The Yorkshire Evening Post can today reveal an attempt by would-be Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino to place a close confidant in United’s dug-out for their 1-1 draw with Ipswich Town.
The 57-year-old Italian asked for Gianluca Festa, the former Middlesbrough defender, to be given a seat on the bench on Tuesday as talks continued over a deal to sell Leeds to Cellino.
Cellino’s request followed two appearances by Festa at United’s training ground near Wetherby, the most recent made on Monday when he is understood to have watched the club’s final training session before their clash with Ipswich.
The suggestion that Festa observe from the dug-out at Elland Road 24 hours later – seen by many at Leeds as a flagrant move to undermine manager Brian McDermott – was rejected on the day of the game.
Cellino and his other associates planned to attend the Ipswich match and watch from a corporate box in the East Stand but they along with Festa unexpectedly flew home to Italy ahead of kick-off.
The YEP understands that the inexperienced Festa would be Cellino’s preferred choice of manager if he succeeds in taking control of United.
A frustrated McDermott hinted heavily at interference with his preparation for Tuesday’s fixture, saying: “This has been one of the most difficult periods I’ve had as a manager, especially the last few days.
“Some of the stuff that’s gone on has not been pleasant and it doesn’t belong in football in my opinion.”
The former Reading manager is caught in the middle of an unseemly fight for shares in Leeds with multiple parties vying to claim a majority stake in the club.
Cellino entered the frame as a serious bidder last week after the proposed sale of a 75 per cent shareholding by Leeds owner Gulf Finance House to British consortium Sport Capital effectively ground to a halt.
Sport Capital have reduced the offer they initially made to GFH in November, citing concerns arising from due diligence, but GFH has refused to accept the revised bid.
Consortium member Andrew Flowers launched an angry attack on the Bahraini bank on Tuesday night, accusing it of betraying Sport Capital and United’s supporters by engaging with Cellino at the “eleventh hour.”
GFH, however, remains intent on selling its shares in United having owned the club since its buy-out of Ken Bates in December 2012. In the wake of its disagreement with Sport Capital, the bank now favours the option of selling to Cellino.
The Italian recently held preliminary talks with Flowers and United managing director David Haigh – another Sport Capital member – about the option of linking up with that consortium but the owner of Serie A club Cagliari intends to purchase Leeds outright.
His record, though, is chequered by two convictions for fraud and it is not clear whether Cellino would pass the Football League’s Owners and Directors Test, a strict requirement for any investor planning to buy more than 10 per cent of a Football League club.
Cellino has nevertheless devoted a considerable amount of time to the possibility of investing in Leeds, and Festa was part of the travelling party which accompanied him to England almost two weeks ago.
Cagliari-born Festa has made two visits to Thorp Arch in the past week – at least one alongside Cellino’s son Ercole – and both Haigh and acting United chief executive Paul Hunt went with him to the training complex last Thursday.
The 44-year-old, who retired in 2009, is best known in England for his spell at Boro between 1997 and 2002 but he was a Cagliari player when Cellino bought the Italian club in the early 1990s and returned to Sardinia for a second spell in 2003.
Festa – a firm ally of Cellino’s – gained his only managerial experience during a brief stint as coach of Italian lower league side AC Lumezzane.
He was previously assistant boss at Cagliari.
The Italian press reported that Festa was in line for the manager’s job at Cagliari at the end of last season but Cellino opted to retain Uruguayan Diego Lopez instead.
Cellino’s brash attempt to force Festa onto United’s bench on Tuesday night raises serious doubts about McDermott’s prospects as Cellino pushes to claim a controlling interest at Elland Road.
McDermott has been in position for less than 12 months having replaced Neil Warnock on a three-year deal last April.
Tuesday’s draw with Ipswich was McDermott’s 36th game in charge.
United are back in action on Saturday at home to Huddersfield Town.