Leeds United: Burying the hatchet ahead of takeover

Leeds United boss Brian McDermott is keen to build a good working relationship with Massimo Cellino. Picture by Tony Johnson
Leeds United boss Brian McDermott is keen to build a good working relationship with Massimo Cellino. Picture by Tony Johnson
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Phil Hay detects a warming in relations between leeds united chief Brian McDermott and prospective new owner Massimo Cellino.

Cagliari Calcio have been on the brink of another change of manager for the past 48 hours but in Leeds and at Elland Road, Massimo Cellino and Brian McDermott are slowly finding common ground.

Cellino’s tally of sacked coaches in 22 years as Cagliari owner is threatening to climb to 37 with Diego Lopez, the club’s Uruguayan boss, reportedly on his last legs and no longer in favour at Stadio Sant’Elia. Cagliari are 15th in the Serie A table and too close to relegation for Cellino’s comfort.

Ivo Pulga, Lopez’s assistant, was seen as his obvious successor but in an unforeseen turn of events last night, Cellino fired Pulga instead. Some in Italy think Cellino intends to hand the job to Gianluca Festa – a man who could yet figure in his grand plan for Leeds United – but the situation is unclear amid claims of a revolt among a Cagliari squad unhappy with Lopez’s mooted departure. Lopez took training as usual yesterday.

The Italian club have said nothing official about him and are, seemingly, in the process of a sale from Cellino to Qatar’s Al Thani family. A deal between them would end his reign at Cagliari, covering more than two decades. As that situation plays out, his focus in Leeds has been fixed in part on establishing a healthy relationship with McDermott and curing the friction caused by the events of transfer deadline day. The pair met last week along with United managing director David Haigh for the first time since Cellino instructed his legal representative, Chris Farnell, to sack McDermott on the final day of January.

Cellino and McDermott had spoken once before, prior to the Italian agreeing a deal to buy 75 per cent of Leeds from current owner Gulf Finance House, but their latest talks were more pivotal – a chance for them to establish whether working together would be possible, in spite of what had gone before.

Cellino appeared satisfied with their exchange, telling a national newspaper: “Brian has a big heart and gives 100 per cent. We get on well. There was a lot of misunderstanding early on and we’ve put that behind us.” He spoke of their shared love of music and guitars – Cellino, 57 is in a band called Maurilios – and said doubts about each other had passed. McDermott is yet to comment on their meeting but is thought to have been satisfied with what was discussed.

The former Reading coach saw his job threatened twice in January, once when Cellino attempted to place Festa on United’s bench for a 1-1 draw with Ipswich Town and again three days later when Cellino instructed Farnell, a lawyer with Manchester-based IPS Law, to sack McDermott within hours of him and GFH striking a £25m deal for Leeds.

In the fortnight since GFH pulled ranked and reversed that decision, Cellino has given the impression of a man warming to McDermott.

McDermott, too, is making the effort to be receptive to Cellino, saying he would involve Festa – a close friend of Cellino’s – in his backroom team if the takeover required it and talking more than once of the need for “mutual respect” between him and Cellino.

Cellino, meanwhile, is believed to have appointed new legal representatives with a source telling the YEP that his affairs are now being handled by Mishcon de Reya. The firm, which has offices in London and New York, declined to comment.

Last week’s discussions between Cellino and McDermott came in advance of a decision from the Football League over whether or not to approve his purchase of Leeds.

Preliminary talks between the governing body and Cellino’s legal team began on the weekend of McDermott’s sacking and a hearing between the two sides was held in London last Wednesday. Cellino was informed of the documentation required by the Football League’s board and has spent the past week submitting it.

Since that hearing, however, the Football League is understood to have submitted a fresh list of questions to Cellino and GFH, requesting further information to help it reach a decision. The process will not move forward until those questions are answered. None of the parties involved have discussed the timescale involved in approving Cellino’s buy-out but a verdict from the Football League is not expected before the end of this week.

Cellino remains convinced that the governing body will allow his buy-out of GFH to go ahead, and he spoke again yesterday of his intention to pay more than £15m to exercise a buy-back option on Elland Road as soon as his takeover is complete. Elland Road has been under private ownership since 2004 and was transferred to a company in the British Virgin Islands, Teak Commercial Limited, the following year. Leeds pay around £1.4m annually to rent the stadium, a cost which rises by three per cent every 12 months.

“There is an agreement that we can buy back Elland Road for £15.7m,” said Cellino. “I would do that as soon as a takeover went through.”

Leeds, in the meantime, resume their season away to Middlesbrough this weekend, a match which neither side can afford to lose with a sizeable gap to the Championship play-offs above them. United will have winger Cameron Stewart available after suspending his loan ahead of last week’s defeat to Brighton to ensure that his 93-day deal from Hull City takes in all but United’s final game of the season.

Despite the wait for a decision on Cellino’s buy-out, the club are continuing to be linked with Stoke City goalkeeper Jack Butland.

The 20-year-old is in Dubai with Stoke for warm-weather training but the Premier League club are willing to allow him to leave the Britannia Stadium on loan with two other keepers, Asmir Begovic and Thomas Sorensen, fit again after injury. Barnsley took Butland on a temporary basis during the first half of the season, with Stoke agreeing to pay around two-thirds of his £17,000-a-week salary to make the transfer happen.

Butland, a full England international, turned in an impressive performance against Leeds during a 0-0 draw at Elland Road shortly before Christmas and could provide experienced competition for United first-choice Paddy Kenny with Jamie Ashdown continuing his comeback from toe surgery.

Bristol City manager, Lee Johnson. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe

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