Leeds United: League pondering next move on Whites

Massimo Cellino points to the heavens as he arrives at Vicarage Road. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
Massimo Cellino points to the heavens as he arrives at Vicarage Road. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
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‘Disappointed’ Football League is conspicuous by its lack of reaction after Massimo Cellino’s appeal. Phil Hay reports.

Massimo Cellino has opened himself up to the world since outwitting the Football League and laying his hands on Leeds United, but silence emits from the governing body.

The Football League was spectacularly beaten by Cellino last weekend, losing a case it expected to win and failing to demonstrate that his conduct fell below the standard set for owners of English clubs.

In a statement on Saturday, the League said it was “disappointed” by the view of an independent QC that Cellino should not be barred from buying 75 per cent of Leeds on the basis of a conviction for tax evasion imposed on him in Sardinia last month.

It promised to “consider the findings of the hearing”, a comment which indicated that the League might yet attempt to contest the judgement against it.

The League’s next move should become clearer after a meeting today of its eight-man board, the panel originally responsible for deciding on March 24 that Cellino should be disqualified from owning Leeds.

That ruling was overturned on appeal by Tim Kerr QC five days ago and Cellino believes the League has no current justification for fighting the outcome or seeking a review.

His legal team moved at haste after Kerr’s decision in their favour, convening a board meeting of LUFC Holding Limited – the firm in the Cayman Islands used by Gulf Finance House to buy Leeds in 2012 – on Monday night and appointing Cellino to it.

The Italian’s UK company, Eleonora Sport, immediately acquired a 75 per cent stake in United and the takeover was formally announced by Cellino’s lawyers, Mishcon de Reya, on Tuesday afternoon.

Mishcon de Reya argues that the takeover was effectively approved by the Football League from the moment Kerr ruled against the governing body on Saturday afternoon.

They see no call for further discussions about the validity of his buy-out at today’s board meeting, and Cellino’s reign at Elland Road has been in full swing since he flew to England from Italy on Monday.

In the short term, legal analysts say the League has few grounds on which to challenge Kerr’s decision. The QC chaired the appeal on behalf of the Football League’s Professional Conduct Committee, meaning his ruling was effectively a ruling from the Football League itself – despite the organisation declaring itself “disappointed” with the result.

The League had the right of appointing two independent representatives to the panel alongside Kerr but chose not to, leaving the QC to consider the arguments alone.

In his judgement he criticised an attempt by the Football League’s legal representative to call into question the impartiality of Professor Stefano Maffei, an expert in Italian law. While Kerr said comments made by Maffei on Twitter were “inappropriate, unwise and undiplomatic”, he dismissed suggestions that a tweet using the expression ‘forza Leeds’ “(called) into question his impartiality or independence.”

The Football League, however, is more likely to revisit Cellino’s status as fit and proper when further evidence arises from the tax evasion case which led the League to disqualify him in the first place.

Cellino was found guilty of failing to pay import duty on a luxury yacht he bought in 2010 and was fined around £500,000 by a Sardinian judge last month, a conviction he has since appealed against.

The judge who ruled against him on March 18, Dr Sandra Lepore, had 90 days to provide full written reasons for her decision and could take until June to do so.

In the absence of that document, Kerr concluded that while Cellino had received a conviction under Italian law – a fact his legal team disputed – there was no evidence to prove that his offence was dishonest and in breach of Football League rules. Lepore’s written verdict could yet change that and invite the League to reapply its Owners and Directors Test.

Cellino’s lawyers are said to be relaxed about the possibility, in part because Dr Lepore did not debate Cellino’s honesty during last month’s case.

The maximum fine for his offence is some four million euros, and the lower limit 700,000 euros. Cellino was fined 600,000 euros, an anomaly which one legal analyst described as a “classic example of the Italian justice system.”

Where Leeds are concerned, the 57-year-old is not waiting for the tax evasion case to develop further. His takeover was officially completed 48 hours ago and the deferred wages owed to United’s playing staff should be transferred before the close of business today. No less urgent was the payment of an overdue tax bill which HMRC has been chasing.

Cellino has also made moves to organise a five-man club board on which Eleonora will outnumber GFH three to two. Sources close to him, meanwhile, expect an agreement to be reached which will see United managing director David Haigh sever all ties with the club in the near future.

Haigh negotiated the role of chief executive when Cellino agreed terms with GFH in January and, with Cellino in charge, is contracted to that job until the end of the season. But an attempt was made by the Italian’s lawyers to oust Haigh on Monday and, having missed Saturday’s match away to Wigan Athletic, he did not attend Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat at Watford.

First-team manager Brian McDermott remains in his job despite that result, though he was plainly aware of the threat to him after a performance he described as “nonsense”.

Cellino, who was in the stands for the first time in over a month, watched Leeds collapse without a fight at Vicarage Road, leaving McDermott at increasing risk of the sack.

The United boss is still expected to be in charge for Saturday’s meeting with Blackpool but he said: “We’ve been doing this too much. I’ve got to get 11 characters out on the pitch at Elland Road on Saturday, players who’ve got the bottle to play.

“I’m under pressure because of our results but what I’m pleased about is that the ownership situation is sorted out. We really don’t need to speak about that anymore. We can talk about football and nothing else.”

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