Confidants of Massimo Cellino start out by trying to second-guess him, reading between the lines of what he says and does. Those who survive long enough admit defeat eventually. “Sometimes I go to bed with a thought and wake up with another,” Cellino once said. That’s him, in one short sentence.
So are he and Eleonora Sport selling Leeds United? There’s no definitive answer to that, or not as it stands. The club’s chairman, Andrew Umbers, says categorically no but Umbers is not Cellino and few people speak for the Italian with authority. Put directly to Cellino in the days after his disqualification as owner, the consistent response was the most believable: “I don’t know.”
For sale or not for sale, then? The truth seems to be stuck in the middle, just like the man himself.
The statement he unleashed on Tuesday – rambling, indecipherable in parts and in English drawn from Google Translate – was lucid in one respect. It told us that Cellino cannot see the end in sight. His fight with the Football League goes on but he has entered an arbitration process which is open-ended and will probably run for months. Hull City asked the Football Association to arbitrate over their proposed name change in September. That hearing is still pending.
There is no obligation on Cellino’s part to remain at arm’s length from Leeds for the duration of his latest appeal. The FA’s deliberations will stretch far beyond the end of his current Football League ban – due to end on April 10 – and his refusal to return as club president on that date is a self-imposed suspension; an irony given how tirelessly Cellino fought to keep his foot in the door.
That revelation was the most peculiar part of Tuesday’s statement. At face value the rationale stacked up: Cellino fights the Football League independently of Leeds and the risk to the club of disciplinary sanctions is greatly diminished. Leeds stay out of it. But what sanctions would the club actually face? Cellino’s appeal to the FA is a legitimate challenge, authorised by Rule K in the governing body’s regulations. Nowhere in Rule K does it warn that Leeds might be burdened with a penalty if Cellino’s case fails. He might save the club some legal bills by acting alone but that’s hardly the same thing. An associate of his wondered this week whether Cellino was “playing the martyr” but his extended absence could be taken as an admission that he sees or fears further disqualifications coming; a pre-emptive hit which voluntarily gives up the presidency for a second time before someone else orders him to relinquish it. He and Leeds have a misconduct charge from the Football League to deal with, relating to the delay in providing documentation from his tax conviction last year, and Cellino’s outstanding court cases in Italy are landmines positioned around him. One of them due to be heard four days after his ownership ban ends.
Cellino knows he is under threat. He has known that from the very start. He argues that his argument with the Football League is now about his reputation and dignity but the crux of the matter is that he can only be free of interference and free to control Leeds as he pleases if another power sides with him and declares the League’s rules – or at the very least, the League’s assessment of him – null and void.
The 58-year-old is presently in Miami. Tuesday’s statement arrived from him with little warning given to anyone at the club or his legal advisors. A source close to him claimed it “probably appeared out of utter frustration, and the fact that he’s sat in America with nothing to do.” Cellino is said to be increasingly bitter about a system which allowed him to purchase a near-bankrupt club and wrestle with the accounts for almost 12 months but is now trying to oust him. He does not appear to have given up but the general feeling is that there’s only so much he will take, or only so much his family will allow him to take. At some stage, he needs a decisive result in his favour.
In this climate another delicate summer beckons. Leeds will be the subject of takeover chatter now and potentially some test-the-water phone calls. None of that is particularly helpful for a squad or a coaching team who had all the prospects of Hank Schrader in the desert before Christmas but have turned the corner quite impressively. But they are a secondary consideration here. The club’s inactivity in the loan market, despite Neil Redfearn’s cajoling, says as much.
One thing was conspicuous by its absence from Cellino’s statement – any comments or hints about what he will do if the FA rules against him. If arbitration fails, will Cellino be back? Or will Eleonora Sport back out? Earlier this week I asked him to clarify. “I wish I knew,” he replied in a short text message. “Day by day I’m being humiliated.” For sale or not for sale, then? The truth would seem to be stuck in the middle, just like the man himself.