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the square ball week: i know him so well

the square ball week: i know him so well


This was always going to be a turbulent week at Leeds United.

For a while it was actually going better than I expected. Lots of sweeping generalisations have been made about Italy and the Italian legal system since we realised just how caught up in it Massimo Cellino was – it drags on for ages, all the judges are corrupt, breaking the law is just what Italian people do – but Judge Sandra Lepore bucked the first stereotype in good order on Tuesday morning.

8.30am GMT, 9.30am in Sardinia; old Sandy didn’t keep us waiting for long. Takeovers at Leeds United have been an exercise in patience above all else, of waiting for statements to be released, for imminent deals to complete, for updates to be tweeted. During the mad week following Fiasco Friday, the main breaking news – whether it was the next day’s Evening Post headlines, or David Haigh retweeting Pamela Anderson – always seemed to happen after midnight.

So it was good that, if nothing else, Leeds fans didn’t waste Tuesday refreshing Twitter and speculating about what the verdict would be on forums. It was all out of the way at breakfast time.

That was good, if nothing else; and despite the efforts of Massimo Cellino’s lawyer, a certain Johnny Coconut, to portray his client as the victim of a grave injustice, a relative tranquility did descend over Elland Road, as the repercussions of the verdict sank in. For a day or two, you could almost pretend nothing was happening.

The club, immune to irony, hosted an attempt at breaking the world record for the largest ever maths lesson; Johnny Ball and seven thousand school kids gathered at Elland Road to learn about maths while Tom Lees, Mathieu Smith and David Haigh looked on. Nobody’s sure if the record was broken – it was left to Haigh to do the adding up – but a few precocious kids took a crack at doing the club’s accounts for them. They recovered fully after attention from St John’s Ambulance (who asked to be paid in advance).

United even announced a new signing – Robbie McDaid, from Glenavon – and the trial of a new print-at-home ticketing system. An announcement from the Football League was also needed, and awaited; but Shaun Harvey was on holiday – sorry, on business – in Kuala Lumpur, so the waiting had to continue.

We should have known, though. Thursday morning, with its ever changing story of who told who to write what letter about what to the Football League, was something we should have seen coming a mile off. Apparently a PR company employed by David Haigh said it was Haigh who had ordered the lawyers to blast off an angry screed to Preston; apparently this was news to David, who quickly assured everybody who would listen that the Football League were being very helpful, and that Shaun had even been considerate enough to take phone calls at 3am local time in Kuala Lumpur.

That disturbing a bloke on his holidays at three in the morning on the other side of the world sounded like the height of inconsideration didn’t seem to occur to Dave in his anxiety to smooth over the little misunderstanding.

This was all in the playbook. GFH aren’t newbies anymore, and neither are we; they’ve been at Leeds long enough, and in public long enough, for such facepalming behaviour to be accepted as the norm these days. GFH and David Haigh have a serious credibility problem at Leeds, and it’s a problem I don’t think they can solve with Johnny Ball, 17 year old strikers and printed out tickets; we know them too well.

What is strange to see, though, is how differently Massimo Cellino is still treated by a large number of Leeds fans, even though we know him and his kids pretty well by now, too. When GFH or David Haigh commit a PR gaffe, there’s nobody around Leeds willing to apologise for them; but when Cellino is convicted of an ‘offence of dishonesty’ that sinks his own takeover bid – and a really, really stupid offence, at that – the rush to defend him is remarkable to watch. Especially given everything we know.

Massimo Cellino’s popularity is something I can understand, but not agree with. The good points sound great – a long record of stability at Cagliari, with the means to turn that into a long record of success at Leeds. I can understand the appeal. And I’ve seen his daughter’s arse as much as anybody else, and I can understand the appeal of that as well.

But the bad points are just as obvious and even more numerous. They’ve been hauled over so many times that it doesn’t benefit anyone to rehearse them again here, except to say that they even increased in the last two days, with the news that a notorious match fixer has been hanging around at Elland Road; and that while much is made of Cellino’s purchasing power and ability to blow business and football rivals out of the water, he is not only involved in one failing takeover at the moment, but two. He still hasn’t sold Cagliari, not to the bidders from Qatar, nor the States, nor China, nor anywhere.

Watching the cheerleading for Cellino – and the begging banner of Burnley, held up during the game last weekend, was nothing else but cheerleading – is fascinating, as presumably sane and rational people ignore all the evidence of their own senses and blindly hope for a reprieve for a man who, you suspect, will only let them down. You could call it a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, only then you would expect the same Swedish license to be extended to GFH too, and it certainly is not.

Nor is it extended to the various members of the Together Leeds group. If GFH suffer because we know them too well, and Cellino doesn’t suffer because we ignore what we know, then Together Leeds suffer because we don’t know them at all. This is both a grace and a failure.

A low profile would be a pleasant attribute for a Leeds United owner, but in these antic days of social media, stay too low and you’re nobody. When news came yesterday that Together Leeds had continued working on their bid and that now, instead of institutional funding, they’re looking to buy the club using money from six high net worth individuals, mostly based in Yorkshire, lists began being drawn up on forums and Twitter of who the six could be. And some lists didn’t even include the four known members of the consortium.

Gary Verity of Welcome to Yorkshire, Mike Farnan and Frank Devoy of Red Strike Marketing, and Adam Pearson of Hull FC were the gang of four planning to use institutional funding to buy Leeds United; now they’re a gang of six planning to use their own funds, but most people can’t name more than two of them. It sounds like the original four have found two wealthy local backers to come in with them, but most people won’t even get to them because they can’t name the first four are anyway. [Edit: on Saturday I was told that Together Leeds is now believed to be the original four plus six investors, which reinforces the point that a lack of confirmed knowledge of the bid makes it hard to support.]

It’s perhaps odd, and maybe a little unfair that lack of knowledge breeds suspicion, when an avalanche of knowledge has done little to shake the faith of Cellino’s believers. But I can’t honestly write in my next sentence that I think Together Leeds’ bid will be good for Leeds United, because I don’t know enough about it; and while I’ve lost what faith I ever had in GFH, and have barely been able to sleep through the alarm bells ringing since Cellino came to town, Leeds United’s future is too important for any bidder to control by default.

As important at stability at Leeds United is unity. There was some of this at the start of the season, when GFH’s positive actions were shushing the doubters and McDermott enjoyed the support of a crowd that had warmed to him when he replaced Warnock, loved him in Slovenia, and raised him to the rafters when we beat Brighton. For a while everyone thought that everything was good, and everything for a while was.

United can’t move forward with a lack of faith in its leadership, or a blind faith, or by taking a leap into the unknown. GFH have screwed the first, and Cellino has screwed the second. The last, for now, is a space, that somebody needs to fill.

A new issue of The Square Ball, the eighth of our 24th season, is on sale before the game against Millwall at Elland Road tomorrow. And bless Judge Sandy, her verdict arrived early enough for us to be able to mention it in the mag. There’s plenty of bewailment about the club’s predicament in there, but a look back at the happier days of Hair and Dunn, too; while there are several perspectives on the enigma that is Jimmy Kebe, from illustrator Joe Gamble, and former executive director of Prozone Barry McNeill; and a look at twenty years of wing play from Eamonn Dalton. Available from near Billy’s statue, the Kop gates, the West Stand gates and outside the Peacock, and anywhere else you see a man with a clutch of TSBs in the air for just £1.50; you can also have it posted to you if you buy it online, or get a digital version for a single quid.

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