Phil Hay - Cellino now owes Leeds United a smooth, clean exit

Massimo Cellino.
Massimo Cellino.
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An Italian journalist once told me that he knew Massimo Cellino was selling Cagliari when Cagliari was finally sold. Before Cellino made way for the Giulini family, the press in Sardinia had a habit of discovering that mooted buyers – Qataris, Americans – didn’t actually exist.

Cellino left Cagliari of his own accord. Cagliari didn’t chase him out. He let it go because in light of his takeover of Leeds United, he lacked the time, the money or the inclination to run two clubs. What he faces at Leeds is an onslaught by comparison; near-unanimous dissent and immense external pressure, none of it to do with his wealth or his workload.

He has known from the start that the Football League despairs of him. His latest ownership ban caught him by surprise – in July Cellino was under the impression that the governing body would not pursue him over the case of the Range Rover – but the League was bound to come for him again. And so it has, pending Cellino’s appeal.

He was well aware, too, of opposition to him among swathes of United’s support but last week’s game against Blackburn Rovers was a watershed moment. Prior to it, he had never heard criticism of him with his own ears. News of it had been relayed to him by directors and family members. Cellino cuts an aggressive, thick-skinned figure but he is oddly fragile and easily rattled under fire. There’s a reason why so many of his sackings at Elland Road have been carried out by other people.

Cellino no longer plans to attend any of United’s games. Over the weekend he said he was cutting ties with the media and trying to drawing a line under his relationships with the press. So absent, then, and largely incommunicado; circumstances which the 59-year-old can’t stand. They had doubts about his intentions in Cagliari but at Leeds he looks finished. He said so himself in his statement on Monday. That statement was classic Cellino – a veiled cry for sympathy from a chided owner – but the tone came across as beaten and genuine.

What he owes Leeds now is a clean exit. Not necessarily a quick exit because takeovers are rarely swift, and the haste with which Cellino bought out GFH caused as many problems as it solved. But he has the capacity to make the process as smooth as it can be and a duty to act with more integrity than he has shown Leeds Fans United (LFU).

The supporters’ group were in the box seat last Friday, or so it seemed. Purchasing Cellino’s majority stake was a huge undertaking for LFU, perhaps a step too far given the cost and complexity of a takeover, and there is no denying that LFU’s reaction was extremely public - something Cellino never reacts well to - but the offer to try came directly from him. The quotes are there, on record and in public: “One hundred per cent I will sell to the fans, if they want to buy.”

Unexpected though his proposal was, LFU was not caught entirely cold. It has worked on a plan for the purchase of shares for months, albeit with the intention of acquiring a minority stake in the club. The structure of the organisation involves scores of people, many with business backgrounds and acumen. That does not automatically amount to a multi-million pound acquisition but it is proof enough that LFU was in a position to try.

The group knew that it would have to play by the same rules as other prospective buyers. It needed money and without sufficient proof of funds, convention said that Cellino was never likely to offer exclusivity. LFU also needed to commit to paying something close to the going rate, particularly if rival parties are willing to. And it needed to accept standard levels of scrutiny. None of this it denied. Cellino called their bluff last week and tempted LFU to show its hand. By showing its hand and taking him on, LFU called his. Once again he is made to look improper.

There is support for LFU’s scheme and enthusiam for the idea that clubs don’t need to settle for either the finance, autocracy and whims of a single benefactor or the onset of hopeless mediocrity. Some would call that wishful thinking in the existing climate but others would like to find out. Cellino himself gave the impression that he was keen.

Cellino told LFU last week that he would only sell to them; that passing on his shares without profit would be his “legacy” for the club. Yet by Monday the Italian had arranged to meet in London with the representative of another would-be buyer, independent of LFU. Yesterday it appeared that the understanding between him and LFU had collapsed beyond repair. It might be that he is keeping his options open while LFU gets its ducks in a line, and it is his prerogative to sell to whoever he pleases, but it does Cellino no good to be seen as duplicitous. If LFU looked in any way credible to him, he should have given the group an unimpeded shot. The suggestion of selling to LFU was, after all, made by him.

Patience will wear thinner as a result of this mess and from a wider perspective, there is a message here for anyone thinking about acquiring the club: look at how it is going for Cellino, look at how it went for GFH and look at how it ended for Ken Bates. Elland Road is not a fertile venue for rash opportunism or blatant profiteering. If it goes awry, the heat is be real and very effective. Cellino never expected to court so much anger. He never truly prepared himself for it. And he does not have much of an answer to it.

There is little doubt that he wanted to make something of Leeds United. There is little doubt that he has thrown plenty of cash at the club. But his manner, his attitude, his management and his personality undermined so much of his work, driving him into a corner. People will not find much to thank him for in years to come, even though he dug into his pockets at a time when Leeds could barely pay their monthly wage bill. They will not remember his time fondly. But unlike GFH they might let him go quietly, provided Cellino is willing.