chief executive, he has answered questions from Cellino about the proposed repurchase of Elland Road. As recently as last month he attended at a meeting between Cellino and Ken Bates at which Cellino began resolving the legal dispute stemming from Bates’ sacking as club president. All of this occurred with the approval of the Football League.
Harvey and his board will say that the case against Cellino – assuming Lepore gives them one – isn’t personal; that rules are rules. But its rules on owners and directors were weakened by Cellino’s appeal against the first attempt to block his takeover. That legal challenge proved that the Owners and Directors Test is flimsy and inconsistent – open to interpretation and vulnerable to the technicalities of foreign legal systems. It is probably true that a UK conviction for tax evasion would have wrecked Cellino’s buy-out but English football is flooded with owners from abroad. Even if the Football League believes in its principles, the regulations are not without grey areas. They also failed to prevent the shambles Cellino inherited at Leeds.
The spirit of the Owners and Directors Test is not in dispute. There is tacit agreement across the game that leaving clubs in the hands of unscrupulous individuals is a bad idea. Criminal convictions point to a lack of scruples and as such, seem as good a way as any of weeding the chancers out. But not every chancer has a court record or a prison number. Gulf Finance House had neither.
It is easy to be clever after the event but it would be fascinating to read the business plan which GFH submitted to the Football League before it bought Leeds in 2012 – specifically the section in which the bank detailed its plan to load the club with debt and sell it on for a profit within months. That was GFH’s strategy, whatever story it spun to the League. So when the League talks about safeguarding clubs, its focus on Elland Road is coming one takeover too late.
And when it comes to it, instructing Cellino to sell up and clear off would be a difficult order to enforce. Carson Yeung was jailed in March but he still has shares in Birmingham City. City remain in the hands of the company Yeung used to buy them in the first place. If Cellino is told to sell, who does he sell to? Is the Football League aware of prospective buyers who will invest in shares at the market rate, take on the liabilities Cellino took on, accept the way he has restructured Leeds and – the bottom line – run the club properly?
There was talk of interest from a Malaysian consortium in March – a group who some in Cellino’s camp think Harvey pointed in GFH’s direction while Cellino’s takeover was pending – but Leeds don’t need interested consortiums. They’d need a cast-iron buyer for a distressed seller whose interest in funding day-to-day operations would diminish rapidly. That was the scenario when GFH pulled up the drawbridge and waited to sell Leeds to Cellino. The fall-out was extraordinary, a stain on the club and the sport.
Cellino’s situation is unique and unprecedented insofar as the League sanctioned his takeover knowing full well that it might find itself trying to disqualify him again within a matter of months. Had he lost his appeal, Cellino would never have been seen again but he is here and in place, the owner of a very fragile club. Unless the Football League has a better alternative, it risks much by fighting him.
There are other ways of monitoring Cellino’s ownership: through HMRC, through audited annual accounts, through the restrictions of Financial Fair Play. One of GFH’s legacies will be an FFP transfer embargo in January, a fact which itself asks questions of the approval process. No matter Lepore’s verdict, the priority at Leeds should be good governance. Turfing Cellino out a few months after approving his takeover is a strange definition of that.
Speaking of Ken Bates, the fight over his dismissal as Leeds United president has been settled out of court.
The club’s former owner says an agreement was reached between him and Massimo Cellino last week and now needs only an official court stamp.
“We’re back on kissy-kissy terms,” Bates said.
“We look forward to working very closely with Leeds United.”
‘We’ would appear to be Radio Yorkshire, the station launched by Bates earlier this year. The 82-year-old did not say what the terms of his settlement were, though he did claim the deal was essentially the same as one he discussed with United in March.
Bates said he and ex-Leeds managing director David Haigh, left, drew up a settlement before Gulf Finance House sold the club to Cellino but accused Hisham Alrayes, GFH’s chief executive, of “refusing to honour it”.
The agreement – “mostly what I proposed,” according to Bates – was subsequently accepted in principle by Cellino at the beginning of last month.
The expectation is that the resolution will see Radio Yorkshire acquire matchday commentary rights for United’s first-team fixtures, perhaps for as long as the next five or six years.
Before GFH sacked Bates as president in July 2013, he tried and failed to buy LUTV – United’s in-house television station – the club’s official website and the now defunct Yorkshire Radio for a fee of £2m. Bates believed a sale was in the offing but GFH backed out of talks and awarded matchday commentary rights to BBC Radio Leeds before the 2013-14 season. The BBC’s deal runs to 2016 but the corporation never demands exclusive contracts from football clubs.
Full details of the agreement between Bates, right, and Cellino should become clear soon. In the meantime, Bates claims Leeds are facing a bill of around £500,000 from their own lawyers. “I hope Massimo has the right to set it off so that GFH pays it,” Bates said.
Another year and another book from Gary Edwards, the prolific Leeds United author who set the ball rolling with Paint it White in 2004.
Fanatical!: Ever Present Since 1968 charts a 46-year journey in which Edwards says he has attended every single one of United’s games (or almost every one). That record puts him on a par with Leeds United Supporters Club stalwart Phil Beeton who took in his 2,000th consecutive league fixture away to Bournemouth last season.
Only one game got away from Edwards – a friendly against Real Madrid in Toronto 1981 which he missed after his flight from Spain was grounded by industrial action. There’s enough in his notebook for multiple editions – including an evening in the Slovakian town of Ruzomberok when this reporter’s laptop blew up a pub.
Fanatical! is published by Pitch Publishing and co-written by Andy Starmore, another regular United scribe.