For better or worse, the Football League will deal with Massimo Cellino. He has polarised opinion, the eccentric Italian, but the integrity of his money and the depth of his moral fibre are matters for the governing body to consider.
If approval comes the inevitable debate will not centre around him. It will focus on the Football League’s Owners and Directors Test and the question of whether its examination is anything more than a box-ticking exercise with narrow legal requirements. But even that is for another day.
Against the grain, resistance to Cellino has softened marginally this past week; not because his dismissal of Brian McDermott feels any less vindictive or because he has sold himself in a coherent, convincing way but because Leeds United as a club are destitute. They owe money to creditors large and small and have an owner, Gulf Finance House, which is building up liabilities to a level where anyone buying the Bahraini bank out requires some level of insanity.
The cost of Cellino’s takeover is estimated at £25m, of which a sizeable sum will be used to deal with pressing debts. In the circumstances, Leeds need a buyer willing to sink that sort of cash into a black hole before the fun and games begin. Vision and planning would be appreciated but at present, United cannot even afford to finish an AstroTurf pitch at their training ground. That’s where GFH’s sustainability leaves the club – down a desperate alley.
So Cellino is the Football League’s responsibility. Closer to home, questions about fit and proper ownership should be aimed at GFH and United’s board. Take any event of the week to 10 days just gone and the underlying story is one of bankrupt leadership, non-existent management and cheap, political maneuvering.
The night of McDermott’s sacking is the best example. According to club director Salem Patel, he and chairman Salah Nooruddin were in the Middle East at the time. David Haigh, the club’s managing director and only other board member, was on a plane between England and Switzerland. On transfer deadline day. On the day when GFH agreed the sale of a 75 per cent stake to Cellino. On an evening when Cellino was swanning around Elland Road, signing death warrants and causing havoc. The men at the top were nowhere.
But absence is a trend when trouble flares in Leeds. Staff at Elland Road have told the YEP that when Enterprise Insurance served its winding-up petition on Leeds last Thursday – a petition delivered direct to the stadium – no representative of the board would come downstairs to sign for it. Too far away, too busy, too spineless. Take your pick. It was left with security and became public knowledge before long.
There is also the matter of non-payment to suppliers, an embarrassing problem which has been dumped in the laps of the rank and file. Emails detailing correspondence between United and certain local companies make for uncomfortable reading: oridinary staff apologising for a situation which is not of their making and trying in vain to explain that they’re only passing on the bad news while receiving threats of legal proceedings in return. “This is the only answer I have,” read one. I spoke to a number of suppliers this week and got much the same message: that the club have been taking liberties with them. “Leeds United are a business with a financial approach that seems to rely wholly on suppliers being Leeds fans,” said one. Most of them are losing patience. The installation of a 3G AstroTurf pitch at Thorp Arch, meanwhile, lies incomplete and won’t be finished until someone decides to pay what’s due. GFH doesn’t intend to.
That stalled project is a more serious problem than it seems. United’s attempt to have their academy classed as category two under the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) is dependent on the state-of-the-art AstroTurf surface being laid and usuable. It was part of the audit through which Leeds expected to qualify. As it happens, they will lose more money in funding than the pitch costs to install if their academy is ranked as category three. “It was a no brainer,” a source told the YEP. Or not.
Somebody must be culpable for this and the buck stops with GFH and the board, the supposed conduit between Leeds and Bahrain. First you have Patel, a man who once told me that an article I’d written would start riots across the Muslim world (it didn’t). Then you have Nooruddin, a man whose nephew was seemingly trying to sell shares in United to the Leeds United Supporters Trust two days before Cellino did his deal. A man whose message of congratulations to Cellino last Friday set the demolition ball in motion. A man who tried to force an unwanted player into Leeds’ academy many moons ago.
And Haigh; a man who appears to have spent the past week positioning himself closest to whichever buyer was nearest the finishing line. Last Saturday he was telling people of his plan to pull a new consortium together; by Wednesday he was heard talking up Cellino’s credentials. Poisoned darts have rightly been thrown at Hisham Alrayes, the ex-Leeds director who calls the shots at GFH in Bahrain, but to give Alrayes his due, at least he knows where his loyalty lies.
There are various interests being served here but very few are Leeds United’s. It’s a case of priorities and the club haven’t figured. Nor have their suppliers. And on that basis, the reputation of this three-man board is shot. They have one way of exiting the madness with some dignity – by refusing to cling on to position or rank and accepting that there is little left for them here.
The people of Leeds do not forget.