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the square ball week: mambo italiano

the square ball week: mambo italiano

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The Italian, then.

The one that was charged with embezzlement in February, the one that wears purple robes for luck and thinks he’s Jimmy Hendrix

The one who has his home in Miami, and runs a football club on the island of Sardinia that played one of its home games this season 600 miles away in Trieste. The one with the two convictions for fraud (one relating to a transfer involving Daniel Fonseca, if you remember him). Yeah, him. 

I don’t know what part of all that made me dismiss his interest as ‘too weird’ when it began to be reported this week. When you put it all down like that, it makes perfect sense.

Massimo Cellino’s interest in Leeds United – which so far this week has varied from ‘outright purchase’, to ‘part of Sport Capital consortium’, to ‘advisor to Sport Capital consortium’ – makes as much sense as anything else surrounding the takeover saga that has been running since the end of November. Why not a guitar-toting Italian football chairman from Miami with convictions for fraud, as well as everything else?

As this simple process that was ready to be concluded as soon as the Football League gave it the man from Del Monte treatment drags into its eighth week, and as we await forensic analysis of Cellino’s son’s Instagram photos to determine whether the family really were in Leeds this week, two thoughts are foremost in my mind about this whole thing.

First of all is how unnecessary it all is. The feverish refreshing of Twitter, the hourly badgering of anyone who might have an inkling of what’s going on, the ever increasing pressure for information, for indicators, for clues, for a beginning of an ending – it feels like everything about Leeds United Football Club depends on this takeover. And like a self-fulfilling prophecy, now, it probably does. But it didn’t have to be this way.

Removing Ken Bates eventually – too eventually, for my liking – became too necessary not to happen; the club’s future hopes and prosperity really were dependent on us being freed from the beardshade that kept us in darkness for so many years. By Summer 2012, he had to go, and the club had to change; and he went, and the club changed. 

Was December 2013 really like that, though? Mid-table, decent form, a good manager, promising new players and a contract for McCormack, and a transfer window ahead for McDermott to use for either a push for promotion or to continue building next year. The vibe, especially compared to the Bates days, was conspicuously good; ‘engagement’, which is the modern term for ‘not treating fans like dicks’, had brought attendances at Elland Road regularly up to over 30,000 content, if not ecstatic, fans.

If Gary Verity and Mike Farnan’s bid had been rejected, and the club had carried on as it was, there would be barely a bead of sweat on any West Yorkshire brows right now. David Haigh could have carried on chucking bits of money in through his various ‘dale companies, the same signings could have been made, the same cheap beer, ticket and pie promotions would have gone ahead, and the club would have looked to all intents as if it was ticking along quite nicely. We probably still would have lost to Rochdale and Sheffield Wednesday, but we must respect what the story of Marty McFly tells us about changing history too much. 

Instead, for some reason, David Haigh decided to go for broke and try to buy the whole thing at once – which is the one move that has changed us from a club of hope and good vibes to a loose association of weary, confused and desperate people. From here, there aren’t any obvious reasons why it was even necessary; the various chunks of money Haigh was putting in raised eyebrows – especially when they seemed to be required for running costs, suggesting the finances were causing as many shivers as the frost on Dave’s Arctic trek – but it doesn’t look like such a daft way of gradually buying and taking control of the club. Which leads to my second thought.

The Ashley Barnes transfer that never was, according to BBC Leeds, was blocked at the top level – by our parent bank and ultimate owners Gulf Finance House, back in Bahrain, and specifically by Hisham Alrayes, who we knew from his involvement in the original takeover but who was also acting – and since December, after resigning from the board of GFH-C, permanent – Chief Executive Officer at GFH. 

Gulf Finance House are not the same company as they were when their subsidiary bought Leeds United. In October Esam Janahi, chairman since GFH was incorporated in 1999, resigned, and was replaced by Dr Ahmed Mutawa, who had been vice chairman for four years. To all intents and purposes Janahi was GFH, with Reuters writing in 2011 that, “Esam Janahi was relatively unknown before he founded GFH … he used his close ties to the al-Khalifas to build the centerpiece of the Bahrain Financial Harbour … documents also suggest that GFH’s property projects were hurt by blurred lines between the personal interests of Janahi and GFH itself. Investments and payments seemed to move back and forth between the two with very little scrutiny.”

I can find no reasons given anywhere for Janahi’s departure, so it’s impossible to determine under what circumstances he left. But it’s reasonable to suggest that the circumstances at Gulf Finance House changed with the departure of their chairman of fourteen years, and it’s worth noting that part of his shares went to United chairman Salah Nooruddin, who had not previously had a foothold in GFH. Without many people even noticing, back when Leeds weren’t being taken over for a bit, our parent bank was changing hands and the new look board were deciding on their course.

GFH always considered Leeds United as “held for sale,” and when the new takeover news broke back in December I wrote in The Square Ball magazine that some sort of second takeover was always inevitable, for as long as LUFC was an “asset held for sale” on the GFH balance sheet. The strategy was always claimed to be ‘sustainable growth in the medium to long term’, but neither ‘medium term’ nor ‘long term’ were ever defined. 

If you only ever planned to have something for a year, eleven months begins to look long term from where you are. If you’ve supported that something all your life, eleven months feels pretty damn short term. But then you, don’t own it. Some guys in Bahrain do, and they’re not the same guys who wanted to buy it in the first place. Even owning Leeds United for a month can be long term if owning Leeds United no longer fits with the aims of the board. Short term, medium, long term – it’s all irrelevant when its "held for sale" anyway.

This is the major downside of offshore ownership through a chain of companies; this is why, when football club owners insist they’re being transparent – as ours have claimed since the day they arrived – you have to keep breathing on the glass and rubbing it to make sure you really can see clearly. Because, of course, you can’t. Here in Leeds the pressure is all loco, and all local – I don’t think David Haigh would get such a warm welcome as he once did in The Rock Bar if he headed down to pay for a few rounds tonight. But the control is not local, and with GFH it never has been; we’re scrambling around between Instagrams of the East Stand and rumours about tours of Thorp Arch, when the real action is taking place in an office in Bahrain. It’s just off the King Faisal Highway, if you want to go and have a word. 

So my two thoughts about the imminent, impending, t-almost-crossed i-nearly-dotted Leeds United takeover on this cold, dreary Friday morning in January 2014 are these: it didn’t have to be this way. And it was always going to be this way.

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