Leeds United: Cellino and Whites set for another weary fight

Massimo Cellino, left, with potential United investor Andrea Radrizzani at Loftus Road
Massimo Cellino, left, with potential United investor Andrea Radrizzani at Loftus Road
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Massimo Cellino is once again battling to retain control of Leeds United after reports suggested the FA plan to ban him from the game for 18 months. Phil Hay looks at the background to the FA’s latest charges.

This is, rather ludicrously, old ground for Leeds United. In all, an appeal against an 18-month ban from the Football Association would be the fourth time that Massimo Cellino has fought an attempt by one of England’s governing bodies to expel him from Elland Road or the game as a whole.

Where the punishment stemming from the Ross McCormack case differs is in length and severity.

The bid by the Football League to block Cellino’s buy-out of Leeds in 2014 delayed that takeover by a matter of weeks.

His ownership ban in early 2015 was a lot of fuss for a suspension of less than four months.

But an 18-month ban leaves Cellino looking at a return date midway through 2018.

In all his time at Elland Road he has not taken a hit like this.

The FA is yet to officially announce what penalties Cellino or Leeds will receive for their role in approving an illegal payment during McCormack’s transfer to Fulham two-and-half years ago – an unhelpful silence in keeping with the governing body’s shutters-down approach throughout a long investigation.

It is not even clear who exactly has had sight of the verdict or a written explanation but the statement released by Cellino last night, announcing that he would appeal, suggested a lengthy ban and a £250,000 fine is indeed in the post.

He was bound to appeal any ruling against him. Cellino always does.

And on this occasion he has more at stake than before: a team in rare form and a club with an attractive enough balance sheet and facade to draw serious offers of investment.

Cellino was discussing the sale of a 50 per cent stake to Andrea Radrizzani before an independent commission heard the McCormack case in September.

His impending suspension weakens his negotiating clout and complicates the proposal of shared power between the two Italians.

The FA’s ruling is unlikely to put Radrizzani off but it does not place Cellino in a position of strength.

Throughout the investigation into the McCormack ‘bung’, the FA refused to disclose exact details of the accusation against Cellino or explain why he and Leeds had been charged with different breaches of its rules.

All that was known was that United and their owner were alleged to have agreed a six-figure payment to an unlicensed advisor of McCormack’s, contrary to the FA’s regulations.

Arsenal were dragged into a similar case following the transfer of defender Calum Chambers from Southampton in 2014.

The Premier League club were fined £60,000, £190,000 less than the fine which Leeds are set to receive, but the panel which heard that case found that Arsenal had “acted in good faith” and had “nothing to gain” from a wilful breach of the rules.

They were fined on the basis of a strict liability policy.

The ban awaiting Cellino suggests the commission which found against him, led by Nicholas Stewart QC, saw his offence in a much graver light.

The minutiae of it will not become clear until the FA publishes the commission’s written reasons and the governing body was refusing to make any comment last night.

Central to the case against Cellino was Graham Bean, the FA’s former compliance officer who was employed in a management role at Elland Road during the time of McCormack’s sale to Fulham.

Cellino’s legal representatives contested Bean’s evidence fiercely for a number of hours at a two-day hearing at Wembley in September, attempting to deny that Cellino had wilfully sanctioned an illegal payment. Bean said on Twitter that he has spoken out because “the game needs to be ridded of wrongdoing.”

Cellino has twice found a way out of corners like this, succeeding with his original takeover on appeal and beating a proposed Football League ban late last year after a tax conviction imposed on him was quashed by an Italian court.

Leeds grew accustomed to soldiering on in the Championship with these battles and controversies raging in the background but this season felt different.

For the past three months it has been about Garry Monk, about Pontus Jansson and his ilk and about the impetus of a squad who keep clearing the high bar.

Even Radrizzani has not been able to fully monopolise attention.

Cellino, in fairness, has been out of the spotlight and apparently through choice but he is back in it now, protesting his innocence and preparing to fight.

Leeds are in familiar territory again, and tired territory too.