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the square ball week: white lies

the square ball week: white lies


Looking at the civil case that has been filed against him in the Dubai courts by Gulf Finance House Capital, things don’t look good for Mr David Lawrence Haigh of Bur Dubai Police Station.

Laid out across 21 pages are details of invoices and payments that, GFH-C allege, were falsely created and fraudulent paid by Haigh. Invoices were created for work the companies involved had not carried out, the money paid from GFH-C accounts into accounts controlled by David Haigh, to the tune of almost £3million.

On the strength of those allegations, Haigh has spent nineteen nights in jail. And counting. There are suggestions he could be released, conditionally, next week; but the likely timeline of the civil case stretches into February next year before it might reach court, meaning Haigh’s freedom is likely to remain severely restricted for some time yet.

How much of this is to do with Leeds United is open to speculation, but it doesn’t fall far from the East Stand entrance. A subsidiary of Gulf Finance House, GFH-C never seemed to have much else going on in its portfolio apart from Leeds United; there were some property deals for London des res’s, but Haigh was always conspicuous by his absence from the press releases announcing those successes.

Then there are the ‘projects’ many of the payments relate to. GFH-C employed GPW Group to carry out “investigations” on its behalf, with Haigh responsible for engaging and confirming the projects – and authorising payments.

Project Athena became widely known in March as GFH-C’s portfolio on Massimo Cellino’s background, said to include details of everything from his yacht tax problems to the deaths of seven seaman aboard the Cellino-owned cargo ship Lucina in 1994.

That project is on the list in the court documents; along with several others whose cause and contents can only be guessed at. Projects Offside, Spectator and Whistle have a certain footbally ring to them, though, while Project Bremner takes the name of our greatest captain, although we don’t know to what end.

Further down the list come accusations of fraudulent invoices relating to various court cases between Leeds United and Ken Bates, Leeds United and Jct 24/7, and Leeds United and Mark Taylor (a former Leeds director and for many years Bates’ solicitor, and overall the ultimate source of the money Haigh is alleged to have misappropriated looks to have been Leeds United, either from funds received by the club, or from funds earmarked for the club by GFH-C.

We might like to imagine that all this is going on far away from our door, between a Bahraini bank and its employee banged up in Dubai, but while Haigh waits for the civil case against him to be heard next February, and for any criminal charges coming his way to be set out, Leeds United’s name and finances will also be kicked around various legal offices in the Middle East for the forseeable future. GFH-C Jinesh Patel was quite specific when saying that, “The issues that GFH has referred to the Dubai and UK authorities are unrelated to the purchase by Mr Massimo Cellino of a 75 per cent stake in Leeds United from GFH earlier this year,” specific in that he referred to GFH’s sale, but not its ownership.

Haigh, of course, through a friend, denies everything. “He doesn’t blame the Dubai authorities for anything that’s happening,” said his friend, “but he does feel deeply betrayed by others who he thinks are misusing the legal system there.”

Haigh could be entirely innocent of all charges, but that’s not a scenario that particularly helps Leeds United either. Haigh’s argument, since the day he arrived at GFH’s offices for a job interview and was arrested, is an allegation of his own: that this is a fit up. A “betrayal”, a ‘misuse of the legal system’. The first statement issued by Haigh’s friend after his arrest said, “He has every confidence that the authorities will see clearly the motives which lie behind these allegations and will act accordingly in bringing no charges against him.”

The implications for Leeds United if Haigh is innocent of all charges are almost worse than if he’s simply been caught with his hand in the till, because the same people he accuses of betrayal, misuse and ulterior motives for having him imprisoned are presumably the same people who still retain a significant stake in the ownership of Leeds United.

Haigh’s friend doesn’t elaborate on what might have motivated his accusers to have his address falsely changed to the police station in downtown Dubai, but the trouble for us in Leeds is that all the lines of this ugly situation can be drawn right through our football club. Whichever flavour of dishonesty you choose, whether fraud on the part of Haigh or false accusations on the part of GFH-C, this all comes back to their ownership of and involvement in Leeds United, which isn’t over: GFH and Salah Nooruddin retain 25% of the club, debt to Sport Capital – despite the confusing web of ownership that exist there – still keep Haigh attached.

Which is why I find it difficult to applaud the last week of manoeuvres in Miami and Sardinia as Massimo Cellino sells Cagliari Calcio; or doesn’t, or never was going to, or did months ago, or will tomorrow.

The term used by Le Gazzetta dello Sport last night was “telenovela” – not quite a soap opera, in that telenovelas end after a short, intense run on TV, while soap operas carry on for year after year without a conclusion. Whether Gazzetta has been premature in declaring that “The telenovela Cagliari Cellino has ended” remains to be seen.

Cellino looks, this morning, to have finally sold the Sardinian club after 22 years; Tommaso Giulini, formerly on the board at Inter, looks like he’s the lucky buyer. The full, in-depth story is breaking this morning on the newsstands of Sardinia, but online L’Unione Sarda says a preliminary agreement has been signed in which Giulini, and his company Fluorsid, are paying €25m now, and another €20m based on the “future operations” of Cagliari.

Massimo Cellino 'sells' Cagliari

It’s just over a week, however, since with a photograph of a handshake in Miami Cellino declared that an American consortium headed by Luca Silvestrone would be paying up to €77m for the club. “I am delighted,” said Cellino. “We have reached an agreement and we have signed a letter of intent that foresees their takeover of the club. Now they will have to fight with the [Italian] bureaucracy. I hope they will be allowed to do what I wasn’t given permission to do [to build a new Cagliari stadium].”

Permission was forthcoming from the Italian bureaucrats yesterday, who granted that Cagliari can expand the Sant’Elia stadium to 16,000 seats in time for next season, the minimum required for Cagliari to be allowed to play their home games at home in Serie A, rather than 500 miles away in Trieste. The council also return just over £2m worth of TV payments it had seized from the club in lieu of back rent for the stadium.

Promptly the Silvestrone bid evaporated. “There is no American investment group interested in acquiring Cagliari,” Cellino told local paper L’Unione Sarda. “I have not seen or heard from anyone since last Wednesday’s meeting with Silvestrone and Dan Meis in Miami. No down payment of €10m has been received. From what I can gather they only can be found through ‘missing’. I only decided to meet Silvestrone because I was asked by a number of fans to do so. I always had the impression that Silvestrone was just representing himself and not a group.”

Enter Giulini, exuent Cellino. The redevelopment of Cagliari’s crumbling, council owned stadium has long been a problem for everyone concerned with the club, and the bureaucratic situation seems to have boiled down there being a need for Silvestrone to have agreed a takeover before the local council would agree to expand the stadium. Which Silvestrone did, wittingly or not, just long enough for the permission to be secured.

From one perspective, this is a brilliant sleight of hand by Massimo; he has blindsided his foes, defeated the authorities, and can depart with his money and with the club off his hands.

The manner of it, set against the current situation at Leeds United, is a bit more troubling. At the moment Leeds United are firmly in the middle of a web of accusations of fraud, dishonesty and ulterior motives being played out between our part owners and a former employee, while another former owner looks on from the Subway over the road amid rumours that he still has a stake in it all somewhere.

Massimo Cellino is looked to as the man to sort it all out. “There’s a bunch of evil snakes there,” remains my favourite Cellino quote about the Elland Road boardroom during his takeover, and Massimo needs to be the man to take a stiff stick to them all if Leeds United is ever to get back on an even keel.

Cellino didn’t arrive with great credentials when it comes to honesty, however. Apart from the actual convictions for fraud was the Italian arrest warrant issued just over a year ago that described him as a man of “marked criminal tendencies … capable of using every kind of deception to achieve his ends.”

Trying to judge the fairness of that statement was a tricky one, loaded as it is with a history of recriminations between Cellino and the local authorities. It didn’t sound great, but given that none of us had even heard of Massimo Cellino twelve months ago, it seemed sensible to cut him some slack and judge him by the actions we see, not the actions we’ve heard about.

Which brings us to this week, and the sale of Cagliari, following months of speculation about sales to groups from Qatar and China and finally America. “I can’t describe how I’m furious!” tweeted one Cagliari fan. “Sons of bitches!!” Cellino, having promised billionaires from Qatar and millionaires from America, has won his part of the game, but left Cagliari fans with an owner many of them don’t want and don’t trust.

If that was what was necessary for Cellino to shake off Cagliari and be free to concentrate on Leeds United, perhaps that’s all that should matter to us; what we’ve seen this week is the ending of an endgame that began long before we knew of Massimo. Leeds, as we’ve always said, will show a different side.

Although Newcastle United don’t seem to agree. Cellino claimed this week that he had refused a “substantial bid” from the Geordies for Ross McCormack, saying, “Newcastle made an offer for McCormack and I said no. He is happy to stay here and that made me proud.” Newcastle, however, have been described as “perplexed” by Cellino’s claim, and “adamant that no such offer has been submitted or is even pending.”

That followed the strange events of Monday, when Cellino called the squad to Elland Road, lined them up outside his office in threes, and then spoke to each individually. “They showed me respect and a have a fantastic professionalism towards the club,” said Cellino. “We have a better team than we first thought. All the players are hungry to be involved in this new project at Leeds United.”

As bizarre as the exercise was, there was some method in Massimo’s madness. A one-to-one meeting with each member of staff, eye to eye over a desk in a closed room, ought to be a sure fire way to clear the air – to let everybody know exactly where they stand. Massimo had questions to ask of the players, and they – unpaid for five weeks and called in from their holidays – no doubt had questions for him.

As much as Monday was Cellino’s chance to look each player in the eye and measure their credentials for the job ahead, it was also the chance for the players, after the unfulfilled promises of Ken Bates, after the ownership of GFH-C that has ended up with counterclaims of dishonesty in a Dubai police station, to look the new club president in the eye, and measure his credentials against their own expectations.

I have no doubt, seeing Massimo Cellino’s track record so far, that he will have told the players exactly what they wanted to hear. What the players, and the fans, need to know now is whether that will turn out to be the Cagliari Calcio version of telling people what they want to hear, or whether Leeds United has an honest owner at last.

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