Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino sacked the club’s experienced woman welfare officer, credited as a huge influence by James Milner, Fabian Delph and other stars, because she was the partner of the first team manager whom the Italian wanted rid of, an industrial tribunal has heard.
Lucy Ward, who is claiming unfair dismissal and sex discrimination by Leeds, was told by the club’s executive director Adam Pearson that she was being sacked for going 16 days over her annual holiday entitlement, by taking extended leave to commentate on the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada for the BBC.
The court heard Ward had experienced no problems with the club when taking leave to commentate on women's football at six tournaments in the past: the 2007 and 2011 Women's World Cups; 2008 and 2012 Olympics; and 2009 and 2013 European Championships. “The club were very proud that I went to tournaments and commentated on them for the BBC. It was positive publicity for the club,” she told the court.
Leeds deny her claims. Their barrister, Lucy Bairstow, said Pearson told her that she had failed to secure the “appropriate authorisation” to leave to join the commentary team because she had only asked her immediate boss. But Ward argues that her absence due to her work for the BBC was an excuse to sack her, for the Italian owner. The tribunal, in central Leeds, heard that Pearson revealed at a 15-minute meeting at the club’s Elland Road ground that Cellino was determined that she must go because manager Neil Redfearn was being shown the door, after poor results.
Businessman and Leeds fan Ismael Gandall, who met Pearson to discuss using his Middle East contacts to find investment for the club, said he had implored him at their meeting, last June, not to dismiss Ward, having heard rumours she might be removed.
“I said to Adam: 'As much as I like Neil and fans love him, I do understand in football teams managers come and go,'” Gandall told the court. “’But why Lucy? The Lucys of this world don’t come and go.'” Pearson's answer was that: ‘Mr Cellino sees them as a pair.’”
Ward said that she had heard this suggestion when she attended a disciplinary hearing but did not expect Pearson, the former Derby County and Hull City chief executive, to act on the Italian owner’s wishes. Yet she then found Pearson was “not interested” in her attempts to defend herself.
“Mr Pearson seemed to be going through the motions in the disciplinary hearing,” Ward told Bairstow. “He didn’t particularly listen when I countered the allegations. It was quite bewildering to me, having been a committed, dedicated member of staff, to be treated like that.”
Before returning to the club from the Canada World Cup, Ward received a call from a concerned colleague in the Leeds Academy welfare office, warning that she would not be able to regain access to her office as the locks had been changed. “She rang me up to say: ‘I’ve been told not to tell you but the locks have been changed on our offices,'” Ward told the court. “I actually could not get back in and had to ring quite a few people to get back in to get my personal things out.
“It wasn’t Mr Pearson’s decision to get rid of me. It was an instruction from Mr Cellino – that he wasn’t happy with me so he wanted me to go as well [as Redfearn.] I expected a man with Mr Pearson’s standing to do a thorough and fair disciplinary. I didn’t expect that he would follow through with someone else’s [Mr Cellino’s] wishes, because of my relationship with Neil. I thought he would be more honourable than that.”
Bairstow said that Ward’s frequent absences from the Thorpe Arch training ground on Wednesdays had started when Redfearn had been appointed first team manager, at which point he and the first team squad took Wednesdays off. The barrister said that there had also been no express permission in Ward’s contract to take more than 25 days a year holiday entitlement and that she had deliberately avoided broaching the trip with the then Leeds chairman Andrew Umbers, who Ward said she did not “trust”. In the past she had secured the permission of the club’s former chief executive Shaun Harvey for BBC trips.
Ward insisted that she worked from home on Wednesdays and was in constant mobile phone contact with the Leeds Under 18s and Under 21s, whose care she was responsible for. She had discussed her impending Canada trip on scores of occasions with her line manager - the then Leeds Academy recruitment manager Adam Underwood - and detected no problems. Yet she only sought to formalise her request for leave by emailing Underwood four days before flying to Canada. She did not receive a reply.
As welfare and education officer, Ward has helped oversee the development of 250 Leeds players over 17 years. The case, which continues on Tuesday, will see Redfearn testify for her, with Pearson and Leeds club secretary Stuart Heaton taking the stand in the club’s defence. The court heard that the burden of proof in the case lies with Ward.
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