Leeds United: Sheffield Wednesday were on Cellino’s radar first

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After not being given any encouragement by the Owls Massimo Cellino looked further up the M1 for a club to buy. Phil Hay reports.

Massimo Cellino looked at Sheffield Wednesday before he applied himself to buying Leeds United. His most recent dip into English football was not the sudden appearance it seemed to be when he flew in from Italy to stir up Leeds on the weekend of January 18.

Sheffield Wednesday have been a club for sale for far longer than Leeds, and Cellino – the owner of Cagliari – considered them as a potential investment back in September. It emerged last night, however, that he was first shown around United’s training ground the following month after a call to Paul Hunt, then the acting chief executive at Leeds, alerted Gulf Finance House to his interest.

In the background since October, the 57-year-old had ample time to prepare his bid and establish whether he was likely to find a way through the Football League’s Owners and Directors Test – seen by many as the biggest issue for him. Cellino has the money and loaned the club around £1.5m last week, though GFH is waiting for his first payment for shares to clear. What he needs above all else is the approval of the governing body.

The Football League did not respond to a request for comment yesterday but over the past 24 hours the feeling that Cellino might fail the Owners’ and Directors’ Test have diminished. An investigation by The Guardian found that of his two convictions for fraud in Italy, one is technically spent and the other is said to have been expunged on appeal. There is doubt now about whether the Football League has any grounds on which to oppose him.

Cellino, an agricultural magnate, wanted to buy 100 per cent of Leeds but he and GFH – the Bahrain-based banked which is exploring every possibility of selling United – stopped him short at 75 per cent.

Between the cost of purchase and the repayments of debts, the deal if it proceeds will to cost Cellino in the region of £25m. Sources have told the Yorkshire Evening Post that promotion to the Premier League would see that figure increase by an uplift of some £10m and say Cellino has negotiated an option to buy all remaining shares in Leeds at a later date. The plan is for this to be a full buy-out.

Cellino was quoted yesterday as saying that the necessary funds were paid to GFH last Friday, the day on which the two sides formally reached agreement on a sale. With contracts still to be exchanged, the deal remains unofficial and Cellino continues to lack the authority needed to run the club as he wishes.

“I’ve had 22 years as an owner in Italy where regulations are much stricter than in England,” he said. “I don’t see why this should be an issue.”

The extent of his planning is evidence that the buy-out is no bluff on his part. Cellino caused outrage last Friday by sacking manager Brian McDermott, though he was powerless to prevent McDermott returning to work on Monday. He dismissed Hunt on Friday too and despite an attempt to reverse that decision the following morning, Hunt’s sacking is likely to stand. The former Blackburn Rovers chief executive officer was unavailable for comment when contacted by the YEP yesterday.

The YEP understands that Cellino’s preferred replacement for Hunt was Chris Farnell, the lawyer who relieved McDermott and Hunt of their duties by telephone. Farnell has been in line to become United’s new CEO if GFH shake Cellino’s hand and the Football League allows his takeover to go ahead.

The sports lawyer, who works for IPS Law in Manchester, was bizarrely asked to leave Elland Road on Monday afternoon in one of a number of signs that GFH or people working for them were trying to halt Cellino’s takeover at the finishing line. He was escorted from the premises by security staff and two of United’s directors, David Haigh and Salem Patel.

An angry Cellino was quoted yesterday as saying: “The money was paid on Friday. Me and (Leeds chairman Salah Nooruddin), we’re serious people.

“Between us there is no problem. But in the middle there is a problem, there is a lot of s*** going on.”

Cellino also accused Haigh of “tricky behaviour” and complained about GFH’s willingness to engage with a late bid from a collection of businessmen intent on preventing Leeds from falling into Cellino’s hands.

Talks were held in London yesterday between GFH and an amalgamation of individuals from Sport Capital and Together Leeds, two groups who made separate offers to buy United in November. The precise make-up of the combined consortium is not clear but Andrew Flowers – managing director of club shirt sponsor Enterprise Insurance – and former Manchester United International managing director Mike Farnan are the prominent figures behind the bid.

The group made GFH aware on Monday that they would match the price Cellino was willing to pay and accept the same deal. Amid credible suggestions that the Football League will find no legal basis on which to turn Cellino down, GFH has a choice in front of it. The pressure to sell is increasing with United haemorrhaging money and standing to lose around £11m in this financial year.

Mick Jones, the striker who won countless honours at Elland Road while Don Revie was manager in the 1960s and 1970s, voiced his bewilderment at the carnage which ensued in the build-up to Saturday’s 5-1 win over Huddersfield Town.

Jones said: “The world are laughing at Leeds United. It shouldn’t be like this.

“I got to the ground on Saturday and it was absolute mayhem. No-one had a clue what was going on or who was in charge.

“It’s not the way a club like Leeds should be and I feel very sorry for the manager. He swallowed his pride by going back to his job and all credit to him for that.

PAST TUTOR: Bristol City boss Lee Johnson.

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