Seventy-nine days in a retreat of his choosing and back in business at Leeds United before May but the length of Massimo Cellino’s disqualification will not stop people asking if this is the start of the long goodbye.
In a deflated frame of mind this afternoon, Cellino must be thinking the same. His needle with the Football League stemmed from the tax conviction imposed on him by an Italian court last year but the appeal which he lost today (Jan 19) was about points of principle and the credibility of the Football League’s rules.
The governing body won and Cellino’s knows they will win again.
He touched on the implications of an unsuccessful appeal when his ban as owner of Leeds was announced on December 1. “If the League ban me for this, they can ban me for every parking ticket, for any little thing they accuse me of in Italy,” Cellino complained, but the imminent cases awaiting him in his homeland are more serious than simple parking fines.
They are charges of tax evasion, much the same as the crime he was found guilty of by a judge in Cagliari in March. On that occasion, Cellino was convicted of failing to pay VAT on a private yacht called ‘Nelie’. The judgement of the Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) which upheld his Football League disqualification today said Cellino was guilty of “deceptive simulation” in that cases.
Later this year, he is expected to stand trial twice more over non-payment of import duty owed on a second yacht, ‘Lucky 23’, and a Range Rover. The risk to him now is that a guilty verdict on one or either of those charges will result in a fresh disqualification as United’s owner. And so it goes on.
At his PCC hearing last week, Cellino tried to argue that his offence in Italy was not a conviction under Italian law while it remained subject to appeal. The PCC rejected his claim, saying: “That is not the position under the League’s rules, which are governed by English law.” In other words, Cellino has no protection from future convictions of a similar nature in Italy. As the majority shareholder of an English football club, he is badly exposed.
The egotist in Cellino resented the fact that the League was attempting to paint him as “a crook”. “I cannot accept that,” he said last week. “It humiliates me and my family and it’s not true. I feel as if I’m forcing England to accept me.” A successful appeal would have driven a bus through the governing body’s Owners and Directors Test, offering immunity against certain tax charges. In light of his defeat, the 58-year-old has none.
Today’s result will not have come as a surprise. Sources close to Cellino described Thursday’s appeal - held at the London offices of the Football League’s solicitors, Bird and Bird - as a “hard hearing”. But even those around him are not certain about what he will do or how he will react. They are not clear if the PCC’s ruling against him will start the countdown to the sale of his and Eleonora Sport Limited’s 75 per cent stake in the club.
When the date of his appeal was agreed last month, Cellino was told that he would be required to resign from the board of directors at Leeds within 48 hours of a verdict in the Football League’s favour. He has until Wednesday to step down and take steps to convince the League that he is no longer exerting influence on the club or acting as a “relevant person”.
Discussions are on-going about who will take control of United in his absence. Authority could pass to Matt Child, the club’s newly-appointed chief operating officer, or Andrew Umbers, the financier who helped arrange Gulf Finance House’s ill-fated purchase of Leeds from Ken Bates in December 2012.
Umbers joined the board at Elland Road last month and supported Cellino’s appeal against his disqualification, telling the PCC in a statement that banning the Italian would have “severe adverse consequences” for Leeds and create a “a real likelihood of insolvency”. The Football League’s lawyer, Jonathan Taylor, said Umbers’ claims were “exaggerated, speculative and unsupported by any external evidence or, tellingly, by any evidence from Mr Cellino himself.”
GFH, which sold United to Cellino last April, continues to control a 25 per cent stake in the club and is currently held in favour by Cellino. He and GFH met before Christmas to resolve their many differences. But those who helped Cellino plan for the possibility of disqualification as owner say passing temporary back to GFH is not an option. The Bahraini bank remains deeply unpopular with the club’s support and has had next to no involvement in day-to-day decisions since Cellino’s buy-out nine months ago.
In the short-term a suitable solution will be found. Minus Cellino, Leeds will tick over in the midst of a fight against relegation from the Championship until his ban ends on April 10. The club are still working at a financial loss - albeit a smaller loss than they were when GFH sold up - but the threat of administration voiced by Umbers is not being echoed by others at Elland Road.
There are suggestions too that new players will arrive shortly and a deal with Palermo defender Sol Bamba is one of several which Leeds are pushing to complete. Cellino’s sabbatical is unlikely to alter the identity of the signings United move for or the way the club are managed. They will be run in his image, regardless of Cellino’s whereabouts. And some will tell him that investment in players is still a prudent course. If he feels compelled to sell United in the near future, it will help with levels of interest and the asking price if Leeds are still a Championship team.
The long term is where the real uncertainty lies. The message to Cellino from his failed appeal is that for as long as the Italian justice system is chasing him, the men in charge of English football will give him no quarter. For him, it’s a question of how much hassle and disruption he can cope with; of whether Leeds can achieve anywhere if he is forced to dip in and out of Elland Road at regular intervals.
At no stage of the disqualification process has Cellino been formally instructed to sell Eleonora’s stake in United. On the contrary, Taylor told the PCC that Cellino’s “family members would not necessarily have to divest themselves of their stakes in the club.” The tune could change in due course and in the light of Cellino’s failed appeal but the League might wish that such an outcome was so straightforward.
According to United’s latest accounts, the club owe GFH more than £20m in loans. The bank and Cellino have been negotiating a restructuring of those debts but they have not disappeared completely. Cellino and parties connected to him loaned more than £12m to Leeds before the start of July, and only he knows how much since. There are black holes at Elland Road and no single shareholder. In the meantime, Leeds are in danger of being relegated. As nicely-packaged takeovers go, selling the club would be anything but.
The presence of two Football League board members on the PCC - Greg Clarke and Richard Bowker - was agreed at United’s insistence. Despite the fact that both men had taken part in the vote to ban Cellino in the first place, it was felt that they might show sympathy or leniency when the impact of his disqualification was spelled out to them.
As it turned out, that support was not forthcoming. The panel upheld the view that Cellino’s offence in Italy was and is a formal conviction. They upheld the view that it was dishonest. They dismissed the idea that Leeds would be prone to financial collapse in Cellino’s absence and they rejected his hopeful suggestion that a failed appeal should result in a ban of ‘nil’ days. “The remaining period of the ban, 79 days, is short when measured against the conduct of which Mr Cellino was convicted,” the PCC’s judgement concluded.
Cellino’s belief - held for many months - is that the Football League wants him gone; not for 79 days but for good. Nothing in today’s verdict will persuade him otherwise. The Italian still has options; he could approach the Football Association for arbitration or take other legal avenues. But both would cost time, money and energy, all of which he is tired of spending despite his inherent desire to fight on. It remains to be seen if this kick in Cellino’s ribs is one dig to many.
Born: July 28, 1956. Age: 58.
1992: Purchases Serie A side Cagliari and sacks 35 managers in the next 21 years at the club.
1996: Given a suspended 14-month sentence after being convicted of deceiving the EU and Italian Ministry of Agriculture out of £7.5m.
2001: 15-month suspended sentence for false accounting at Cagliari.
2013: Arrested as part of an investigation into whether public money was improperly used to finance building part of Cagliari’s stadium.
February 2014: Leeds United announce that Cellino has agreed a 75 per cent buy-out of the club, subject to Football League approval.
March 2014: A court in Sardinia finds Cellino guilty of illegally evading import duty. Ordered to pay a €600,000 (£500,000) fine after being convicted of failing to pay €388,500 in tax on Nelie, a yacht seized by Italian police and customs officials in June 2013.
Football League vote unanimously to block Cellino’s takeover of Leeds and disqualify him from owning the club after failing their owners and directors test.
April 2014: Cellino wins his appeal to an independent QC against the league decision, with his Eleonora Sports company completing the purchase of a 75 per cent stake in Leeds from Gulf Finance House Capital.
June 2014: Cellino agrees to sell Cagliari to Italian company Fluorsid for an undisclosed fee.
October 2014: Cellino’s court trial in Sardinia for tax evasion for allegedly failing to pay import duty of around £75,000 on a second yacht, Lucky 23, is delayed after the judge decided to step down due to a conflict of interest.
December 2014: The Football League announce that Cellino has again been disqualified from owning the club after they received detailed evidence from the Italian court that convicted him of tax evasion on his yacht Nelie.
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