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the square ball week: things that happen

the square ball week: things that happen


We always like to think of Leeds United as an exceptional football club. The upside is that we can take genuine pride in the things that make our club different to all the rest.

We’re Leeds United; we’re not mundane. Norwich might have our players, but they’ll never have what makes us Leeds.

The downside of exceptionalism, though, is what we have had this week – and for the last six weeks, if not longer – a creeping sense of paranoia; a persecution complex; a nagging feeling that we’re not up against simple circumstance, but simple conspiracy.

Mario Balotelli, when he showed off his ‘Why Always Me?’ t-shirt, could have just as easily displayed a ‘What Shirt Am I Wearing Bruv?’ tee, complete with LUFC Euro-style shield, to show how he felt the world was against him. No shirt better exemplifies the feeling of being picked on than a Leeds shirt; pull on the all-white kit and you’re somebody exceptional, somenbody that will treated differently by the rest of the world.

It’s not just paranoia. If playing for Leeds can lift a player, so can playing against Leeds; we’re the ultimate club they love to hate, but would love to love if only Leeds would love them back. But Leeds doesn’t love anybody but Leeds, and everybody else hates us for it.

That’s partly why Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, just had to make sure. He got Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey down to Parliament for a chat, just to make extra sure that the League was “following due process fully and properly”; or, to put it another way, to make sure the League aren’t dicking around just because it’s Leeds.

It’s not difficult to arrive at the conclusion that they might be. It’s not just Leeds United’s status as Leeds United that makes our club exceptional, but the way that the planets always seem to turn their backs on us when fate or fortune are involved. What other football club, after enduring nine years of unhappiness with the same chief executive, would find its future again dependent on that man’s competence in an even more difficult job, with even more responsibility? What other reason can fate have for the existence of Shaun Harvey than Leeds United?

Then there is the matter of Massimo Cellino’s yacht. It pushes the bounds of Leeds United’s exceptionalism too far for a club that once had goldfish as the symbol of its extravagant folly to now find the course of its future ownership depends on a yacht called Nelie. It’s not a particularly nice yacht, either; it’s a better boat than I could afford, but it doesn’t look worth all the trouble its putting Cellino to – or the trouble it may cause Leeds United.

Various theories have circulated about why this particular yacht should be such a particular problem exactly now; theories that explore everything from a Shaun Harvey grudge, to a Mike Farnan conspiracy, to the gypsy curse that beset Don Revie. Most of the theories come back to one basic idea: that this is happening because we’re Leeds.

That might be one reason, and it might be the first reason; that 1919 (or even 1904, if we’re counting City as ‘typical Leeds’) was the cause of it all. But it isn’t the final reason. Leeds United’s exceptional status might mean we have the attention of the world upon our club even though we’re in the second division, but it’s the last decade of mediocrity that has determined what portion of the world comes to Leeds to get involved.

We always look at things through a Leeds United prism, and while extensive Google investigations have been attempted upon Cellino’s past, and despite his previous dalliances with West Ham and Crystal Palace, for a large part of the population of West Yorkshire there was no such thing as a Cellino before January; so all his actions, and the actions against him, are viewed in a Gelderd context. He definitely lived a full existence before we ever knew him, though, and it’s not because of his interest in Leeds United that he’ll be trying to fend off charges that he didn’t pay the right taxes on Nelie in a couple of weeks.

That case dates back to 2010/11, when the yacht was first seized; it was unseized for a couple of days in 2012, but the prosecutor soon took it back again. And Cellino isn’t the only rich Italian to have had his harbour habits scrutinised by the courts. As in the UK, as the recession bit Italy hard at the start of the decade, tax dodgers became public enemy number one; but while British protests were aimed at corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, in Italy the public’s ire was concentrated on conspicious consumers like Cellino, rich businessmen living a high profile high life. In the mountains, the tax authorities started checking the records on owners of Ferraris and Lamborghinis; on the coast, they strolled down to the marina to find out who owned all those expensive looking boats and see what turned up.

What turned up, in Cellino’s case, was some brand of 4×4 and not just one but two yachts for which, the prosecutor Andrea Massidda argues, the due taxes were not paid. The second boat, named Lucky 23, was seized last October, reported in Sardinian paper L’Unione Sarda as “deja vu,” with the charges over Nelie still making their procession through the courts.

The whole affair predates Cellino’s involvement with Leeds United by years, but as the Football League delay the decision by a couple of weeks to see how the Nelie case turns out, it’s difficult to see beyond the immediate context of Leeds United; to see that while our takeover is one aspect of the situation, there are many, many more angles – social, economic, cultural, political – that make Yachtgate about much more than typical, exceptional Leeds.

When typical Leeds does come into play is when we find our club’s future in the hands of a man like Massimo Cellino. Much of the anger over the delays to his confirmation as owner stems from a giddy excitement that, after he apparently put the money in that has paid for 93 indulgent days each of Jack Butland and Connor Wickham, a fully Cellinified Leeds would spend its way to the top. The Football League, Shaun Harvey and Andrea Massidda are simply blocking our path back to our rightful place at football’s top table, and they’re doing it because we’re Leeds.

But there’s an argument that Cellino only looks rich because we’ve forgotten what rich really looks like. The tax in dispute over Lucky 23 is, for example, about €84k; not a sum you would think a corn billionaire with one yacht already in the pound would worry about paying. Then there’s the protracted sale of Cagliari Calcio, which only seems less protracted than his purchase of Leeds because we only became interested in that when we knew he was interested in us.

Let’s be uncharitable and just look at the bad scenario: the scenario where Leeds are being taken over by a man with two convictions for fraud (okay, one overturned), with two boats and a Range Rover in hock because he’s tried to cheat the taxman over what should be quibbling amounts, who still has embezzlement charges to answer later in the year, and who can’t buy one football club until he’s sold the other, or vice versa. Is it typical Leeds that the only guy in the frame to buy us out should be someone with a downside as thick and wide as that?

No, that’s not typical Leeds. But it’s typical of what Leeds has become. Our exceptionalism as a football club has never been in doubt – why else are we on Sky all the time? – but the last fifteen years have been marked by the exceptionally poor and ever decreasing quality of our owners. Ridsdale caused McKenzie, McKenzie caused Krasner, Krasner caused Bates. The decisions made while each was in charge brought the club into the orbit of the next, with the eight years of Bates’ rule enduring the longest, it is said, because he was the man prospective buyers least wanted to do business with.

Gulf Finance House were willing to do business with him, and you’d be being very kind to look back over the last twelve months and see it is a significant step up. If anything, it’s been a step down, certainly compared to our hopes and expectations; and here, on the next step down, we find that the only people willing to do business with Ken Bates are now only willing to do business with Massimo Cellino.

Many things in Leeds United’s history have been unfair; things have frequently gone against us due to the exceptional circumstances of being Leeds United. The Wolves game that denied us the double in ’72; the ref Milan bought in ’73; the ref that plain hated us in ’75; all of those happened, I’d argue, because there is a system in existence that operates to the detriment of Leeds United Football Club.

But the sweat and toil of our hard-won glories under Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson go to show that you can make your own luck; that sometimes you get what you deserve, and sometimes you can explain, in a rational way, your victories – and your defeats.

If Massimo Cellino’s takeover fails because he is found guilty of evading tax on a yacht named Nelie it won’t have anything to do with Leeds United being persecuted, or being exceptional, or because it always happens to us. It won’t actually have anything to do with Leeds United at all; and the sad part is that so little of what happens to our club nowadays does.

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