Massimo Cellino has a knack of riding out turbulence and today, at a disciplinary hearing arranged by the Football Association, Leeds United’s owner will attempt to survive more of it.
Cellino and Leeds are under the microscope after being accused by the FA of breaching rules during the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham in 2014, one of the earliest deals in Cellino’s reign as owner.
The governing body believes the club made an illegal payment to an unlicensed agent during that transfer and did so wilfully, an allegation Cellino and Leeds deny. Among the evidence against them are submissions from Graham Bean, a senior employee under Cellino at the time of McCormack’s departure.
This is not Cellino’s first scrape with the authorities in England and he is nothing if not a survivor. The FA has the ultimate power to suspend the Italian from all footballing activity if its commission finds against him but Cellino has navigated threats to his ownership of Leeds before. A second Football League ban was avoided in May by virtue of a change to Italian law. The IS Arenas saga – the embezzlement case involving Cellino and the construction of a new stadium during his time as Cagliari owner – ticks over at a snail’s pace. That case, now, is the only grounds on which the Football League could seek to disqualify him again.
Yet in spite of that, the jungle drums say that Cellino is as close to relinquishing control of United as he has ever been; as tempted to sell up as he has ever been. His buy-out of GFH last week, pushing Leeds’ discredited minority shareholder out of the boardroom and out of the door (save for the £15m-plus GFH is owed), instantly created a more fertile environment for investment and takeover offers. The Share Purchase Agreement (SPA) agreed between Cellino and GFH in early 2014 restricted Cellino’s freedom to auction his shares as he pleased and the bank’s continued presence at Elland Road was unappealing to prospective buyers, potentially creating an unhappy marriage of three.
GFH no longer features and its club directors, Jinesh Patel and Salem Patel, have both resigned from the board. It is not a secret that in the past two months Cellino has been discussing investment with Andrea Radrizzani, an Italian businessman and the founder of global media firm MP & Silva.
It is not a secret that Radrizzani has close links to Chinese technology firm Baofeng or that money from China is arriving in English football at a fast rate. Radrizzani, who attended a couple of United’s games in July and August, told the YEP last month that he and Cellino had merely had a “simple conversation” but neither he nor Cellino has commented since, despite mounting speculation that a deal is virtually agreed.
Cellino’s intentions at present are still hard to gauge. Another interested party, wholly unconnected to Radrizzani, was recently told directly by Giorgio Altieri, Cellino’s lawyer, that the club was not for sale. Cellino, however, has confided in others that if he was to relinquish majority control, he would seek to remain involved at Elland Road with a stake of at least 15 per cent. At this stage the Football League has not been notified of any impending takeover and has not been asked to begin applying its Owner and Directors Test to any new shareholder.
Cellino spent time abroad last week but is very much on the scene at Leeds and returned to England in time for Saturday’s derby against Huddersfield Town. Reports of him rollocking the players in the dressing room after a 1-0 defeat were wide of the mark but a source revealed that he appeared at half-time to shake hands with the players and wish them good luck.
Radrizzani did not appear at the derby with Huddersfield but Cellino was joined in the West Stand by Francesco Marroccu, an Italian who most recently worked as sporting director for Serie B side Ascoli (the club who signed Tommaso Bianchi from Leeds). More notably, Marroccu occupied the same role at Cagliari towards the end of Cellino’s long spell as club owner in Sardinia and the pair are long-time friends. Marroccu has not been officially appointed to a role at Elland Road, or not publicly anyway, but he has been around the club for a couple of weeks and has been seen on several occasions at Thorp Arch.
That development in itself should not come as a surprise. When Marroccu left his post at Ascoli this summer, Cellino hinted that while he did not intend to bring his former employee to Leeds immediately, Marroccu would join United’s staff as sporting director at a later stage - the same position held by Nicola Salerno during the 2014-15 season. It is strange, nonetheless, to see an old ally of Cellino’s arrive at a time when he is supposedly thinking about reducing his shareholding or passing on control of Leeds. There are smoke signals aplenty around Elland Road. We wait still to see how much fire is behind them.
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