At what stage does a potential buyer of Leeds United reach the point of no return?
Last week’s joint statement from the club and GFH Capital went as close as any previous announcement to declaring the sale free from obstacles. “Necessary proof of funds available”, “poised to make this deal happen”; all the relevant boxes ticked.
You could feel the wider world fighting to curb its enthusiasm amid fresh confirmation that the deal to sell Leeds wasn’t quite there. It seems to be the gist of each official update. But the past week has been significant, the first time that both sides have conceded that the bid to buy United had no obvious reason to fall through. It would challenge the credibility of either party to extricate themselves now.
Notably, figures within GFH Capital are now talking privately in terms of a handover. There is no attempt at all to disguise the firm’s confidence or its expectation that a 100 per cent purchase of United’s parent company, Leeds City Holdings, will go ahead at an unspecified date. The claim from a GFH Capital source that talks were entering their “final phase” was met with understandable derision and a collective rolling of eyes but it is where the Dubai-based investors believe they are – in the box seat and preparing to organise a transition of shares.
As long and questionable as the process has been, it has not run out of steam. The last eight days have been relatively intense. GFH Capital’s deputy chief executive, David Haigh, and company director Salem Patel travelled to Leeds for Saturday’s defeat to Birmingham City and onto Monaco later that night to continue talks with United chairman Ken Bates.
The group were seen at Monte Carlo’s Cafe De Paris on Sunday and Haigh and Patel returned to England without Bates to attend Tuesday’s League Cup tie against Southampton. Discussions involving legal representatives took place in Leeds the following day.
If GFH Capital is not about to descend on one of the country’s biggest clubs then the company and its employees are wasting an astonishing amount of time (and who knows how much money) on a doomed venture. A source with the firm said the situation was “progressing as intended and heading for a conclusion.”
It is pointless after more than five months of negotiations to give much credence to timescales for completion. GFH Capital will not speculate on that, suggesting that a fixed date has not yet been finalised – or if it has, the company is unwilling to declare it publicly.
Those involved on that side of the deal will speak only of being ready and prepared for the end of December and the start of the January transfer window – a deadline which appeared to be set by another GFH Capital employee, Hisham Alrayes, when he said last month that the initial plan had been to secure control of United “before the end of the year.”
In the context of the transfer window and the importance of it, that deadline cannot afford to be missed. The promises of future funding sound grand in print but back on the ground Neil Warnock is stressing once more about the future of El-Hadji Diouf, seemingly lacking the money to retain a player who is thought to be asking for around £10,000 a week. That doesn’t quite tally with a club who are as good as sold.
Sources close to GFH Capital say it is still the beneficiary of the exclusivity agreement reached with Leeds far back in June – an agreement for which GFH Capital paid the club some £2million. That claim is contrary to the statement published by Leeds on August 9, at a time when the proposed takeover appeared to be on the verge of collapse. United said “the exclusivity period granted to a potential investor has ended. The club remain happy to continue discussions but not on an exclusive basis so as not to prevent other options passing.”
It was widely assumed that the “potential investor” had essentially lost patience and given up. But at the time, the YEP was told that the decision to end the exclusivity period was made by the club, despite a request by the would-be buyers – GFH Capital – to keep it in place. Regardless of that, Haigh and Patel made their first appearance at Elland Road nine days later.
The exact nature of GFH Capital’s clause is curious. If it is in place and as watertight as it sounds, it has not stopped other prospective investors from following the situation. The YEP has been told that at least one party has attempted to make contact with United in the past fortnight, an investor with links to Saudi Arabia. Interest from that part of the Middle East has arisen previously this summer and does not appear to have vanished.
There is no indication from Leeds that they intend to engage other offers. In last week’s joint statement, Bates said: “It’s been a long road but we are in a good place. Both sides have been in talks over the last few days to finalise this deal. We are keeping focused and hope to complete very soon.”
He was singing from the same hymn-sheet as GFH Capital in that respect. Deal almost done. Promising as it sounded, it did not explain why other groups in the market think they can beat GFH Capital to the punch at this late hour.
A source at the Dubai-based firm was asked by the YEP if the company was aware of any rival attempts to purchase a major stake in Leeds. The source said only that the process was “all moving ahead in GFH Capital’s favour.” Haigh spoke last Friday about sorting out the “finer detail” of the deal before “trading signatures” and the company does not see a problem. Hence why it is talking in the language of handovers.
As for Leeds? Their message is the same. But the possibility of competitors coming to the fore means this fight for ownership might not be over. GFH Capital has its pen inked, poised to sign on the dotted line. United, for their part, are acting like willing sellers. After all that’s been said in the past week, one side or other will need a bullet-proof explanation if this all comes to nothing.