Leeds United: FA delays Massimo Cellino's 18-month ban

Leeds United co-owner Massimo Cellino
Leeds United co-owner Massimo Cellino

Massimo Cellino’s 18-month Football Association ban will be delayed until after his appeal against the penalty has been heard, Leeds United announced last night.

Cellino was due to begin his suspension next Wednesday, February 1, after being found guilty of facilitating an illegal payment during the transfer of striker Ross McCormack from Leeds to Fulham in 2014 but the FA has agreed to stay the ban while United’s co-owner challenges the verdict.

Cellino, who was also fined £250,000, originally denied the charge against him and is contesting both the guilty verdict and the sanctions handed down by the independent regulatory commission which heard the evidence over two days at Wembley in September.

An 18-month ban would force Cellino to resign from United’s board and sever all ties with the club until the latter stages of 2018.

The 60-year-old recently sold 50 per cent of Leeds to Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani and could relinquish the rest of his stake in the summer if Radrizzani takes up an option to acquire full cent control but he has chosen to fight the FA regardless.

Leeds, meanwhile, are contesting a £250,000 fine imposed on the club for a separate breach of agent regulations in the McCormack case.

United pleaded guilty to breaking the rules but believe the financial penalty is disproportionate compared to punishments levied in similar cases.

They are also expected to argue that with Cellino as 100 per cent owner at the time the verdict was reached, separate fines for him and Leeds effectively punished the same entity twice.

Cellino has faced two previous ownership bans from the Football League, one of which was later annulled after he was acquitted of a tax evasion offence in Italy. In both cases, the League agreed to stay his punishment while Cellino appealed.

A statement from Leeds read: “As stated in his message to supporters following the initial decision, Mr Cellino has lodged an appeal to overturn the guilty verdict and any sanctions imposed upon Mr Cellino by the FA will be held/suspended until the appeal has been heard and a verdict has been found.

“We can also confirm that the club has lodged an appeal in relation to the sanctions that were imposed directly on us. We are confident that the appeals will be successful.

“Everybody at the club is completely focused on supporting Garry Monk and his team for the rest of this season. The club will make no further comment until the process is complete.”

The charges in the McCormack case concerned the payment of a six-figure sum to Barry Hughes, an advisor of McCormack’s who was not licensed by the FA. The governing body’s rules forbid payments to unlicensed third-parties in any transfer deals. Derek Day, the licensed agent who represented McCormack during that move, has also been hit with a suspension from football.

McCormack was sold to Fulham for £10.75m in July 2014, one of the first deals completed after Cellino assumed majority control of Leeds.

Cellino has been at risk of ownership bans throughout his time in charge at Elland Road but a series of tax evasion allegations facing him in Italy have been largely dealt with.

The case of ‘Lucky 23’, in which Cellino was accused of failing to pay VAT on a luxury yacht, was thrown out last week due to a change in Italian legislation decriminalising the offence.

Cellino remains involved in an embezzlement trial relating to the construction of a new stadium for Serie A club Cagliari in Sardinia in 2012.

Meanwhile, Cellino's Italian legal team say he has been acquitted on appeal in the case which led to his first Football League ownership ban two years ago.

The Football League found Cellino in breach of its Owners and Directors Test owing to his conviction for evading tax due on a boat by the name of 'Nelie' in March 2014. He was later suspended from running Leeds between January and May in 2015.

Cellino argued at the time that offences in Italy should not be viewed as formal criminal convictions until they had first passed through all stages of appeal. That claim, however, was rejected by Tim Kerr QC, who ruled on whether the Football League was entitled to block Cellino's takeover of United in April 2014.

A statement issued by lawyer Giorgio Altieri said: "Massimo Cellino has been acquitted in Italy from any criminal offence related to yacht 'Nelie'. The final decision has been rendered by the Italian High Court last Thursday, January 25.

"Massimo Cellino's Italian lawyers, Giovanni Cocco and Giorgio Altieri, are quite satisfied since they had persistently maintained MC's innocence and served an appeal with more than 20 grounds."

Cellino's legal team have not confirmed whether his acquittal in the High Court in Rome was based on evidence put before the court or on the charge being downgraded to a civil offence.

In response to a request for comment from the YEP, a Football League spokesman said: "We are aware of the media reports about the 'Nellie' tax case and await sight of the judgement before commenting further."