It is one thing for the Football League to want Massimo Cellino out, but do they know of any viable alternatives to the Italian for United?
The Football League’s presumption is that Leeds United have a choice. If it’s not Massimo Cellino it’ll be somebody else. Because the world is queuing up to buy the club and sink a fortune into the ground.
Perhaps the Football League is right. You don’t have to look far or dig hard for whispers of takeover bids in the offing. Cellino says Leeds are not for sale and that decision is still his to make but his attitude won’t discourage attempts to test the water. He can only control one side of the fence.
Should an appeal against his Football League disqualification fail and a ban come into force – albeit until March – then the window for offers will open. That is surely what the Football League wants: to create an environment where an owner it has opposed from the get-go looks vulnerable, approachable or even persuadable. The League is attempting to wear Cellino down with small, persistent cuts. Whether you think the Italian deserves his medicine depends on your point of view. To the wider world he is a businessman with a past conviction for fraud and an unspent conviction for tax evasion. In Leeds, the picture of him is more nuanced.
He has his shortcomings, evidently, and an unmanageable personality but there is no denying that the club have been grateful for his money. He is investing it in a way where the only hope of a profit would be to sell quickly at a high price or sit tight for years. As one financial analyst said this week, if Cellino’s ownership is a scam then he’s come to the wrong place. Leeds are a club where owners make losses. The annual loss before his buy-out seemingly ran to £20m.
At no stage since Monday has the Football League specifically instructed Cellino to sell the 75 per cent shareholding owned by Eleonora Sport Limited. He has been told to resign from United’s board, to take himself away from Elland Road and to refrain from acting as a “relevant person” until his ban ends in March. It’s a temporary suspension by any other name but a loaded one. If Cellino reads between the lines, he will see the League warning him to expect more of the same treatment and asking him how much interference he can take.
The governing body knows that Cellino can and might well resume control of Leeds in less than four months’ time. The conviction he received in the ‘Nelie’ yacht case is spent after a year and of no relevance once March 18 comes but the League is keenly aware that Cellino has other court cases pending in Italy. He is accused of evading tax on a second yacht, Lucky 23, and of failing to pay import duty owed on a Range Rover. They are similar offences, carrying similar penalties and threatening similar Football League bans. Cellino faces altogether more serious allegations of embezzlement relating to a stadium built while he was in control of Cagliari. It is not so much this ownership ban that the Football League expects to force to Cellino out but the threat that suspensions might occur again and again. One look at the bigger picture and Cellino must wonder whether he’ll ever be left alone. It’s a basic matter now of whether he can stand the heat and for how long. There’s a difference in priorities between the Football League and those with the greatest interest in Leeds. The Football League wants to determine whether Cellino has breached its rules. United’s supporters want to know whether or not he’s good for the club. It sounds like the same thing, and to some it might be, but get the football right and nobody wants to talk about an owner’s history. It’s by the by, someone else’s concern. Chelsea taught us that.
The Football League has a problem insofar as it is attacking a club who historically have no time for it. Its past governance of United’s ownership structure does not inspire confidence.
It tolerated a situation where Ken Bates and Shaun Harvey, the League’s reigning chief executive, denied all knowledge of the identities of United’s owner – FSF Limited – but succeeded in arranging a swift takeover by Bates as soon as demands for disclosure arrived. The League also approved the takeover by Gulf Finance House in 2012, even though GFH were in it for a quick profit and put the club up for sale from the off. The losses amassed during GFH’s 16 months in charge were huge and Leeds will break the League’s own Financial Fair Play rules this month.
A cynic would say that over time the governing body has squandered the right to tell the club what’s best for them.
As for Cellino’s suitability for Leeds, I’m still to be convinced. That scepticism isn’t about finance or even about football. How much money he actually possesses is impossible to quantify but he’s clearly a wealthy man. He knows the sport too. He can spot a player and he errs on the side of too many transfers over too few. As a whole, his signings are at the right end of the age spectrum, with scope to improve or appreciate in value. And there’s an identity about the current team, something which hasn’t been true since 2011.
With Cellino, the niggle is caused by his character: the moments of irrationality, the ruthlessness, the short temper and the habit of saying one thing before doing another. You have to be blindly faithful not to gather it all together and ask if this can really work. But there is no definitive answer yet. Not after eight months. It’s too short a timeframe for anyone to decide whether Cellino has Leeds or England sussed.
There are other avenues for the Football League to follow. Rather than chasing the ‘Nelie’ case endlessly and at great expense, it could call Cellino’s bluff and take up his invitation to monitor the books at Elland Road. Assuming, of course, that priority here is the club, not the man. But the League knows how it feels. It wants to see removal vans outside Cellino’s house. Maybe the organisation thinks it is doing Leeds a favour but it won’t be here to pick up the pieces.
It never is. And so, once again, the question – what is the alternative and who says it is better? We deserve to be told.
A word about football, if football is allowed so much as a word this week. Saturday’s victory over Derby County got us thinking about the last time Leeds United produced a performance of that ilk, against a team so in-form and accomplished.
Cup games excepted, you might have to go back as far as a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace at Elland Road in November 2012, the week when Gulf Finance House’s takeover of Leeds was agreed. The two events were considered to be linked – not least because the victory appeared from nowhere.
Last weekend was slightly different. In Neil Redfearn’s opinion, a game like that had been coming for a while. But why the marked improvement in a team who were sorely mediocre before he took charge? Here are five reasons:
1) Leeds are playing their best players.
It sounds obvious until you remember that Alex Mowatt didn’t play once until August 30. At least one previous head coach preferred players like Casper Sloth and Luke Murphy to Adryan and Lewis Cook. The repair of Sam Byram’s form was essential and was only ever going to happen by giving him games and there was never a better alternative to Stephen Warnock at left-back. The current line-up stands up to scrutiny.
2) United’s full-backs are making the diamond work.
Every coach employed by Massimo Cellino since the summer has used a midfield diamond. Only Redfearn has managed to use it successfully. One of the main differences for him is that his full-backs, Byram and Warnock, are providing the width and penetration needed to compensate for the absence of wingers in a narrow midfield. The second goal against Derby was a case in point – made by Warnock’s overlapping run.
3) The midfield is more mobile.
David Hockaday’s midfield on the first day of the season? Murphy, Rudy Austin and Michael Tonge, with Noel Hunt ahead of them. Redfearn’s midfield last weekend? Mowatt, Cook, Adryan and Tommaso Bianchi. It’s not that the alternatives offer Leeds nothing, but mobility is so important in the Championship. It’s a reason why Derby, with the likes of Will Hughes in their side, have so often given United the runaround.
4) Alex Mowatt.
He has never played better than this, or not for United’s first team. Last season other clubs concentrated on tying up Ross McCormack in the knowledge that no-one else in United’s side would score. Mowatt’s form is drawing attention away from Mirco Antenucci, Souleymane Doukara and Adryan and creating a multi-pronged attack. He’s growing up rapidly.
5) Stephen Warnock.
For a while it was hard to decide whether Warnock wanted to be here or whether Leeds wanted him here but he’s starting to look like a cut above. His knack of appearing in time to sort out desperate situation is uncanny and he looks more agile and fit than he has before. He offers some priceless leadership too. The real point of interest with Warnock is that his contract expires next summer. Time for talks?