Phil Hay: ‘Crazy’ Cellino might just be right man to clear up the mess at Leeds United

Massimo Cellino
Massimo Cellino
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A few days ago, West Yorkshire Police made a visit to Elland Road to investigate allegations from Leeds United’s new owner that surveillance equipment had been illegally installed in executive areas of the stadium.

At the time of writing there were no arrests and no charges but Leeds are starting to exhaust the meaning of weird. They are the one club in England for whom manufactured gossip isn’t necessary. It’s all there, floating beneath the surface.

Massimo Cellino scratched the surface on Wednesday and was reminded of two curses: a tax bill which incurred a winding-up petition from the Revenue and wages which were overdue by almost a fortnight. The red he finds at Elland Road isn’t in the carpet, though the carpets are soaking up blood already. If, as Cellino says, he “respects money, not just mine”, the carnage on his hands should appal him.

When I interviewed Cellino the day after his takeover of Leeds went through, the unpaid tax and the wage deferral among United’s playing staff seemed to have changed his perspective. Last Saturday he said he would buy back Elland Road before this week was out. He predicts now that Leeds will repurchase the ground for £15m by the end of the year. Ambition doused with realism equals a cute shift of the goalposts but impulsive by nature, Cellino would help his own cause by giving himself a reasonable chance.

The inbox at Leeds was littered with problems when he showed up for work on Wednesday - PAYE, delayed salaries and annual accounts showing large losses and even bigger debts. Season ticket renewals are not yet arranged and Cellino is under pressure to take a view on his manager and the playing squad he acquired from GFH. It did not become clear until yesterday morning that in addition to United’s day-to-day worries, the police had been asked to sniff around Elland Road’s inner sanctum too. Cellino talked about “f****** problems” and the energy he would need to solve them. He has more than a few; too many to make ownership of the stadium an overnight transaction.

The accounts published by Leeds on Tuesday laid bare the state of Cellino’s inheritance and vindicated many assumptions about the nuts and bolts of Gulf Finance House’s management.

The bank inherited a mess and is passing on a shambles, though it has enough neck to hang around and retain a minority stake. You could hear the sighs of relief from Bahrain as the pieces fell into place last weekend. Cellino’s successful appeal against the Football League must have felt like Christmas.

Leeds lost £9.5m in the 2012-13 financial year as GFH channelled in more than £13m. The bank blethers about supporting and funding the club but those were loans not gifts and Cellino is liable for paying them back. The ambiguous thing about the latest accounts is that they go no further than last June. They don’t come close to revealing how the land at Elland Road lies here and now.

But 2012-13 was a bad year in more respects than finance. The club chewed through another manager and finished 13th in the Championship with badly reduced attendances. The transition of power from Ken Bates to GFH was slow and unsettling. The 2012-13 accounts state that Bates took no payment as a director, though a company connected to him – Lutonville Holdings – cashed in preference shares to the tune of £4m, but other directors were rewarded handsomely: £753,938 in total across the rest of the board and £265,449 received by the highest earner. That same person amassed a bonus of £440,000 in the space of 12 months. That’s a salary more than £700,000 in all. Who pocketed it and what was the bonus for? We ought to be told.

It smacks of a culture of excess in the midst of a culture of failure. Leeds moved from a profit of £300,000 in 2012 to a loss of almost £10million a year later. In that same period, the cash paid to directors doubled and the best paid among them received a rise of £40,000. There was an equally big leap in the players’ wage bill which translated into very little. “You can see what’s been happening here,” Cellino said. “It’s been done by people who knew they weren’t staying. And now I have to clean up the s**t.” He says he has the shoes for it and he definitely has the energy. You sit beside a whirling dervish when you share a room with Cellino. His wealth? It’s a mystery. But he had enough to get rid of the taxman by mid-afternoon on Wednesday and enough to pay well over the odds to GFH for a 75 per cent stake.

His cash aside, a rifle through the paperwork at Elland Road will tell him that Leeds can help themselves by spending the money they have properly.

In Italy they say Cellino is crazy. To take this club on, you need to be. When day one involves spy cameras and winding-up petitions, the scale of the commitment is hard to play down. It’s a brave man who gets himself involved here.

Buona fortuna.

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