Leeds United chairman: ‘We’re sorry for all we put you through’

Brian McDermott.
Brian McDermott.
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Leeds United chairman Salah Nooruddin speaks to Phil Hay about the turmoil of the last week and new owner Massimo Cellino.

According to Salah Nooruddin there is an Arabic proverb which translates as: “Those who go absent for a long time, come back with goodies.”

For the purposes of a Leeds United chairman, the following might suffice: mess a club like this around as badly and he and others have and the compensation had better be worth it. “We’re bringing goodies to the fans,” he said last night. They’ll be the judge of that.

He, United’s board and Gulf Finance House have brought the club Massimo Cellino – an Italian businessmen who caught GFH’s attention by paying a deposit for negotiations in no time at all and signing a share acquisition agreement 10 days later. His money for a deal worth around £25m cleared on Thursday and the sides exchanged contracts yesterday.

Cellino has cash, that much is known, but the colour of it and the man who controls it are not so certain.

He has past convictions for fraud – one spent under UK law, the other overturned on appeal – and he was the architect of the scenes at Elland Road last week when Brian McDermott’s job as manager was taken from him without authority.

Cellino, the owner of Cagliari since 1992, sanctioned that dismissal.

Taking his cash is a gamble on United’s part, regardless of the promises made by Cellino to buy back their stadium from Teak Commercial Limited and make Leeds a Premier League club again. Every would-be owner says the same. The obstacle for Cellino now is Football League approval, something he hopes will be his on Wednesday. Those who know the regulations expect him to get it.

Nooruddin is equally optimistic. “In my opinion he has 22 years experience as owner of a football club in Italy,” he said. “He is well recognised in the Italian market. His lawyer, his team, are very confident that the Football League will say yes.”

I ask Nooruddin if his past convictions worry him or cast doubt on Cellino’s suitability. “I don’t judge him,” he said. “That really rests with the Football League. If they say he’s approved then he’s the right person, that is very clear.”

There is an argument to the contrary, based on the chaos seen at Elland Road on transfer deadline day when McDermott temporarily lost his job and acting chief executive Paul Hunt was fired by a lawyer working for Cellino.

Two major club sponsors withdrew their support in protest as GFH watched and then scrambled to convince a militant fanbase that Cellino had acted without authority. Until his payment for shares arrived, control of the club resided with GFH. McDermott was rapidly reinstated.

Cellino said at first that he sacked McDermott because the former Reading boss “started an argument with everyone.” Then he denied responsibility, saying GFH was the party trying to evict McDermott from his post.

“It was a big misunderstanding,” Nooruddin said. “Action was taken by a member of his team which we had to quickly rectify. It was an over-reaction on his side.”

In the middle of the confusion was McDermott, a manager employed by Leeds for less than a year and made to feel that Cellino’s vision for the club did not include him.

McDermott appeared to pre-empt yesterday’s announcement that contracts had been exchanged by talking at length in his press conference on Thursday of the need to have a “tight” relationship with Cellino; for the pair to show each other “mutual respect”.

“I spoke to Massimo and told him that I believe in McDermott, that he’s still the right guy to take the club forward,” Nooruddin said. “What has to happen is talks between them.

“It’s like Brian said, they need to agree on a new strategy for the team and work together.

“It will happen. Brian is the right person and he wants to be here.

“I think Massimo will continue with him and they will evolve.

“The situation with Brian (last Friday) was a misunderstanding with a member of Massimo’s team. Massimo believes McDermott should stay. They will talk about things – technical matters, players.”

The obvious question is whether McDermott will retain full control of the club’s footballing operations when Cellino’s control spreads throughout the club.

It was a key assurance given to him when he allowed GFH to reverse his dismissal by Cellino and reinstate him on Monday.

“During the transitional period Brian will be in full control of the squad and everything,” Nooruddin says.

“It’s like before. He and Massimo then have to agree on a strategy. I’m sure they will.”

In the meantime, the club will attempt to restore credibility damaged by three months of takeover chatter and the financial shambles which resulted in delayed payments to numerous suppliers and required the receipt of a £1.5million loan from Cellino to pay the January wage bill.

Nooruddin denied that Leeds were on the brink, describing the suggestion as “ridiculous”.

“All the talk of a storm, there’s no basis for it,” he said. “We would never let that happen. It will all be sorted out.” As for Cellino, Nooruddin said he was the “strategic investor” GFH was looking for. “He has football experience and financial capacity,” Nooruddin said. “He’s the right man in terms of football and the right man in terms of money.”

So much so that GFH steadfastly refused to engage with an alternative takeover group led by Mike Farnan. “Their first offer (made in November) was ridiculous,” Nooruddin said. “When they saw we were going to complete a deal with someone serious they made more noise. But it was too late.

“At GFH we didn’t feel it would be good to get into another long round of negotiations.”

Nooruddin is staying as chairman under Cellino. David Haigh, the club’s managing director, is to become chief executive. GFH, which bought Leeds from Ken Bates in 2012, will retain 10 per cent of shares and Nooruddin and Bahrain’s International Investment Bank (IIB) will split 15 per cent between them. Cellino is believed to have a future option to buy more equity.

I ask Nooruddin whether, in light of a shambolic month, either he or Haigh thought it might be right to resign. “No,” he says. “We are not here to give up. But I do apologise to the supporters, sincerely. What’s gone on has not been easy. We’ve put the fans through a difficult situation. I owe them an apology. But something drastic had to happen and I think it has. This is good.”

The Football League will take a view on that next week, provided GFH and Cellino supply it with the necessary documentation.

With the governing body’s approval this will, truly, be the start of a brave new world for Leeds United.

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