Leeds United: Cellino counting the days to ownership

Massimo Cellino.
Massimo Cellino.
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DONE DEAL: Well, that’s how Massimo Cellino appears to view his Leeds United takeover even without football league approval. Phil Hay reports.

The Football League stands between Massimo Cellino and ownership of Leeds United but in spite of delays and a strict administrative process, he still acts like a man who thinks his £25million takeover is done.

Doubt was cast over his acquisition of Leeds when the Football League stated on Tuesday that the process of approving him could run to March 13, but Cellino remains in England and remains intent. He was due to spend part of this week house-hunting in north Leeds.

At Elland Road, a fresh payment from the Italian has provided the money needed to meet the staff wage bill for February tomorrow. He loaned £1.5m to the club for the same purpose last month and, on top of an initial sum paid to United owner Gulf Finance House as part of his 75 per cent takeover, Cellino appears happy to fund operating costs for the second time in the space of four weeks.

Money has also come the way of manager Brian McDermott who signed goalkeeper Jack Butland from Stoke last Friday and has spent the past few days sealing the arrival of Sunderland striker Connor Wickham. Leeds have not explained how transfers are being funded – their wage bill was lowered recently by the departure of Luke Varney and Paul Green on loan – but McDermott has been more active in the transfer market in the past seven days than at any stage since the 24 hours when he brought in Cameron Stewart and Jimmy Kebe.

There have been other developments too. The YEP understands that a loan given to Leeds by shirt sponsor Enterprise Insurance in 2012 – resulting in a winding-up petition which the High Court is due to hear on March 17 – has now been repaid. The petition, filed on January 29, remains in place while Leeds and Enterprise resolve all legal issues related to the £1.5m debt but it is likely to be withdrawn before the hearing date.

Cellino, nevertheless, is powerless to officially complete his takeover until he fulfils the Football League’s request for full disclosure about his purchase of United.

The League opened discussions with his legal team at the end of January, around the time that GFH agreed in principle to sell him a majority stake, and he and the Bahraini bank have been supplying documentation since the governing body met with Cellino at his request in London on February 12.

Cellino, 57, is expected to pass the Owners and Directors Test but the League’s examination of him is concentrating on his wealth and his ability to fund a suitable business plan at Elland Road in the 12 months ahead.

A statement from the League published on Tuesday afternoon said: “The board of the Football League is next scheduled to meet on March 13 where it will receive an update on the matter from the League’s executive, unless all the remaining issues can be resolved satisfactorily in advance of this date.”

The League is not required to wait until next month’s board meeting to officially sanction Cellino’s buy-out and it is likely to act sooner if he and GFH meet the organisation’s demands before then. But repeated statements from the League – an unusual feature of lower-league takeovers – have done little to foster the belief that Cellino’s takeover is a formality.

Charlton’s new owner, Roland Duchatelet, shed some light on the approval process yesterday, describing it as “quite straightforward”. The Belgian, who also controls Standard Liege, bought the South London club around the turn of the year and was approved by the League around a month after first making a serious approach to Charlton.

“The process was actually quite straightforward, as long as you have the answers to the League’s questions,” Duchatelet said. “None of them were particularly difficult.

“They (the League) just want to understand whether you’ve got the money to finance the club’s business plan as they don’t want their clubs to end up in administration a few months after they’ve approved a takeover.

“Nearly all Championship clubs need extra funding to help them balance their books. So the League doesn’t sign off any takeovers unless you can show them that you have got enough money to meet the club’s financial commitments as well as showing them where that money has come from.

“We also had to provide letters showing that we could call upon that funding as and when the club needed it.”

It is not known whether GFH has contingencies in place to cope with a scenario where the Football League rejects Cellino’s takeover outright. The Islamic bank has owned Leeds since December 2012 but is no longer financing day-to-day costs at Elland Road and is anxious to sell a majority stake in the club. Together Leeds, a consortium fronted by ex-Manchester United International managing director Mike Farnan, have voiced their interest in buying Leeds for the past four months but are waiting in the background having written to the Football League two weeks ago to request that the governing body force GFH to negotiate with them.

GFH is unwilling to discuss a takeover with Farnan’s group after rejecting what it said was a “derisory” offer from Together Leeds in November. The bank subsequently reached a deal with Cellino, a deal which the Cagliari president has already begun paying for.

Details of Together Leeds’ proposals are scarce beyond an admission that Farnan’s group are backed by “institutional funding”. They are thought to be planning to buy back Elland Road from the stadium’s private owners, though the consortium intend to do so through a mortgage deal rather than an outright purchase. Among Cellino’s promises was a vow to use his personal wealth to immediately activate Elland Road’s £15m buy-back clause once his takeover goes through.

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