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the square ball week: doing business

the square ball week: doing business


You can’t even be a little bit sneaky on the football field any more.

The days when Jack Charlton could take a look around the pitch, check the ref and linesman weren’t looking, and then deck whoever had been getting on his nerves are long gone.

Nowadays it would no longer be his word against a bloody nose, with a few thousand Leeds fans backing him up; within seconds the TV producers would have rewound the tape on every angle, and within minutes there would be enough evidence on the internet to damn him.

In a way that’s a good thing. People who complain about the conduct of footballers today – they spit! they swear! – forget that it’s not long since they broke each other’s jaws on the regular.

But football remains an angry, passionate sport, and that passionate anger still needs an outlet. The fighting hasn’t stopped; it has just kept moving out of sight of the cameras, from the pitch to the tunnel to the dressing room. Football might present a clean face to the public, but that’s not the whole story.

The perception is that the boardroom should be exempt from that kind of behaviour. You don’t get near the executive boxes at Elland Road without a tie, and once you’re wearing a tie, you’re respectable. They’re business people, and business people have business standards, and a businesslike code of behaviour.

Businesslike like what business, though?

There was a lot of disbelief when the recordings of the phone calls to Ken Bates and Massimo Cellino hit the internet last weekend. They couldn’t be genuine. Anyone can pull off an impression of Ken Bates – speaking of which, please remember to listen to The Square Ball Podcast every fortnight – and Cellino? Well, would hiring a generic Italian voice actor be too far-fetched if you were determined to prank the fans?

The logic went that no serious business people would have put themselves in the position Ken and Massimo put themselves in last weekend. No serious business man would answer their private phone to an unknown number and, after the briefest of introductions, sound off about anything and everything; the wealth of business rivals, the value of investments, details of salaries, spell-casting capabilities and relationships with the Dark Lord. No serious business man would behave like that.

Well, that statement might hold true, but that’s how Ken and Massimo behaved; and those phone calls ought to remove any lingering ideas that the Elland Road boardroom has been a place of calm discussion and polite negotition over the last few months.

Ken’s bluster was relatively mild; David Haigh had missed a supper date, which was “fucking ignorant” behaviour according to Ken, who obviously sets great store by good manners. Massimo set out his problems with David in rather stronger terms, and as David has been sending legal letters to bloggers who repeat those problems in too much detail, I won’t list them all here, except to say that hearing Cellino yelling “He is a witch!” down the phone in heavily accented English has become a very unexpected highlight of the Leeds United Takeover 2013/14.

How it got to that point between Haigh and Cellino is a story we might never hear; whatever happened, it happened away from the cameras and the reporters while the referee wasn’t looking. Six weeks ago David Haigh was partying with Massimo’s son Ercole and DJ Sara Cox at the Brit Awards, and now the mere mention of his name seems to turn the milk sour in the Cellino household.

It’s not the only example of sides being changed. Young Ercole has deleted the comments he made on the Instagram account of Poppy Farnan, daughter of TogetherLeeds’ Mike, but “You make puke!” is a phrase that will stay with me like the witch will; Poppy and Mike must be willing to forgive and forget, though, now that TogetherLeeds and Cellino’s Eleonora Sport are working together on their bid for the club.

The social media brattishness won’t have been the only wrinkle that needed smoothing over. At the start of February, after Brian McDermott had been sacked but before Cellino’s takeover was confirmed, TogetherLeeds tried to block Cellino’s bid by forming another ‘super-consortium’ with Sport Capital, led by Andrew Flowers and, of course, David Haigh. If you’d forgotten about that – it was two months ago, after all, in a process that Haigh said would be all done in time for the January transfer window – you can bet that nobody involved had.

Or that Haigh originally wanted to buy the club himself with Andrew Flowers, from the company Haigh used to work for, GFH, and that in December he had a deal that locked out both Cellino and Farnan; or that when Cellino embarked on his weekend coup, Haigh had the Italian’s lawyer ejected from Elland Road; or that after his combined attempt with Farnan to block Cellino failed, Haigh gave his backing to Cellino’s bid – “in terms of a tick box list, Massimo has ticked more than anyone else” – and was in line to become chief executive if the Football League had approved.

If you think for a moment that all the parties involved have got through all that without a cross word or a raised voice between them, then I’m afraid you’re wrong. I don’t think the language used and anger expressed by Massimo Cellino last weekend were an abberation, or a momentary lapse; I think they were representative, and a small sample of the kind of ‘discussions’ that have been held behind closed doors – and slammed doors – at Elland Road and in solicitor’s offices in Leeds, London and Cagliari over the last five months.

Serious business people might not be expected to behave like that, but like footballers, we only see these serious business people pitchside, and we can only assume that they’re on equally good behaviour behind the scenes. They may be all smiles and firm handshakes on the East Stand balconies – or pouts and firm buttocks, depending on who is doing the shaking – but it’s pretty clear from listening to the off the record phone calls that what has been happening off the record is quite a long way off the hook.

All this is worth factoring in to discussions about whether the team has been affected by events off the pitch. Businesslike negotiations in the boardroom should be no distraction to, for example, Tom Lees; but what about a screaming match between potential owners in the corridors?

It’s also worth bearing in mind for the future. The surprise team-up between Cellino and TogetherLeeds seems to have come about because Cellino has a contractual right to sell the 75% of the club he’s agreed to buy to whoever he likes, and this week he likes Mike Farnan. But that still leaves 25% of the club in the hands of GFH and Salah Nooruddin, which could make for some interesting shareholder meetings. It also assumes that Cellino’s appeal to the Football League will fail; if he wins, and is suddenly allowed to buy Leeds United himself, will he still want to be bessie mates with Farnan, Verity and the lesser-spotted Pearson and Devoy?

Into all this step Leeds United Supporters’ Trust. On Thursday they announced first details of their Fan Share Scheme, which will provide fans with a number of ways to buy into Leeds United. A lump sum; a lump sum taken as a loan and paid in installments; or monthly direct debits are all going to be offered as ways to acquire shares in the club or to invest in areas where fans want to make a difference, with the money asset-locked so it can’t disappear. The Trust have spent more than a year organising the Financial Conduct Authority approval that will allow them to administer the fund, and as part of those regulations a LUST board member and an independent fan would have non-executive positions on the board.

The point of fan ownership and part ownership is often hard to communicate, beyond ‘It works in Germany and Swansea’, but there can’t be many clubs where fan input at boardroom level is more necessary than Leeds United right now.

The ensemble cast of characters – Alrayes, Haigh, Patel, Nooruddin, Cellino and family, Farnan and family, Flowers, Bates, Harvey – all have one thing in common, and it’s that if my mum could get hold of them, she’d knock all their bloody heads together.

They also have in common the fact that they’ve managed to maintain the veneer of competent business people conducting difficult negotiations, when the phone calls we heard last weekend suggest that the truth is very different. Compentence is not something that anyone involved in the mess at Leeds United can really claim, and the worst part is that one or more of these people look like they’ll end up running the club.

We can’t afford for that to happen outside the glare of the cameras, or out of the line of sight of a referee. Whether it’s with a 1% stake or 100%, I’d welcome the relative sanity a fan in the boardroom would bring right now.

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