Over the course of much of the last decade or so, the ongoing travails of Leeds United AFC have become one of English football’s more enduring soap operas. From Ken Bates, through relegation to League One and the appointment of Massimo Cellino, there may be no other football club in England that has been so badly run, by so many different groups, and over such a broad period of time. At the start of this week, however, the tragedy that the decline of this club long since became crossed a line into the world of farce. Leeds United might just, over the course of the last forty-eight hours or so – finally have completed its transformation into becoming a parody of itself.
That the days of former manager Uwe Rosler were numbered will have come as no great surprise to those amongst us that pay attention to results in the Football League Championship. Two wins in eleven matches in the league this season has left the club in eighteenth position in the league table and peering nervously over its shoulder at the dotted line just below them that signifies relegation back to the third tier of the game. However, there was something a little surprising about the timing of the decision. It came two days after the team was beaten at home by Brighton & Hove Albion, who remain the only unbeaten team in the top four divisions of the English league system – at lease as of Saturday tea-time – but required a goal a couple of minutes from time from Bobby Zamora to nick a win at Elland Road on Saturday.
The decision to relieve Rosler of his duties came on a day when the senior management of the club might have been considered to have bigger fish to fry. Massimo Cellino arrived at Elland Road a year and a half ago with a reputation from his lengthy in Italy for having one of the itchiest managerial trigger fingers about, and in this respect at least, he hasn’t disappointed. Rosler was the Leeds manager for just twelve matches, and his departure from the club was the fifth managerial departure since Cellino arrived at the club. In this case, however, Cellino’s reputation preceded him. No-one can say that fair warning wasn’t given about his own particular style of running a football club.
Events elsewhere, meant that Monday was a good day to bury bad news for Leeds United. On Monday afternoon, it became public that Cellino had been banned by the Football League from acting as the owner or a director until June 2016 following a conviction for tax fraud in Italy, where Cellino was found guilty in June and fined €40,000 (£28,400) for non-payment of VAT on a vehicle that he had imported into Italy. This wasn’t the first time that Cellino has had his fingers caught in the oven in this respect, either. In March 2014, just as he was about to take control of Leeds United, he was convicted of failing to pay almost €390,000 (£305,000) of import tax duty payable against a yacht purchased in 2012.
Despite reservations over his suitability to run a football club in this country, Cellino was permitted to take control of the club after he successfully argued that he had not been “fully dishonest.” Astonishingly, however, the Football League had to apply to the Italian court itself for a copy of transcripts after Cellino failed to supply them. When they did receive them, the documents confirmed that the judge had found that Cellino had evaded the tax with “elusive intent” using a “bogus corporate screen.” So, not only had he found to be dishonest in the eyes of the judge presiding over the case, but he had also been dishonest to the Football League about this dishonesty. The price that he paid for this was to be banned from running the club from December 2014 to May 2015, at which point the conviction became spent under English law.
At least the second time around Cellino provided the documents himself. Not that it did him an good, of course. For a second time, the Football League found that Cellino had breached the standards set by the Owners & Directors Test, and this time his ban runs again until the conviction becomes spent under British law. Even the end of this ban might not see him out of the woods. Cellino faces a further three tax evasion cases in Italy over the course of the coming months, one regarding another yacht, a second regarding the building of a temporary stadium while he was at Cagliari, and a third for tax reportedly unpaid in relation to the transfer of two Cagliari players. It’s difficult to believe that further convictions won’t lead to further bans. Perhaps the Football League shouldn’t have allowed him to take control of it in the first place. Just a thought.
As if this wasn’t quite bad enough for the club’s long-suffering supporters, there was further bad news to follow when the club announced that, somehow or other, Steve Evans would be replacing Uwe Rosler as the club’s manager. Now, we all know about Steve Evans. It’s been a little over five years since this became the most-read article to ever appear on this site, and every now again it still gets a little spike in reading number as people refer back to it as a hand précis of Evans’ previous misdemeanours. We all know just how obnoxious Evans is, and we all know the grubby little sausage fingers that he’s had in grubby little pies over the years. You’ve probably seen the video in which he’s described on BT Sport as “a nasty, poisonous little man.”
Where the irony becomes farcical in this case is that Evans himself has already received a suspended prison sentence for tax fraud committed while he was in charge of a football club. We can’t say for certain whether nobody involved in the running of the club was aware of this state affairs or whether it’s merely the case that the club’s media department has an incredibly sophisticated sense of humour, but for a manager with a conviction for tax fraud to take a job on the very day itself that the club’s owner begins a ban from his involvement in the club on account of a conviction for tax fraud feels so horrifically perfect that the latter seems the more credible explanation of the two.
The reaction of Leeds United supporters to all of this fell somewhere between incandescent and wearily resigned. The Leeds United forum The Square Ball seemed to be occupied by a roughly split evenly between these two camps – “Nope, I have no words, just don’t know where to start,” “Nope, I have no words, just don’t know where to start” and “I’ve had enough of this bollocks” seem like reasonable samples of the opinions of the good burghers of that particular parish. The Leeds United Supporters Trust, meanwhile, has not commented publicly on this appointment, but it has called on Cellino to consider selling his shareholding in the club, stating that “The trust believes Leeds supporters have suffered enough over the years and therefore asks that Massimo Cellino brings clarity and honesty to any public statements on the immediate future and considers the supporters’ need for a stable club at all times in how he deals with this latest ban. If, and the case grows daily, it is in the best interests of Leeds United supporters, he and GFH should sell, we call on them both to do so with efficiency.”
Perhaps Leeds United actually wants Steve Evans to be its public face. Nothing, in all honesty, could surprise us about this club any more. It seems difficult to believe that anybody could look at Evans in any respect and say,”Yes! That’s the man for me!”, but this is what appears to have happened, and after a blissful three weeks of peace and quiet since his departure from Rotherham United, his unctuous face will likely be back on our television screens again from this weekend on, at least until Massimo Cellino – or whomever is acting on his behalf – gets that itch again. In the meantime, the soap opera will continue to run and run, and the reputation of this football club will continue to be dragged along in the dirt behind it. Leeds United AFC might not be many neutrals’ favourite football clubs, but surely the majority of us wouldn’t even wish this ongoing torment on our worst enemies… would we?
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