Massimo Cellino, like quite a few Italians, dislikes the number 17. He also dislikes the colour purple.
Leeds United’s godfather – the great Don Revie – had a reputation for being as superstitious as they come.
But here’s a story. Cellino and his men were due to attend United’s game against Ipswich Town on Tuesday and watch from a box in the East Stand. They changed their minds at late notice and flew back to Italy instead but plans were in place to accommodate them until shortly before kick-off.
Prior to the match the club realised that all corporate passes for the East Stand had been printed on purple card. With Cellino’s preferences in mind, those passes were withdrawn and reproduced en masse. Keen to please and keen to impress, even though Cellino failed to show up. His money was worth the subservience.
The effort made by the club, Gulf Finance House or whoever led the courtship with him takes some believing. At least they stopped short of granting his request that Gianluca Festa, a favourite of Cellino’s, sit with former manager Brian McDermott in the dug-out on Tuesday night. Colour-appropriate tickets are a lame but minor concession. Putting a knife a few feet behind your manager’s back as he tries to stem the flow of five straight defeats is as about as low as it gets.
It is customary for prospective owners of football clubs to wait until their money is spent before undermining a manager they barely know and have hardly spoken to. What we had at Elland Road by Tuesday was a coach – a decent, well-regarded coach – who realised that a Cellino takeover meant the death knell for him. The Italian’s history at Cagliari might have told him that anyway but McDermott’s fate – which was finally sealed last night – was there in black and white. He, like the club, was at the mercy of GFH all week.
Banning Festa from the touchline on Tuesday was not a vote of confidence in McDermott. Ceasing negotiations with Cellino there and then would have given him that but GFH’s officials liked the colour of Cellino’s money and have played the game their own way.
You only had to compare the intentions of the three parties who have vied for control of Leeds to realise that the Bahraini bank had no coherent picture of how it wanted the club to look when this all ended. Sport Capital liked McDermott and so did the rival consortium fronted by Mike Farnan. Cellino preferred firing him. Yet all three had the attention of GFH – some more than others – and all three had a chance of sorts until Sport Capital conceded defeat on Thursday and Cellino closed in yesterday. It all rules out the possibility that the future well-being of Leeds has in any way dominated GFH’s thinking.
A source close to negotiations, who asked not to be named, told the YEP this week that from GFH’s perspective this is all about image in the Middle East. “What the bank wants is to exit with face,” he said. “It wants to preserve its share price. When this is over it has to look like a good deal for GFH. The bank will do what’s best for the bank.”
In that culture of self-interest, others were entitled to follow suit. The last thing McDermott was going to was give GFH or Cellino an easy out by resigning. Nor should he have done. He held a three-year contract and an owner who chose to cull him after less than 12 months and 30-odd games should have the decency to pay him off. McDermott made mistakes last month and certain results were on him. Managers are not made of Teflon. But he was asked to fight his way out of the woods while people above him set the trees on fire. It was hard for him and his squad to do anything else but burn.
The club have been burning too and perhaps more seriously than any of us realised. The YEP was told on Wednesday that Leeds stand to lose in the region of £11m in the current financial year, 2013-14. A request to GFH for comment on that claim did not bring a response.
Very little asked of the bank brings a response. This is, after all, GFH’s party, GFH’s sale and GFH’s call.
Suddenly Gulf Finance House, situated in Bahrain’s financial harbour, feels as distant as it did when the firm stuck its head above the parapet in Leeds for the first time in 2012.
You can only guess at the egos and personalities who have steered United through this crisis from afar.
At critical junctures you look for the men with power to do what’s right for the club, their manager, the people who matter.
In high rises 3,000 miles away, there never any guarantee of that and no real reason why anyone would.