If the Cellino deal fails for whatever reason, Phil Hay says the fans will expect the Farnan group to step in and save United from ruin.
The only certainty about the Football League’s assessment of Massimo Cellino was that it would turn over every stone around him. Between a rock and a hard place, the organisation has a duty to get its decision right: legally, financially and ethically.
The prevailing view is that the governing body can’t win. In a strict legal sense, students of the Owners and Directors Test and the stated requirements of the Football League think Cellino’s takeover of Leeds United will gain approval. Nonetheless, the League has many voices in its ear arguing that the Italian has no business at Elland Road and no business in English football. So who does it please?
At a hearing in London on Wednesday, a hearing attended by Cellino and Chris Farnell, the lawyer responsible for attempting to sack Brian McDermott, the 57-year-old was given a full outline of the documents the League requires to reach a verdict on whether his 75 per cent buy-out should proceed. The meeting was called at Cellino’s request and with an expectation on his part that approval would be granted by the end of it. The League was less impulsive and, minus certain information, less inclined to rush him through.
It has said little about Cellino’s takeover while saying far more than it does about most. That alone demonstrates an awareness of outside attention and inevitable scrutiny however it acts. It was suggested to the YEP this week that the Football League and the Premier League had spoken amongst themselves to establish whether Cellino would comply with top-flight ownership rules were Leeds to be promoted with him in situ. The Football League played down that claim, saying the regulations of the two organisations were essentially identical and the Football League was acting alone, but officials there are covering every base – a methodical process which will produce a ruling on Cellino’s suitability in its own time. It might take another week.
Delicate though the examination is, the League has a balance to strike between due care and laborious progress. Time is something that Leeds do not have a great deal of, and money even less.
The club’s owner, Gulf Finance House, took a payment of around £1.5million from Cellino last month and used it to ensure that the January wage bill was paid on time and in full. It is not the first loan used by Leeds for that purpose and will not be the last unless Cellino’s buy-out is approved within the next fortnight. Staff wages for February are due in that period and Leeds have had no income from home games for two weeks. They do not have another match at Elland Road until March 8 and are still in debt to countless suppliers who await payment for services. Perhaps Cellino intends to cough up again. Or perhaps United can go cap-in-hand to someone else willing to offer them credit. The club are caught between stools while Cellino and the League look each other in the eye.
The bottom line with the Italian and his takeover is that he and his plan either abide by Football League’s rules or they don’t. The League needed a wedge of documentation to reach a decision and time to sift through the paperwork but Cellino is being judged on specific parameters. There are, it seems, no sections of the regulations allowing the Football League to reserve the right to object to an individual they don’t trust or don’t like.
Cellino is only obliged to demonstrate that his wealth is genuine, his convictions are spent and he bypasses the explicit factors disqualifying someone from buying a club.
He was at Elland Road on Thursday, a day after his Football League hearing, and is said to be acting in the manner of a businessman who thinks his acquisition is a formality. Others hope that the Football League feel differently, particularly the consortium led by Mike Farnan who have clung to this vessel like a dog to a bone.
The group, Together Leeds, made contact with the Football League earlier this week to propose a second way; in essence to inform the governing body that GFH had an alternative to Cellino’s takeover. Farnan’s consortium have told the League that they will pay the same price for the same deal. The problem, they claim, is that GFH will not negotiate with them.
The Bahraini bank took umbrage with a first offer made by Together Leeds in November and is not prepared to go back to the start of the selling process with United in obvious trouble and part of Cellino’s £25m payment already received. Cellino’s deal is a good one for GFH – the bank takes the cash, it keeps a 10 per cent shareholding and David Haigh and Salah Nooruddin remain in senior management positions at Elland Road. It suits all concerned in that camp.
Farnan says his group are supported by “institutional funding”, though blue-chip funding might be slightly more specific. He says they can afford to buy and run the club. And their appeal to the Football League was, however you cut it, an appeal to the League to turn Cellino down. It was a brave move which leaves no room for retreat. That is to say, if Cellino weakens when the river card turns, the public will expect Farnan and his colleagues to go all-in without delay or excuses. Because however good or bad an option Cellino is, the one thing Leeds cannot afford to be left with is no option at all.