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the square ball week: leaving on a jet plane

the square ball week: leaving on a jet plane

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Artwork: cover of The Square Ball issue nine by Joe Gamble

Well, the deed is did; and now it’s time to look forward.

That kind of focused vision is not often granted to football fans, though. Often that’s a good thing; football is the sum of its parts, and those parts certainly include its history.

You can’t celebrate a title win without looking back at the times you’ve won it before; you can’t sign a striker without comparing him to the strikers who have worn the shirt before. (This is a good point to reference, in fact, the eerie resemblence Mathieu Smith wears to John Charles.)

And you can’t acquire a new owner – or rather, a new owner can’t acquire you – without looking back to the owners you’ve had before. In this case, as we brace ourselves for life in the future with Massimo Cellino, we can’t ignore those surviving vestiges from the regimes of Leeds’ recent past who still walk alongside us.

Massimo’s lawyers apparently tried to get rid of David Haigh on Monday night, but he’s got a contract to be chief executive until the end of the season and isn’t going anywhere; Salah Nooruddin’s contract says he can be chairman until the end of next season, so we can assume the lawyers will have a hard time dislodging him, too. He does, after all, still own 15% of the club.

Then there are the clauses in the purchase agreement which make Cellino responsible for any payments due to a certain Mr. K. W. Bates, should the necessity for any such payments arise. It’s notable that when Ken emerged from his dreamless sleep to reappear on Radio Yorkshire last week, he reserved his ire for GFH but said nothing of the man who, as president of Leeds United, has nicked the job title that Ken is still pursuing through the courts.

A fresh start was just what Leeds United needed after Ken Bates, whoever came next, but a fresh start is exactly what we didn’t get; he continued to pollute the air in the corridors at Elland Road after the sale, and even after his presidency was abruptly ended he couldn’t be kept out of Billy’s Bar or prevented from moving in over the road. He feels like ancient history, but it wasn’t long into the phone call with White Leeds Radio that Massimo, unprompted, started to speak of Ken Bates.

It was a jolt to hear that name spoken in Massimo’s expansive and heavily accented growl; “Keeee-yyyn Baayyytttts.” We’d thought that particular wicked witch had met his ding-dong match, knocked from his broomstick in the airspace over southern France by his own private jet, but even though he’s out of sight – and he isn’t out of sight at all, he’s in plain view on Radio Yorkshire’s YouTube channel – but even if he was by some kindness out of our sight, he wouldn’t be out of mind. New owner, new start, new accent, but the same name: “Keeee-yyyn Baayyytttts.”

With Ken Bates far from gone, it’d be too much to expect Gulf Finance House to be absent too. In a neat trick of timing, the accounts for their first six months of ownership were published on the Companies House website on the same day Cellino’s takeover was confirmed. Apparently Massimo, speaking to the press that afternoon, wasn’t keen to talk about that side of things. You can imagine him refusing to answer, like a sulky teenager; But what about the accounts, Massimo? “Leave me alone!”

Those financial results actually make the best argument against continued scepticism about Cellino’s takeover – I’m one of those sceptics, and as I leafed through the increased expenses, the shrunken turnover, and the stomach-turning debts, I began to thank several deities that all this is Cellino’s problem to solve now, rather than GFH’s to continue.

The results were only results in the sense that the 6–0 at Sheffield Wednesday this season was a ‘result’. Depending on what you include, Leeds United owe anywhere between £25m – £29m; what has to be included is “£15,235,000 in Amounts due to related parties” – in other words, debts to GFH, debts that will accrue interest while the club – that made a £9.5m loss in 2012/13 – doesn’t have the resources to hand to repay them.

The hope is that Massimo Cellino does have the resources to pay them. His first day set the tone, as he joked outside the East Stand with the waiting press that he was going inside to “Pay the wages and the tax… no, I don’t have much time, I have to pay the wages and the tax.” At least, everyone thought he was joking, as he said it with the Massimo smile we’re getting used to; when it later emerged that he’d paid the tax to ward off a winding up petition from the HMRC, that “I don’t have much time” part seemed less like horsing around and more like a plea to be left to get on with business.

The wages and the tax paid, it was over to The Peacock for a pint; it might not seem like a full day’s work, but then I’ve never had to write cheques in the hundreds of thousands to cover other people’s bills before. The reason Cellino seems reluctant to talk about the accounts does have a teenage kid touch to it: he’s been caught not doing his due diligence properly, and now he has to sort out the mess.

“There’s a bunch of evil snakes there!” was Massimo’s calm and considered verdict on how his involvement with Leeds United was progressing. His public stance on GFH has softened in today’s YEP, but not towards David Haigh. “GFH made big mistakes but not on purpose,” he told Phil Hay. “That’s why I don’t go against them for the moment. But the men who were here in GFH’s name did a really, really bad job. That’s not GFH fault. They trust people they shouldn’t.”

That might be because David Haigh will be gone a lot sooner than GFH will; but even GFH are only not a target “For them moment.”

He went on, “People never tell me what to do. At Leeds, don’t tell me what to do. If you don’t like it you can go. People can leave.”

Massimo makes it sounds so simple, just like buying back the stadium will be simple, promotion in 2015/16 will be simple (“If we don’t go into the Premier League then I’ve failed”), just like winning over the fans by doing nothing more difficult than walking around town being himself will be simple.

But at Leeds United, people don’t leave, even when they seem to. Shaun Harvey leaves, but continues to influence the club through the Football League and through the £440k bonus revealed in the latest accounts. Ken Bates leaves but like a bearded boomarang turns up again in Billy’s Bar and on his pet radio station. David Haigh might leave, and there are rumours his security pass has already been revoked, but his teeth will remain, fading last like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, at least the next set of accounts, which will cover the period of this season, are released. GFH might leave, but I suspect they’re hold on for grim life to their share in the club, while Salah Nooruddin has a contract for another year as chairman, presumably giving him rights to a column in the programme and a hefty wage. Last of all to leave will be the £15m owed related to subsidiaries of GFH. That’s the one thing Massimo won’t speak about. “Please, I am too weak,” he said.

You can reject the past, but the past won’t always reject you. This looks like a bold new era under Massimo Cellino, but it’s not a fresh start, and maybe we can thank the team that didn’t bother at Watford for pressing home the point that a change of owner doesn’t immediately change everything. The test of Cellino will not only be in delivering a successful Leeds United, but in delivering that success while truly standing alone; the measurement will whether one day I have to write about a new owner dragged down by the weight of a not quite departed Massimo.

Issue nine of The Square Ball will be on sale before the game against Blackpool at Elland Road tomorrow, but why wait? Get a digital version now for a quid and you can read it on your laptop, phone, tablet, whatever. Featuring cover art by Joe Gamble, issue nine includes more about the takeover and about Cellino himself, including the back story on THAT phone call and analysis of his arse-kicking credentials; an interview with Dylan Kerr, who played 120 times during in our early nineties successes – for the reserves; plus Michael Tonge compared to a frisbee, Jim Storrie to a diamond and lots more. The digital version is £1, or get 56 pages of paper tomorrow for £1.50.

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