The reality with most football club owners is that they’re impossible to judge until they step through the door and start running the show.
It was different at Chelsea and Manchester City because the buyers in question – Roman Abramovich and the men from Abu Dhabi – had so much money that the impact was always going to be positive.
Those takeovers were two in a million and they’ve taken both clubs to a different level. If you looked at how rich those owners were before they bought in, you’d have predicted big things from them. They’ve spent their whole lives being at the top of the tree.
The average buy-out of a Premier League or a Football League team is much less predictable. In that respect, Massimo Cellino is no different to most foreigners who come to England looking to invest in the game. There are big pros and cons – his wealth being a clear positive and doubts about his background being an obvious negative.
The long and short of this is that judging him is extremely difficult until his name’s above the door and he’s calling the shots. You might think he’s going to cause chaos or be a disaster but we’ll only find out when the deal is done and the club is his. That, for me, is why the Football League’s decision on this matter is so crucial. The verdict from the League on whether to approve him has to be 100 per cent on the money.
Let’s start with his cash. By all accounts Cellino has plenty of money, most of it earned from his business interests in Italy. How much money he has, where it is and where exactly it all came from I’ve got no idea and that’s really where the Football League comes in. But if you want Leeds to become richer than they are, Cellino can probably make that happen overnight. If nothing else, he seems to have more funds than Gulf Finance House ever did.
The alarm bell for me is still transfer deadline day and the night when Cellino tried to sack Brian McDermott. It feels no less outrageous now than it did when it happened. What I’d really like to know is whether Cellino learned lessons from that debacle and realised he was wrong; realised that the supporters won’t stand for someone acting the way he did.
If he’s taken the reaction on board then that’s a good first step. I’d like to think that if he gets his takeover done, he’ll give McDermott at least until the end of the season. I see no sense at all in changing manager now, just as I didn’t see any sense in changing manager on transfer deadline day, and McDermott’s position has been strengthened by everything that went on. He’s got the support of the footballing world behind him and that’s powerful backing to have. Single-minded though they are, owners don’t like being unpopular.
One of my other concerns is the possibility that we’ll see a large number of foreign players coming to Elland Road. I’ve no objection to foreign signings in general but I don’t think it’s a particularly stable way to build a successful football team. At the back of my mind, I’m also thinking about the good academy Leeds have and wondering what Cellino’s impact would be there. Will young, English kids still get the same opportunity? Will it still be so well funded? And over time, how much will Cellino interfere in team affairs? He’s an unknown quantity in a lot of ways and you’d be foolish if you didn’t feel nervous about that.
But it does look like this deal’s happening, unless the Football League says otherwise, so as ever it’s crucial that everyone comes together and works together. Any new owner needs the support of the fans and he in turn needs to earn it. The supporters are what make a football club and what keep it going for years and decades. If you’ve got an owner who doesn’t believe or appreciate that then you’ve got a problem. If Cellino has grasped the passion and the intensity round here, it will go some way to making his time in charge a success.
At the moment the bottom line is this – GFH needs a buyer and Cellino has put his money up. He’s paying £25m and committing himself to future investment. Despite what people think, Leeds United isn’t a no-brainer of a club to buy. At £25m-plus, it’s a risk for anyone who doesn’t have infinite wealth. Whenever I’m asked me why rich people in Yorkshire don’t want to buy Leeds, the reason I give is that they’re not prepared to take that risk. They’re not prepared to gamble with money they’ve worked damn hard to earn.
Cellino clearly is and in the long run that may be a good or a bad thing for Leeds. None of us can see the future and all we can do is take a view. But what we know for sure is that the club needs a takeover and Cellino is offering just that. In football, money talks.