Well, at least the supporters of Leeds United can take a crumb of comfort from the fact that, after twenty-four hours that has been their club become the laughing stock of the entire Football League, they have a team and a support of which they can till be proud. At Elland Road this afternoon, a crowd of more than 31,000 people saw Leeds put Huddersfield Town to the swird by five goals to one, a first league win since the middle of December and one which keeps the team on the fringes of the pack chasing for a place in the play-offs in the Championship.
It’s difficult to imagine, however, that even this afternoon the team iself was the main topic of conversation. This time last week, it merely looked as if the takeover of the club by the Sport Capital group, featuring insurance magnate Andy Flowers and the club’s current – at the time of writing – Managing Director, David Haugh. Today, however, the Sport Capital takeover of the club is just about dead. There’s a new sheriff in town, and he took just hours to start living up to his reputation as being, well, something of a loose cannon.
The announcement that GFC Capital, the soon-to-be ex-owners of the club, had reached terms with Eleonara Sport Ltd, the company formed by the owner of Cagliari, Massimo Cellino, was no great surprise. Over the last few day, with Sport Capital having reduced its offer for the club following the process of due diligence, a rival bid by a stalking horse had come to be regarded as something more than merely a stalking horse. Cellino’s reputation, however, comes before him. A trigger-happy attitude towards the hiring and firing of managers that goes back more than two decades and previous criminal convictions for fraud and false accounting understandably led many of the club’s supporters to a feeling of considerable unease.
With the announcement of the reaching of terms between GFH Capital and Eleonara Sport, however, the doors of the madness surrounding this club over the last few days have really come off. It was reported last night that Cellino had decided to sack McDermott and replace him with long-time friend – and former Middlesbrough defender – Gianluca Festa, whose previous managerial experience totals a couple of years as the reserve team and assistant manager at Cagliari followed by a season and a half at A.C. Lumezzane in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione in Italy, where his team currently sits in eleventh place in a sixteen team division.
Whilst recent results hadn’t been great, McDermott was some way from achieving anything like pariah status at Elland Road yet, and the reaction of some Leeds after this news became public last night. It was reported that, at the ground, supporters blocked exits and repeatedly chased away a taxi sent to collect Massimo Cellino. But yesterday’s extraordinary events took a further twist this morning when it was reported that McDermott had been sacked by a lawyer working on behalf of Cellino. So, in other words, a man who has already achieved infamy over his record of having sacked thirty-six managers in twenty years at Cagliari had already contrived to find a way to sack his first Leeds United manager before he’d even completely taken control of the club.
Festa, however, wasn’t in charge of the team for this afternoon’s match against Huddersfield Town, though. With McDermott having rejected an offer to return to the club to take charge after having sought legal advice on the matter, the Leeds assistant manager that took control of the team for this match. It had been one of the small consolations from the ruins of Friday that the departure of Scottish international striker Ross McCormack, whose sale in order to balance the books at Elland Road had had been rumoured, did not materialise, and McCormack scored a hat-trick. Indeed, the BBC reported this evening that McCormack had even taken it upon himself to “rally the troops” before the match. One of the team’s best perforamces of the season was the result of all of this. After the match, a statement finally appeared on the club’s official website which seemed odd, to say the least:
The club would like to make it clear that Brian McDermott remains our first team manager. He has not been dismissed from his post as has been suggested and we look forward to him continuing in his role with us in taking Leeds United forwards.
Itis, perhaps, unsurprising that the club should have attempted to back-track on the events of the previous season. After all, Enterprise Insurance, the company owned by Andrew Flowers which is the current short sponsors of the club (Flowers told the Yorkshire Evening Post that, “I’m devastated for Brian and we’ll be looking to end our sponsorship of the club. In no way do we wish to be associated with this regime.”), and the theme park Flamingo Land, which sponsors its youth academy, had already confirmed that they had withdrawn their support of the club. But what was the truth of the situation? That McDermott had been dismissed was reported as fact to the extent even the League Managers Association released a statement on the matter which read as follows:
Brian received a call last night from a solicitor informing him that Leeds United were terminating his contract as manager. This morning Brian received a further phone call from a director of the football club stating the company on whose behalf the solicitor had contacted Brian are not the owners of Leeds United. In the circumstances, Brian was asked by the directors of the club not to take the match today and we are awaiting clarification of the situation over the weekend.
There doesn’t seem to be any denying what happened last night, rather that the lawyer acting on behalf of Cellino didn’t have the authority to make the call to McDermott that he did. All of this can lead us to only two conclusions. Firstly, the chain of command within GFH Capital didn’t have any control over Cellino and his representatives on Friday evening, and secondly, that Cellino may well be even more likely to being his own idiosyncratic style of ownership to Elland Road in the event that he does take ownership of the club, should this sale be completed.
There has been much talk today on the subject of whether Cellino will or should pass the Owners & Directors Test. Whether he should or not is, of course, a reflection on the inefficacy of the test itself, which seems to have had little effect on the number of rogues, maniacs and ne’er-do-wells in boardroom positions at football clubs. The length of time that has passed since Cellino’s previous convictions would seem to be considered spent, but the charges for embezzlement against him have yet to be heard and these may well see him fail this test. It has even been suggested that Cellino has lined up his son as chairman in the event that he does end up failing this “test”, in which case all that we can is remind all concerned that the Owners & Directors Test applies to “shadow directors” and any “Persons exercising “control” over the club.”
Cellino isn’t the only show in town when it comes to assuming the ownership of Leeds United, though, and another consortium, the Farnan Group (which features the former Hull City chairman Adam Pearson) has still not declared its bid to take over the running of Leeds United yet. The Football League confirmed this evening that they are watching, with a statement which implied that they are keeping a close eye on recent events at Elland Road:
The Football League has begun preliminary conversations with Eleonora Sport Limited, which – according to statements released by GFH Capital – has concluded an agreement to acquire 75% of Leeds United. We have made Eleonora Sport Limited aware of our requirements under Football League regulations regarding the change of ownership of Championship clubs. Information has been requested that is consistent with that required of all potential new owners.
There is, however, regrettably little reason to suggest that the Football League will act with any significant backbone over this takeover. They certainly didn’t over the relocation of Coventry City to Northampton last summer, and it is difficult to remember the organisation breaking with its tradition of letting football club owners do whatever the hell they like to a football club over the last couple of decades or so. They are welcome, of course, to prove us wrong, but if history is anything to go by, we can only say that we will believe it when we see it. In the meantime, it has also been stated that Sport Capital, the Andy Flowers consortium, will be instructing legal action should the Football League ratify the takeover.
So, it has been a day of extreme mixed emotions for most Leeds United supporters. On the one hand, the team won and the mnager might not have been sacked after all. On the other, though, all that hangs over Elland Road at the moment is a feeling of flux and uncertainty, and the suspicion remains that, if the events of the last forty-eight hours or so have been anything to go by, the ownership of Massimo Cellino seems unlikely to bring a great deal of stability to a club that needs a return to normality that doesn’t involve the sort of insanity that has flowed through it like a virus over the last twenty-four hours or so.
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