We can’t say we weren’t warned, but if we have to, we will.
Massimo Cellino’s takeover has finally been confirmed; the takeover I never expected to happen. Not because I thought the Football League would block it in a pique of corruption, or because Massimo would be in jail for something-or-other long before he got the chance to get the key to Elland Road from his place in the presentation box on the shelf in David’s office.
I didn’t expect it to happen because, well, who did? We’re all familiar with Massimo now, and Eleonora and Ercole and Eduardo, but when his name first cropped up in connection with Leeds United, none of us had heard of him, and his chances of disrupting a takeover that David Haigh seemed to have a lock on looked remote.
In fact, his interest seemed remote. The first report to mention him, on January 20th, came from Sardinia’s L’Unione Sarda, and quoted Cellino after another defeat for his club Cagliari as saying: “I’m going to Miami.” His dummy was well and truly out about the ongoing problems with Cagliari’s stadium, he was in talks to sell the club, but quite why Leeds United had been shoehorned into the story wasn’t at all clear.
By the next day, it just looked like an idle threat. ‘Sort out the stadium,’ he seemed to be telling the Sardinian authorities, the Italian FA, and anybody else, ‘Or I’ll just go and buy Leeds instead.’
And so, here we are. That iron lock David Haigh and Sport Capital had on taking over Leeds United turned out to be rusted and broken. Cagliari’s stadium is also still rusted and broken, its condition apparently to blame for an injury to a police officer last weekend. And Massimo Cellino now owns Leeds United. And we can’t say we haven’t been warned.
Warnings don’t seem to matter much anymore, though. The day that Cellino finally confirmed his purchase was also the day that the mask finally slipped from Gulf Finance House, and the accounts revealed some of what they’ve been doing to our club. £9.5m lost in the year to June 2013; £15m of debt loaded on, all repayable – presumably with interest – to themselves.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. When GFH first appeared on the scene, a hefty looking academic report did the rounds of Leeds fans. The Rise and Fall of Gulf Finance House, written by three academics at Reading University with qualifications in investment banking and Islamic finance, outlined the strategy that had brought great success to Gulf Finance House, before the recession plunged it into economic disaster.
The model was newly developed by GFH, but quite simple: acquire an asset for a certain price, and attract investors who would pay a premium in advance of the asset increasing in value. Essentially GFH built their model on the principle of front-loading their profit, so they would make money whether the asset performed well or not.
And so to Leeds United, where the asset GFH bought in December 2012 has without doubt reduced in value – now that the accounts have been published, what looked like lowball bids from TogetherLeeds and Sport Capital now reflect the reduced turnover and huge debts they were bidding for. But what is also without doubt is that GFH have profited from their fifteen months at Leeds United.
Management fees, premiums on share sales and purchases – of which there were many, not all disclosed – creation of £15m of debt to themselves, all after stopping meeting running costs sometime last year; and still they and Salah Nooruddin own 25% of the club between them, which really will increase in value should Cellino sort out the mess at Leeds – the mess they’ve made – and get Leeds to the Premier League.
And they smiled throughout – just as the academics warned us they would, writing of how even as their investments fell apart, “shrewd” use of media kept the positivity flowing – and even now I can’t deny myself the happy memory of that first game of the season against Brighton. They had kicked Bates out, they had stuck adverts around the city inviting fans back to the club, they’d reopened a shop in town, they’d signed Luke Murphy for a million and the sun was shining as he scored a last minute winner.
We had been warned, but the warnings were bunk. Who wanted to be warned?
What we had wanted, more than anything else, was to be rid of Ken Bates. His eight years of rule had become like a bad dream from which it seemed like we’d never awake; only we knew it wasn’t a dream because Delph, Howson, Johnson and Snodgrass all really were playing in the Premier League, while we really were still no nearer. As the East Stand extension got creamier and creamier, all in preparation for a hotel we didn’t want or need, getting Bates out was the only way forward.
We had been warned about Bates. Or rather, Bates had warned us himself; not only with his mid-eighties vow to destroy Leeds United the way we’d destroyed the Stamford Bridge scoreboard, but with Stamford Bridge itself. Go and look at it today; look at the hotel strapped to its back that still frustrates Abramovich’s plans to increase capacity, and look at the shape of it. Look at the colour of the bricks, look at the cladding. It’s the same, it’s exactly the same, as ours.
Our radio station was run using equipment from Chelsea’s old one, itself an imitation of the idea Bates had had at Oldham in the sixties; at Oldham, too, was born Ken’s idea of using the matchday programme as a propaganda tool, that carried on through Chelsea – including a guest column at Bolton after Abramovich banned it – to Leeds.
And the attitude was still there, the Tell It Like It Isn’t joke-free comedy routines where Bates would rail against the world; against visiting Chinese athletes, and children in Africa who for some bizarre reason he begrudged having clean water. Gradually, season by season, it began to dawn that having that rogue as our rogue wasn’t going to be quite as much fun as we had thought.
Even if he’s only here for the money, went the thinking, he’ll need Leeds to be successful. So success for Bates would be success for Leeds United. Well, so you would have thought. But as the newly published accounts show, the day after Gulf Finance House confirmed their purchase of the club, £4m or preference shares were redeemed by a company called Lutonville Holdings – “a related party by virtue of its connection to Ken Bates.”
Well, we had been warned.
“When I realised that the team needed me,” said Cellino, “I came back.” Back to Cagliari, that is, on March 28th, but the fans there weren’t pleased to have him back.
CELLINO VALLENTE read the banners around Cagliari: “Cellino Get Out.” “We have no stadium, you have no dignity” reads another. Years of watching their stadium crumble around them while their owner plays hardball with the council and sends the team to play 500 miles away in Trieste had worn the fans down even before he began his affair with Leeds United, before he made the now infamous wisecrack about Leeds being a Ferrari, and Cagliari a Fiat 500. “Cells, go to kill you and your father and the soul of the evil dead,” responded one Cagliari fan on a forum.
The views of the Cagliari fans sound pretty familiar, and the prevailing idea can be summarised as a prediction: he’ll clear the debts and do the necessary to get the club promoted, but the good times will end in mid-table, “When he finds the perfect balance between his profit, earnings/expenses, achievements” to quote one Cagliari fan. Players will be bought cheap or promoted from within, then sold for big fees that won’t be spent on the team: “Good players sold and replaced with gigantic blowjobs” to quote another fan. Meanwhile, his need to be the star, the centre of attention, will result in increasingly embarrassing episodes that won’t befit the club.
GFH did their own research, compiling a dossier about the guy they were proposing to deal with, a dossier with the slightly school-projectish name of Project Athena. That’s how come they knew about the problem with his yacht, and the other yacht, and the Range Rover; the charges hanging over him because of the stadium, and the arrest warrant issued last year that described him as a man “of marked criminal tendencies… capable of using every kind of deception to achieve his ends”; the mysterious and frightening case of the seven sailors murdered in an Algerian port on a boat, owned by Cellino, that was suspected of carrying an illicit cargo of guns.
We can’t say we haven’t been warned, but those warnings have been hard to hear above the charismatic outpourings of Massimo. Who doesn’t like to be told they’re a Ferrari? “The fans have had to put up with ten shitty years and I want to make them proud of the club again,” he said on Sunday. “There is only one place in my heart for one club and that is Leeds. When I get the right offer I will sell Cagliari.”
He ticks all the right boxes: passionate, committed, and with his heart filled with Leeds. He said the same to the Cagliari fans in Italy on Sunday, that he only room for one club in his life, in his heart. Own two clubs? “With my way of doing things, with feeling and maximum commitment, no.” Except: “And if you were to ask me who I would choose between Cagliari and Leeds, Cagliari answer all [my] life.”
Well, we can’t say we haven’t been warned.
You might have detected a pattern. A new owner appears on the horizon, promising the earth; we’re warned, but we get behind them anyway. And then we get screwed over.
But the problem with all these warnings is not so much that we won’t heed them – and plenty of people are happy to put their heads in the sand and pretend nothing is happening – but that we can’t.
What was the option when Bates arrived? To refuse him and stick with Krasner? How about GFH? No matter how suspicious we were, they had to be an improvement on Bates, right? And what about now? Do we ask GFH to politely decline their bonanza deal with Cellino, and carry on doing their good work running the club?
That last example shows what a double whammy our situation is. Even if we decide the warnings weigh too heavily against Cellino and he’s the wrong man for the club, his bags of money certainly weigh very nicely on the scales at GFH HQ, and nobody in Bahrain gives a good damn what Leeds United’s customers want anyway.
All we can do is fully appraise ourselves of the warnings, cross our fingers, close our eyes, and get on with it. And, without ignoring the warnings altogether, to think of the positives. If Cellino is really willing to take Leeds down roads he could never take Cagliari, that sounds good. If he’s going to buy Elland Road back for the club, and maybe even Thorp Arch, then those will be two steps forward. If he can clear GFH out of the club and then pay to have the blood cleaned from the carpets then we can put a miserable chapter behind us. If he’s going to stay cheerful and passionate and a bit mad and entertaining then at least it might mean something, instead of the grinning platitudes from Haigh and co. Perhaps we’ll even get some good players; he’s promised promotion by the end of 2015/16.
But it is possible to look forward to the good with excitement, while also tiptoeing into the future with trepidation. We were warned about Bates, we were warned about GFH, and now we have damn well been warned about Massimo Cellino. Nobody knows what might happen now. But whatever happens, we can’t say we haven’t been warned.
From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 09