When a new day dawned on Leeds United yesterday, the attempted takeover of the club by a Miami-based Italian with previous convictions for fraud and false accounting was revealed for what it was: a hustle – nothing more and nothing less.
People with considerably more knowledge of how clubs get taken over than me will tell you that when a would-be owner has something unsavoury lurking in his background, he will just want to get into a club before anyone starts asking awkward questions. And so it was that pretty much the minute Massimo Cellino got a call on Friday from Leeds’ Bahraini owners, Gulf Finance House, prematurely congratulating him on his purchase of the club, he was on the phone to start throwing his weight around.
Cellino sacked the acting chief executive, Paul Hunt at about 5pm and manager Brian McDermott followed at some time around 7pm. A fine account of that extraordinary night, pieced together by the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Phil Hay, reveals how no one below board level at Leeds had a clue what was going on. Cellino was so intent on moving in by stealth that he tried to put together five transfers in the dead of night. Except he could not find anyone to sign the paperwork or work the fax machine and only one loan deal was completed. “In that respect, United were asleep with key staff hidden away,” Hay wrote. “The [transfer] deadline passed.”
Yes – a hustle. And what do you do when there are hustlers around? You arm yourself with the intellectual ammunition to put protection on the door of our clubs that tells those who want to take them over that they need not waste their breath if they cannot show that they are who they say they are.
An investigation into Cellino hardly required the massed ranks of the Control Risks consultancy on the case. It took old-fashioned, methodical journalistic work to establish that the Italian had a conviction for deceiving the European Union and the Italian Ministry for Agriculture out of £7.5m, for which he received a reduced and suspended 14-month prison sentence following a plea bargain in the 1990s. And that in 2001 he was given a 15-month suspended sentence for false accounting at Cagliari.
Quite what possessed the lawyers who are advising Cellino to neglect to tell him he was going to struggle to get Football League approval for any takeover with a record like this is anyone’s guess. The willingness of GFH in trying to sell 75 per cent of Leeds to allow Cellino to cavort around the Thorpe Arch training ground, playing boss before the League had cleared him, is less baffling. Leeds’ desperate financial state clearly had plenty to do with it.
But most puzzling of all is that it took the Football League until 6.30pm on Saturday to say, in a statement, that it had started preliminary conversations with Cellino’s company, Eleonora Sport Ltd, and made it “aware of our requirements under Football League regulations”. The horse had bolted by then. Leeds had become a laughing stock again and McDermott had been sacked.
The League says it can only examine a takeover when one is presented to it, though there is no good reason why it should not be proactively examining the names of individuals or companies who are circling clubs. Perhaps it might mean a few wasted days making the relatively rudimentary checks required – judicial records, government agencies, a call to the Foreign Office – only to discover that the subject of all that effort vanishes from the scene. If it’s a full £100,000 spent in vain, then it will have been worth it for a Football League whose 72 clubs turn over some £600m between them. Work like that sends a message about what sort of body new owners must deal with – because the current impression is one of the League remaining reactive and on the back foot where the security of its clubs are concerned.
That view has always been there – not least when the League chairman, Greg Clarke, told the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee three years ago that there was nothing that could be done to force the then Leeds chairman, Ken Bates, to reveal who the club’s shadowy owner was. The name behind the Forward Sports Fund – surprise, surprise, Bates – surfaced soon enough when the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, told the same committee that Leeds would be denied Premier League membership if they refused to disclose the details.
The Premier League has certainly made progress in enforcing its owners’ and directors’ test – introduced three years ago in place of the frequently cited fit and proper person test, which sounded too much like a cosy examination of whether the new owner was a decent bloke. There is an acceptance at the Premier League that the fault of allowing Alexandre Gaydamak and Carson Yeung to buy, respectively, Portsmouth and Birmingham lay at its own door. The organisation now engages corporate intelligence experts to supplement the work of its three or four in-house accountants and – significantly – it has undertaken to pay for those same investigators to carry out work for the Football League, as part of a new understanding between the two organisations.
So there are the resources to be able to tell Cellino that he will not be buying Leeds United. And we have to hope there are the resources to tell him that establishing a company to run Leeds at arm’s length – through his son, Ercole – won’t wash either. Because that is quite probably what will happen next. “It’s often the owners you don’t see buying clubs who create the problems, rather than the ones you do,” a source familiar with this business told me yesterday, and the Elland Road Hustle bears him out. The Football League’s clubs – desperate and impoverished as so many are – need far more protection than those among the gilded elite. It’s time to send a signal to those who think they can breeze in and destroy them in the dead of night.
Sky left howling into the void that was transfer deadline day
It’s not so often that the BBC can say it has put Sky in its place but transfer deadline night was one such occasion. Nothing happened – that was the top and bottom of it – and the BBC was just a lot better equipped for that kind of vacuum. The substitutes for action were discussion and conjecture from guests who – in the case of the excellent Danny Murphy – chipped in with a few news stories when a mate was on the move and obligingly texted him to say so. Meanwhile, in a different universe, Sky just conducted the same orgy of insignificant sound and fury. Less can be more at times. That much the BBC proved on Friday night.
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