Phil Hay: Fans remain the one constant for troubled Leeds United

Massimo Cellino
Massimo Cellino
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Mad Friday – Leeds United’s definitive breakdown – was not really a story about the club’s capacity to humiliate itself. It was an example of what happens when a football club has nothing more behind it than personal agendas.

Twelve months on the tale is still riddled with shameless self-defence. It’s at the crux of Massimo Cellino’s attempt to sack Brian McDermott and his subsequent denial that he wanted McDermott gone. His people spent the next 48 hours trying to find and shred copies of a legal letter confirming the dismissal. It never quite reached McDermott’s desk.

Others behaved in the same manner; directors with money and jobs at stake, trying to position themselves in a way which guaranteed a seat when the music stopped. McDermott’s mooted replacement, Gianluca Festa, was at it too. Supporters who watched him in the East Stand during Leeds’ 5-1 win over Huddersfield Town the following day said he spent the first half berating a broken performance but sat moodily through the second as Huddersfield fell to pieces.

That brazen weekend became a catalogue of who-was-doing-what (even though some of the main protagonists were less than clear themselves) but at Elland Road that matters less than the question of who wants what. What’s the motive, what’s the angle and who stands to benefit? Was Festa here helping Cellino or was Festa helping himself?

Supporters of the club are so hardened by politics that they no longer need to be warned. Scepticism is the default setting. Yesterday the YEP ran an interview with Andrew Umbers, the financier who became Leeds’ chairman after Cellino’s resignation as president last week. He spoke in detail about the club’s financial position and gave projections about how United would perform at future dates: a loss of around £7m in this financial year (down from £22m in 2013-14) and free from a transfer embargo by the summer window, even though Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules in the Championship allow a maximum shortfall of £6m.

Umbers predicted that Leeds might break even by the end of the 2015-16 year which, given the state of their last accounts, is an unfathomable thought. That said, the club have shed a third of their staff under Cellino and other senior figures at Elland Road think United are genuinely capable of avoiding a loss next season.

To gauge from the reaction to Umbers’ comments, the positivity was like a dirty pint; swallowed with difficulty. It didn’t help that the talk of “drastically” improving financial situation clashed so badly with Umbers’ contribution to Cellino’s Football League appeal, in which he basically implied that banning the Italian could result in administration. The Football League’s lawyer accused Umbers of trying it on. The dots don’t join.

As chairman, he has the baggage of past associations with Gulf Finance House and Ken Bates. The takeover between Bates and GFH wasn’t completed on his say-so but he was in the middle of it and the company he worked for, Eurofin Capital, doubtless made money from it. He might not appreciate references to his involvement but it’s as much as people know about him and it’s all they have to reference. If Leeds escape embargo before June and break even in 2016, his claims will stand up. Until then they sit in abeyance.

This treatment is not reserved for Umbers. Leeds would need Lucas Radebe as chairman for public faith in that position to reach a great height. And even then in certain quarters they would ask if Radebe had the expertise to head up a board of directors. The erosion of trust at Elland Road has been almost total over the years and the club are condemned until they claw it back.

The slide into suspicion began long before Mad Friday but the night of the long knives guaranteed that Cellino’s regime would be plagued by it too. There’s a good reason why a year later supporter investment is on the agenda: the support is still the only facet of Leeds that people are sure enough to believe in.