By any standards the events of the last three days at Elland Road, kicking off on Friday, have been extraordinary. Phil Hay reports.
Control of Leeds United was lost completely on Friday afternoon when someone at Gulf Finance House sent a message to Massimo Cellino congratulating him on his purchase of the Championship club.
The message was premature and with funds still to clear, Cellino’s takeover remained incomplete. But the Italian businessman took it as his cue to start the bloodletting which brought Leeds into full-scale disrepute in the closing hours of the January transfer window.
Paul Hunt, United’s acting chief executive, was first to go, sacked from his post despite spending most of last week tending to the wishes of Cellino and his crew. Sometime around 7pm, Brian McDermott got his phone call; informed that he was being replaced as manager during a brief conversation with Chris Farnell, a Manchester-based lawyer acting on Cellino’s behalf. GFH says the decision was taken without its knowledge. Farnell did not respond to a request for comment from the YEP.
McDermott’s dismissal was the tipping point for public opinion already weighted against Cellino’s buy-out but his treatment on Friday was not even half of the saga which peaked the next day when GFH tried to suggest that its broken relationship with McDermott could be patched up.
Elland Road in those dark hours was devoid of authority. Even Cellino’s plans suffered because of it. The owner of Cagliari and the focal point of so much anger in Leeds wanted to sign five foreign players before Friday’s transfer deadline. In the end, he signed one – Andrea Tabanelli, a 23-year-old midfielder loaned from Italy but unable to do more during United’s win over Huddersfield than sit in the East Stand. Leeds have not even announced his arrival. Where the other four deals were concerned, Cellino could find no-one to sign the paperwork or work the fax machine. In that respect, United were asleep with key staff hidden away. The deadline passed.
With McDermott gone and a caretaker team needed for a rapidly-approaching derby against Huddersfield, first-team coach Neil Redfearn was summoned to Elland Road on Friday evening and asked to assist Gianluca Festa, Cellino’s friend an ally. Festa revised the line-up chosen by McDermott and prepared to expose himself to all levels of abuse by taking to the dug-out. In the end, he like Tabanelli watched from the East Stand.
As Leeds fiddled and two major sponsors withdrew their support, club captain Ross McCormack drove to Elland Road and asked to see Cellino, seeking reassurance about the unfolding mess.
He is not thought to have spoken to Cellino himself but others around the Italian were able to appease him. In the only move which gained any public favour on Friday, Cellino turned down a large bid for McCormack from Cardiff City and made it clear to everyone that the Scot would be staying. He was unwilling to allow Luke Varney to leave for Blackburn Rovers either.
Lower-level staff at Leeds had virtually no contact with any senior management during Friday’s staggering events.
The club’s official website went without any updates for the best part of 18 hours until Leeds announced that a deal to sell a 75 per cent stake to a company owned by Cellino had been struck. Published at lunchtime on Saturday, it made no reference at all to McDermott or to his dismissal.
There were good reasons for that. Around midnight on Friday, managing director David Haigh let it be known that he had quit the club, apparently in protest at the treatment of McDermott. At that stage, irate supporters were harrying Cellino’s taxi around Elland Road and blocking his exit from the ground. The police were called eventually.
By Saturday morning, Haigh was back at Leeds and on the phone to McDermott, stressing to the 52-year-old that Cellino’s decision to sack him had been taken without the necessary authority.
In short, having failed to consult the board or GFH, Cellino had no actual power to make that call. The club was not officially his.
The initial idea was that McDermott would watch the Huddersfield game from a corporate box immediately to the left of the directors’ box in the East Stand. For a while he was expected to attend, to the bewilderment of everyone at Elland Road. But an hour-and-a-half before kick-off and with the League Managers’ Association (LMA) handling his case, he took legal advice and chose to stay away.
There is, however, a possibility that he will be at Thorp Arch today. A formal termination letter was never sent to him, though third parties in Leeds are understood to be in possession of copies of it. It is believed to have been signed by Cellino himself
Hunt had a similar back-and-forward experience. He too was given hope of reinstatement on Saturday morning. He was offered his job as acting chief executive back.
But somewhere between that conversation and Hunt driving to Elland Road, he was called again and told to turn around and go home; an indication that he was being sacked after all. As it stands, he is not expected to survive this crisis. As for Nigel Gibbs, United’s likeable assistant manager, he is at obvious risk too. His future is intrinsically linked to McDermott’s and he was faced with total silence on Friday night.
Unlike Redfearn, he was not contacted by the club and given no invitation to Cellino’s council at Elland Road.
It was only at midday on Saturday, with Haigh fighting to convince McDermott to work towards reconciliation, that United’s MD got in touch to ask Gibbs to act as caretaker against Huddersfield.
Festa was removed from view, perhaps to embellish the assertion that McDermott was not being replaced. McDermott’s original team took to the field.
Cellino gave serious consideration to avoiding Saturday’s game and does not appear to have been there.
The intensity of the outrage on Friday spooked him. Other things over the weekend were eye-opening too; like a source close to McDermott recanting how some among the Italian contingent were talking about offering him a new contract by the time full-time and a 5-1 win came. He will not be fooled by that and is understood to be highly reluctant to work for Cellino.
He is unlikely to be any more enthusiastic about working for GFH on account of the bank’s role in allowing Cellino to act recklessly.
Guidance of the LMA will be crucial in deciding whether the reunion has legs.
So too will be the outcome of Cellino’s bid which, in spite of all that has gone on, is not official. In another peculiar twist, Haigh spent parts of Saturday’s game with Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity, better know these days as a member of the Together Leeds consortium who begged GFH for proper takeover negotiations last week as Haigh and others were agreeing terms with Cellino.
Together Leeds question Cellino’s credentials as a fit and proper owner – a hurdle GFH must believe the Italian will clear without problem. Haigh mixing with Verity placed his feet in two rival camps.
But that is Leeds; a club who are driving at a hundred miles an hour without a single hand on the steering wheel.
The reason no statement was issued by them during Friday’s madness is because no-one knew where the responsibility for a statement lay: in Italy, Bahrain or here in Yorkshire.
Cellino was culling and other prominent figures in the pantomime vanished. Those 24 hours will go down as some of the most negligent Leeds have ever seen.
STATEMENTS OF INTENT
Leeds United statement: “The club would like to make it clear that Brian McDermott, right, remains our first-team manager. He has not been dismissed from his post as has been suggested and we look forward to him continuing in his role with us in taking Leeds United forwards.”
Football League spokesman: “The Football League has begun preliminary conversations with the legal representative of Eleonora Sport Limited, which – according to statements released by GFH Capital – has concluded an agreement to acquire 75% of Leeds United.
“We have made Eleonora Sport Limited aware of our requirements under Football League regulations relating to the change of ownership at Championship clubs. Information has been requested... we will seek to deal with the change of ownership application as soon as the required information is provided.”