Sainsbury consortium plans £25m bid for Leeds

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The Independent Football

The turbulent story of Leeds United took another bizarre turn yesterday as Sebastian Sainsbury, a 41-year-old member of the supermarket dynasty, emerged as the frontman for an American-based consortium wanting to buy the club in a £25m takeover.

The turbulent story of Leeds United took another bizarre turn yesterday as Sebastian Sainsbury, a 41-year-old member of the supermarket dynasty, emerged as the frontman for an American-based consortium wanting to buy the club in a £25m takeover and install him as the chairman.

Sainsbury says he has been a fan of the club for "two or three years" but that a closer involvement in football has been "something I've always been interested in doing". The great-grandson of John James Sainsbury - the retail giant's founder - adds that his group have been working on their plan for four months.

One detail that might concern supporters is that the consortium's main player is an American, Burl Sheppard, who has no background in football, a generally unknown business history in the United States, and has yet to provide evidence of his resources. Sainsbury conceded yesterday that the group's investment vehicle, Nova Financial Partners, is "a fairly new company, put together for this enterprise". He also declined to say how much of his own money, if any, he would be investing. "I'm not really ready to go into that," he said.

The most extraordinary aspect of the proposed deal is that it is based on the assumption that Leeds United can be used as a conduit to sell hi-tech communications products to the South Yorkshire public. Asked to explain the rationale behind the bid, Sainsbury's reply was surely unique in the history of football buyouts. "It's about marrying the football club with technology, and about delivery of wireless broadband through a community," he said. And to think some people consider "split strikers" and "playing in the hole" to be new-fangled concepts.

Sainsbury said it would be necessary to involve the local council and the city in the scheme, but was keen to assure supporters that they would be at the forefront of the consortium's thoughts. "I want to communicate with the players and the supporters and to work out the next move together," he said.

The group claims to be ready and willing to invest £25m immediately. Its business plan envisages clearing the club's debts, repurchasing the recently offloaded Thorp Arch training ground, guaranteeing Leeds' future at Elland Road, and funding manager Kevin Blackwell's transfer kitty to the tune of £5m.

If all that sounds too good to be true, then Leeds' board has yet to dismiss it as such. Talks with the main protagonists are ongoing, the club confirmed last night, albeit in cautious terms.

"The board of Leeds United confirms that a number of discussions are continuing with various parties, and at this stage no agreement has been signed," Gerald Krasner, Leeds' chairman, said.

"We have always insisted that any interested party must be able to confirm that the necessary funds are available in order to complete any transaction. Despite much press speculation, as we stand now no party has met our conditions."

Sheppard has yet to make any public statements about his motives or plans. A former resident of Tennessee but now understood to live in Tampa Bay, Florida, he has been variously described as a "telecommunications executive" and a "hi-tech fund-raiser". He has been involved in a number of now-defunct companies and is unknown in local media circles in Florida.

One of his former companies, Promise-Net, which provided telecommunications access in several US states but folded three years ago. The office manager at Star Touch, where Sheppard once worked, said she had "no idea" what he had been doing since he left. Told that he was apparently behind a multi-million pound buy-out of one of England's biggest football clubs, she laughed and said: "I think that's a hoot."

Sainsbury, a former banker whose current business interests include part ownership of the exclusive Mint Bar in London, says that Leeds' fate is a serious business.

"The board has two options," he said. "Either the option we have put forward, or the option of selling Elland Road, the pride and joy of Leeds United for the past 85 years."

He added that he was aware that fans have become weary about having hopes dashed by potential saviours. Bahrain's Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Mubarak al-Khalifa and the Ugandan "tycoon" Michael Ezra were just two of the suitors whose ambitions for the club proved to be based more on fantasy than fact.

"This is one of greatest names in English football and anybody would relish the challenge of realising their enormous potential," Sainsbury said. "This has opened my eyes to how much football means and it is quite a scary prospect."

It remains to be seen whether his plan even reaches the check-out.

* Preston have agreed to sell David Healy to Leeds, after the Yorkshire side matched the Preston chairman Derek Shaw's asking price.

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