Leeds United rejected an offer to stage their league clash with Middlesbrough at 12.30pm on Saturday amid the wrangling over the scheduling of last night’s match.
Documents seen by the YEP show that the Football League proposed the compromise of an early kick-off on February 13 as Leeds and owner Massimo Cellino fought to block attempts by Sky Sports to move the Championship clash to a Monday evening for a live broadcast.
The dispute over yesterday’s game, which led to a legal order forcing Leeds to accept the rearranged date of February 15, prevented the Football League from confirming the change until January 20, less than four weeks in advance.
The last-minute switch affected the travel plans of supporters of both clubs, including more than 100 Scandinavian Leeds fans who were due to fly in for the original Saturday date and had already paid for flights and hotels.
Confidential papers given to the Football League’s 71 other members during a meeting in Milton Keynes last Thursday revealed that Leeds were first informed of the plan to move the game to February 15 on December 10.
United rejected that proposal the following day and served a notice of arbitration on the League in a bid to prevent the switch and ensure that the match retained its original 3pm Saturday kick-off time. An offer of a 12.30pm Saturday start, made four days later, was also turned down.
The written ruling from the arbitration panel, which found in the League’s favour on January 20 and allowed the organisation to belatedly confirm the February 15 schedule, said: “On December 15 the FL (Football League) offered to allow the Middlesbrough game to remain on February 13 with a kick-off time of 12.30pm but LUFC said that was not acceptable.
“On December 17, the FL wrote to Ward Hadaway, the solicitors acting for LUFC, noting that the FL’s offer to re-fix the game for 12.30pm on February 13 had been rejected. The FL’s letter said that ‘in those circumstances (the FL) directs that the Middlesbrough match having been selected for Sky, will take place and be televised on Monday, February 15 at 19.45 hours’.
“The letter also stated that the FL did not accept that LUFC had ‘any right to reject the selection.’ LUFC maintained its rejection so that the impasse continued until the hearing and our (the arbitration panel’s) decision.”
The Football League told the arbitration panel that United’s refusal to stage the game last night would potentially have given Sky the right to terminate the £100m-a-year broadcast deal they agreed with the governing body in 2015.
The League was forced to seek a temporary legal injunction ordering Leeds to make “all necessary arrangements” to host the fixture as planned.
Cellino has been battling the Football League and Sky over the terms of the broadcast contract for several months, frustrated by United’s repeated television appearances. The Boro match was the 12th time Leeds have been shown live since the Championship season began in August.
Cellino argues that United incur financial losses from televised home fixtures, despite receiving match fees of over £100,000 a game, but the arbitration panel’s written decision confirmed reports over the weekend that the Italian wanted to secure the right to sell Leeds’ TV rights on an individual basis.
United executive director Paul Bell denied that allegation in a statement on Sunday, saying the club were “not seeking to to dismantle the collective selling of TV rights”, but the arbitration ruling quoted Leeds’ notice of arbitration as saying: “LUFC seeks damages and other declarations, including one that the members of the League, including LUFC, have the right to market and sell the broadcast rights to their matches.”
In a letter to member clubs, Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey said Leeds had “sought to have our contract with Sky declared as unlawful” and “the right for clubs to sell broadcasting rights on an individual basis.”
His letter, however, stated that Leeds moved to withdraw their challenge to the collective Sky TV deal on January 28.
Cellino, who is abroad in Italy, had his say on the argument in the match programme, writing: “We can accept a small number of fixtures being moved for television but this season has been entirely disproportionate for Leeds United.
“It has had a detrimental effect on the club and that will be clear again this evening with a reduction in the attendance and matchday sales.
“We are aware of many supporters, not only from England but across the world, who made plans to attend this game at the originally scheduled date of Saturday at 3pm.
“Those fans feel the effect financially and emotionally but it is difficult for their voices to be heard. It is with their interests in mind that we continue to push for change.”