Confusion over Massimo Cellino takeover
4 February ~ There's always been a heavy dose of gallows humour among Leeds United supporters, which is a good thing when you consider the catalogue of catastrophes that have befallen the club over the last decade or so. But this ability to laugh at the club's misfortune was pushed to the limits on transfer deadline day. While fans of most teams were eagerly awaiting news of new arrivals, at Leeds they were digesting unconfirmed media reports that the club had been bought by Italian investor Massimo Cellino.
Apparently Cellino's first move had been to sack the manager Brian McDermott and the club's acting chief executive Paul Hunt – managing director David Haigh, who had failed in his own attempts to lead a takeover of the club last month despite having preferred bidder status, had also reportedly stepped aside.
In the wake of media reports about the sackings and the torrent of rumours on social media that saw #LUFC trending, shirt sponsor Enterprise Insurance and academy sponsor Flamingo Land announced their intention to withdraw their financial support of the club in protest at the shoddy treatment of McDermott. There were further scenes of confusion and chaos outside Elland Road late on Friday evening, with hoards of angry supporters chasing a taxi containing Cellino around the stadium perimeter (the cab company was forced to tweet a plea to supporters to allow the taxi to leave the stadium as the car was running low on petrol).
On Saturday morning the situation at Elland Road was no clearer. Although outgoing owners GFH Capital confirmed that it had agreed to sell a 75 per cent stake to Cellino's Eleonora Sport, with the Italians pledging to invest "substantially" in the club, it emerged that the deal hadn't been finalised. The story soon took another twist with GFH confirming that Haigh had returned to his role of managing director and that McDermott was still technically the Leeds manager, although he didn't attend the crushing 5-1 home victory over Huddersfield.
Furthermore, McDermott – who over the weekend sought advice from the League Managers Association over his position – arrived at Thorp Arch on Monday morning to oversee training as per usual. However, his return could be short-lived. If Cellino completes the takeover it's highly likely that McDermott's days are numbered.
Cellino's past track record of hiring and firing makes Ken Bates look like a cuddly old uncle – he's sacked 36 managers in 20 years at Serie A side Cagliari – and he is reported to have held discussions with the former Reading boss last week during which he made it clear that he wanted on-pitch affairs to be overseen by a coach – possibly former Middlesbrough defender, and Cellino's close ally, Gianluca Festa.
Although there's little doubt that Cellino has the necessary funds to complete the takeover, two previous convictions for fraud may count against him when it comes to passing the Football League's "fit and proper" ownership test and could ultimately see the deal fall through.
This could leave the door open for Haigh's Sport Capital consortium and a group of bidders called Together Leeds, led by former Manchester United director Mike Farnam. The latter tabled a bid for the club late last year that was well below GFH's expectations and although Haigh's bid collapsed over a lack of cash, it emerged late on Monday evening that the rival groups had teamed up and were due to meet GFH to discuss buying the club with a financial package that matched Cellino's. Whoever emerges as eventual owners it's clear that swift action is needed to ensure the cash-strapped club's future survival, with rumours circulating that GFH are struggling to control a growing debt burden.
After years of uncertainty under previous owner Bates, GFH came to power promising a new era of transparency, openness and fan engagement. But recent developments have plunged the club, and more importantly its beleaguered band of loyal supporters, back into the darkness once again. Simon Creasey