The more obvious question marks hanging over Leeds United are currently leading to more questions and not very many clear answers. Phil Hay reports.
Does Massimo Cellino have any genuine intention of selling his majority stake in Leeds United?
Cellino has given mixed messages since the crowd at Elland Road turned on him during Leeds United’s 2-0 defeat to Blackburn in October. He started and then rapidly halted discussions about a sale of the club to supporters group Leeds Fans United (LFU). It is no secret that Steve Parkin, the businessman with a long-standing interest in buying Leeds, has been speaking to Cellino about possible investment and was pictured alongside him at several of United’s games. But in November, at a time when rumours about a Parkin takeover were rife, Cellino stated that he would not consider selling his shares until Leeds were safe from relegation. On Tuesday, he changed tack again by telling Sky he would “invest in the summer” – an apparent promise of new players after Leeds’ sorry 4-0 defeat at Brighton. So what are Cellino’s true intentions? Has he had any serious offers for Eleonora Sport Limited’s stake? Is he open to offers for that stake and what valuation does he place on it? The announcement last week that United’s parent company had invested almost £43m in the club suggests Cellino would see that as a starting point for bids.
What is the state of play with Cellino’s Football League disqualification?
The Italian was technically disqualified by the Football League on October 19 – 136 days ago. That punishment was stayed while Cellino appealed against it but more than four months have passed without any decision on whether or not his ban will be upheld. Cellino is understood to have asked the Football Association to arbitrate on the dispute, a process which appears to be delaying his direct appeal against the Football League’s ruling, and he claims that changes to the law in Italy have downgraded the tax offences concerning him from criminal to civil cases. The FA says it is bound by confidentiality and unable to make any comment on Rule K arbitration matters. Is not even willing to confirm that Cellino has started arbitration, let alone provide details or suggest a timescale for a verdict. When will Rule K arbitration conclude? And how quickly will the Football League stage Cellino’s appeal if the FA refuses to support his argument? The Football League will not comment on those questions, aside from to say that Cellino continues to face an ownership ban of 223 days. Imposed tomorrow, the 59-year-old would be barred from running Leeds until the middle of October – a huge chunk of 2016 and a fair way into next season. The implications for the club are huge.
Does Cellino plan to retain Steve Evans as head coach for next season?
Evans clearly thinks so, or thought so before Monday’s rout at Brighton. The original deal was that Evans and Cellino would finalise a contract extension beyond this summer once Leeds were officially safe from relegation. Does that agreement still stand and will it stand if Leeds, for example, struggle to the extent that relegation is still a threat in the closing weeks of the season? Evans appeared to have United well on the way to safety at the end of December but he has work to do with 13 games left. And Cellino’s backing of him after the defeat to Brighton – saying Evans would not be sacked but was “talking too much” – was hardly a ringing endorsement. If anything, to go by Cellino’s previous record it sounded like the start of the countdown to Evans’ dismissal. This season has two months to go and the summer will be upon Leeds before they know it. Is Cellino ready to let Evans carry on? And if Evans leaves, have the club begun thinking about a successor? How do they endeavour to get that appointment right after so many previous dead ends? Considering that Cellino himself thinks improvements to the squad are needed, United can’t afford to waste time when the close-season arrives.
Is there a plan for serious investment in players this summer?
One of the notable parts of the recent statement announcing Leeds’ financial results for 2014-15 was Cellino’s remark that “we can now finally begin to focus and invest the club’s income into improving the quality of the playing squad and performances on the pitch.” This season has shown again that an injection of cash in that direction is needed badly. Cellino told the YEP in January that losses for the 2015-16 year – the current financial year – would be bigger than the £2m figure posted in 2014-15, but his commitment to raising the standard of the squad is there in black and white. How big an overhaul does Cellino think United need? Given that top-10 was the target for this season, and Leeds are currently 18th, does he accept that far more funding is needed? And if his Football League ban comes into force before the end of this season, will expenditure on transfers change? Leeds held back in the January window in part because the play-offs were beyond them. That argument won’t stand up in the summer.
What is the situation with the contracts held by prominent players at Elland Road – specifically Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor?
Evans said last week that discussions had started with the representatives of those three players, all of whom are out of contract in 2017. Mowatt’s agent told the YEP yesterday that he had heard nothing from the club. What stage are those discussions at and have formal offers been made to any of them? How will Leeds ensure that the scenario which saw Sam Byram reject a new deal and leave in January is not repeated with Cook, Mowatt or Taylor? Is the agreement of extensions with these players seen as a specific priority and will the club attempt to finalise new deals before the start of next season?
How aware is Cellino of dissent towards him among sections of United’s support – and how does he plan to deal with it?
Cellino has clearly noted last month’s protests against him. The legal action taken to remove the confrontational advert placed outside Elland Road’s East Stand was proof of that. But does Cellino understand public concern or sympathise with frustration about the club’s performance and aspects of his management? Does he think that he retains the support and faith of the majority? And if not, will he make any attempt to placate those opposed to him or address their complaints by engaging with prominent supporters groups? Ultimately, does he believe that his reign as owner is viable in an environment as divided and tense as this?