Before Massimo Cellino takes the Football League off to the European Court of Human Rights he should know the odds against him.
The ECHR is no soft touch.
In 2011 it received almost 1,050 applications from the UK and struck out 1,028. It passed judgement on 19 and ruled in favour of eight. So good luck with that.
Threats of judicial reviews from Cellino sound like bluster, although you never can be sure with him, and legal analysts see only one way in which an appeal against his second ban as Leeds United owner might succeed. His best course, as they view it, is to argue that under UK law his various tax cases – two yachts and a Range Rover – would have been dealt with en masse by an English court, amounting to one conviction and resulting in a solitary Football League disqualification. As it is, those cases could subject him to three.
Whether Cellino pursues that line of defence remains to be seen – and the embezzlement trial awaiting him over the the construction of the IS Arenas in Cagliari is a separate matter altogether – but the suggestion from his lawyer, Giorgio Altieri, that he will drag the Football League through the High Court and the ECHR if his current appeal fails is symptomatic of the time that Cellino has in front of him; time to think and time to stew.
Altieri’s comments raise the question of whether Cellino’s willingness to cut and run from Leeds is diminshing again but his exit could never have been rapid, or not unless he found a buyer in his own impulsive image. Banning Cellino is one thing but pushing a takeover to completion is another and his insistence on fighting the League – on fighting his corner – is a warning that the club will be his, or Eleonora Sport Limited’s, for a while longer.
Cellino said last week that for any buyer looking through the books, “due diligence would take 30 minutes because Leeds is clean. The balance sheet is healthy.” Even if the balance sheet is healthy – and millions of pounds were ploughed into the club during the summer – it is going some to describe United as clean. It is simply not the shambles Gulf Finance House passed onto him.
Last December, when I interviewed Cellino in his office at Elland Road, he had a huge stack of legal cases heaped on his desk. Some of those are still outstanding and others have been added to the pile. The employment tribunal which will consider the sacking of Leeds’ former academy welfare officer Lucy Ward is due to stage a preliminary hearing early next month. A separate claim for unfair dismissal brought by ex-fitness coach Matt Pears – removed from his post in August – should be dealt with in February. Former assistant manager Nigel Gibbs takes his case to court in January.
Those disputes are significantly less serious in financial terms than the club’s arguments with estranged shirt sponsor Enterprise Insurance and one-time kit manufacturer Macron but there is plenty at Leeds which requires investigation. As one lawyer said this week, a buyer doesn’t want surprises, liabilities or future embarrassments. Cellino must appreciate that having taking on Leeds without due diligence and found many skeletons in the closet. Done properly, the process will most likely take months.
Cellino spoke recently of six prospective buyers contacting him but there is little evidence of a more firm approach than that made by Steve Parkin, the supporter and local businessman who has tried to buy Leeds without success at least twice before. Sources close to Parkin say he was less than happy to see his interest in purchasing a controlling stake made public by Cellino dropping some heavy hints. There are suggestions that Parkin is already having doubts about whether he should commit himself further by paying a deposit to assess the accounts. But the picture is far from clear.
It might go like this for some time, assuming Cellino does not receive a sudden offer he can’t refuse. Often, the knack of committing him is catching him at the right time. There will be days when Cellino feels desperate to slip away from Elland Road. And in spite of that, there will be days when he feels like fighting everyone and anyone to the end of the road.
A club ownership battle in the European Court of Human Rights strikes you as ridiculous, hopelessly distant and somewhat contrary to the court’s purpose; Cellino’s grievances lodged inbetween cases of life, liberty and death. But his over-riding feeling, rightly or wrongly, appears to be one of total victimisation. In those circumstances, most bets are off.