Leeds United: Thwaites fires warning to Whites owner Cellino

Massimo Cellino
Massimo Cellino
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The head of Leeds Fans United has admitted the group were looking at a minimum cost of £30m to buy out Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino - and said they would give up on a deal unless Cellino committed to a guaranteed period of exclusivity.

Officials from Leeds Fans United (LFU) will meet with Cellino’s lawyers today and attempt to finalise an agreement which gives it the freedom to pursue a takeover of the club without the threat of Cellino accepting a rival bid.

LFU chief executive Dylan Thwaites said analysis of Cellino’s cash injections at Elland Road since his takeover in April 2014 had set £30m as the lowest asking price for the Italian’s 77 per cent shareholding in United.

Cellino told LFU last week that he was prepared to sell his stake to the group amid mounting pressure on him from the Football League and United’s supporters.

The 59-year-old is fighting to overturn the League’s decision to disqualify him from running the Leeds and he came under attack from the club’s fans during Thursday’s defeat to Blackburn Rovers. He did not attend tonight’s clash with Cardiff City.

Thwaites said LFU was ready to “start due diligence tomorrow” and set the normal cost of that process at around £500,000.

“We’ve got the money to start immediately,” Thwaites said. “Because of the expertise within our organisation - lawyers, accountants and so on - we’d be able to to bring it in at a far lower cost. We have people who could do the bulk of the work for us.”

Cellino told LFU that he was only prepared sell his stake to the group, leaving a “legacy” after 18 months as owner, but the YEP understands that he held talks with a separate prospective buyer in London on Monday.

Thwaites, whose organisation has raised around half-a-million pounds through the sale of £100 shares in LFU to supporters, said: “We know we can't start spending our shareholders money until we've got legally-binding exclusivity. The very next step for us is to get that signed and then literally, the next morning, we can start the due diligence.

“I spoke to Massimo on Monday night. We're meeting again (tomorrow) and we're just waiting on that letter of exclusivity. Then we can get going.

“I hoped to have exclusivity before (now) and we need to have it before we can press any more buttons. We've come as far as we can without it. That has to be delivered now.

“If his lawyers say we no longer expect exclusivity then we can no longer go forward with the majority purchase. It's too much of a risk.”

Asked if he believed Cellino’s promise that he would “only sell to fans”, Thwaites said: “"The proof is going to be in the pudding of getting this written exclusivity.

“He talked about the fact he wanted to sell only to Leeds fans to enough people. We know we weren't imagining it.”

Cellino is yet to name an exact price for his stake, which stands at just over 75 per cent.

The remaining equity in Leeds is held by Gulf Finance House, the Bahraini bank which sold the club to Cellino last year.

Cellino paid around £5m up front when he took control from GFH but has invested substantially more during his time as owner.

Thwaites said LFU - originally established with the aim of acquire a minority shareholding in Leeds - planned to raise the necessary funds for a takeover through pledges from fans of “high net worth”.

He said other wealthy supporters had offered interest-free loans which “might be repaid with a premium when we’re promoted to the Premier League” and revealed that loans from financial institutions would be used as a last resort to bridge any funding gaps.

Cellino could demand proof of funds from LFU before agreeing to a period of exclusivity and Thwaites said: “We would need a little bit of time to put it into place.

“The funds aren't there at this moment but institutional people could underwrite it and provide proof of funds while we secure the money. We believe the money will be there.

“The difficulty is that until we've done due diligence we don't know how much we need. We know we’d be buying at cost and it's at least £30m.”

Thwaites said the group would not be drawn into paying Cellino any profit on his investment, saying: “That wasn’t the agreement. The price is a fixed price. It's the cost that he's come in at.

“It's an auditable figure, a specific figure we can establish through due diligence and it's not negotiable.

“We can see that he's put £30 million in at Companies House but we can't see anything else beyond that. We believe there'll be other stuff too and that will come out of due diligence. That would be the maximum price we’d be prepared to pay. If Massimo asks for more than the cost figure, we’d walk away.”