Extraordinary events at Leeds

The sacking and reinstatement of Brian McDermott, a decent man who is popular with supporters, is unparalleled in recent football history. However, Leeds fans may not get the protection from the Football League’s fit and proper person test that they could reasonably hope for.

The sacking and reinstatement of Brian McDermott, a decent man who is popular with supporters, is unparalleled in recent football history. However, Leeds fans may not get the protection from the Football League’s fit and proper person test that they could reasonably hope for.

The prospects of Leeds have been blighted by a series of events in recent years. One recalls that former director Simon Morris tried to buy the club in 2007, having denied in 2005 allegations that he was involved in a plot to reduce the wage bill by breaking Gary Kelly’s legs. He failed to buy the club but did get 18 months for his role in a £100,000 blackmail plot.

Then supporters had to put up with Ken Bates. Nobody knew who owned the club, only that Forward Sports Fund was registered in the Cayman Islands. GFH Capital took over a year ago and spent most of their time trying to find a buyer.

Many clubs claim to be ‘big’ ones, but Leeds have a legitimate case. Their attendances in the Championship are bettered only by Brighton. Leeds is a prosperous regional capital. The club is punching below its weight in the Championship, but it needs stability and responsible ownership. It doesn’t look as if it is going to get it.

Part of the problem is that if GFH had any money in the first place, they have spent it, hence any offer can look like a good one. The Bates regime left cashflow problems and the club is thought to be losing £1m a month, although such losses are more the norm than the exception in the Championship. For example, Bournemouth, by any standards a smaller club, is losing £8m a year.

Massimo Cellino has only agreed in principle to buy the club. However, he appears to have been instrumental in signing a player on loan from Cagliari at the end of the transfer window which the manager knew nothing about. Andrea Tabanelli turned up for training at Thorp Arch on Monday, but the deal had not been ratified with the Football League.

Chris Farnell, the lawyer who informed McDermott on Friday evening that had been dismissed at the request of Cellino, turned up at Elland Road on Monday, it is thought following instructions from his client. A few hours later he was asked to leave by David Haigh, the Leeds managing director, another director Salem Patel (a key figure at Gulf Finance House) and a security guard.

Shortly afterwards, the Leeds chairman, Salah Nooruddin, sent an e-mail to all staff reminding that the existing board remained in control: ‘No instructions or directions whatsoever should be taken from anyone outside the existing management structure and the Board.’

A man with Cellino’s criminal record, with further possible proceedings hanging over him after his reported arrest last year on suspicion of embezzlement – his Italian lawyer, Giovanni Cocco, said he denies any wrongdoing – looks like he would pass the Football League’s “owners and directors test”, formerly the “fit and proper persons test”, were he to seal the deal with GFH.

The rules, introduced by the Football League in 2004, then by the Premier League after years of resisting and claiming they would be unworkable, were designed precisely to stop fraudsters taking over clubs. Yet neither the rules of the Football League nor the Premier League exclude people whose record suggests that they are not “fit and proper”.

It’s not just a question of the football authorities being weak kneed as most decisions are open to challenge in court by wealthy individuals who can hire good lawyers. The leagues therefore drafted rules which stick tightly to a set of specific criteria, which prospective owners of historic clubs either pass or fail. There is no catch-all category that would keep away people whose conduct might bring the game into disrepute, like apparently sacking a manager before they even have control of a club.

There is not even a measure that prevents people taking over a club if they are under investigation or facing charges for an alleged criminal offence of dishonesty. In the case of Cellino, who was arrested in Italy last year as part of an ongoing investigation into the alleged misuse of public funds in relation to the development of the controversial Is Arena in Cagliari, he would be regarded by the Football League as innocent until the case is concluded. Indeed, it is difficult to see how they could do otherwise.

The Football and Premier Leagues’ rules do not bar from ownership, or the boards of clubs, a person who has convictions for fraud. Instead, mindful of fair play for reformed characters as recognised by British law, the Football League rules disqualify people only if: “They have unspent convictions for offences of dishonesty, corruption, perverting the course of justice, serious breaches of the Companies Act or conspiracy to commit any of those offences.”

The question of whether a conviction is “spent” is determined by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Its aim is to allow people’s reputations and life chances not to be forever burdened by a crime committed years earlier, and sets out specific lengths of time after which a criminal conviction is “spent”, and people can be considered rehabilitated. Cellino’s convictions in Italy, which date from 1996 and 2001, approaching 18 and 13 years ago, would be considered “spent” in English law.

The one hope is that a rival bid from a ‘Together Leeds’ consortium fronted by Michael Farnan, a former Manchester United director, is still in play and GFH are to meet them.
A proposed takeover by Sports Capital, which involves Haigh and Andrew Flowers, the managing director of club sponsor Enterprise Insurance, fell through last week because of a lack of financial backing. They have now joined forces with the Together Leeds consortium, led by local businessman Mike Farnan and which also includes Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity and former Hull City chairman Adam Pearson.

Should talks between them and GFH in London not meet with success, it seems that Leeds fans may find their club is owned by someone who is even less popular than Ken Bates.