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the square ball week: leeds united’s problems that won’t go away

the square ball week: leeds united’s problems that won’t go away


Massimo Cellino seems to have take the international break a bit too literally. Ten days in Miami? Well, why not?

Well, because he was supposed to be hiring a new head coach, that’s why not. But never mind – it can wait. Things can always wait. We might be coach-less, but at least Neil Redfearn is there. And at least we’ve not been shorn a President – not yet anyway.

Then again, Cellino’s absence during the past week might have been a blessing. If he’d been in the country during the Soccerex conference, there might have been little to stop him, Edoardo and Terry George getting tooled up and heading over to Manchester to chin Shaun Harvey.

It’s not really Shaun Harvey’s fault. Cellino’s evasions pre-date both his involvement in Leeds United, and Harvey’s ascension to the Football League’s top job; the Owners and Directors’ Test was written before Harvey’s time, too. His sum-total involvement in that was probably hoping that neither he nor Ken would get caught up in it while they were at Leeds.

Harvey is now caught up in it from a different angle, tester rather than testee, but we’re not seeing anything different from him than what we had at Leeds United. Shaun Harvey has built his entire career on being given a position, and defending it for all its worth, regardless of merit.

At Leeds that position was whatever Ken Bates had done that week; it was Shaun Harvey who showed up to the Parliamentary Committee’s investigation into football ownership to explain why LUFC’s ownership became so blurry once you tried to look past Ken’s claims not to own anything; it was Shaun Harvey who told a Leeds courtroom that the club was spending “a fortune” on legal fees as he attempted to defend Bates’s harrassment of Melvyn Levi; it was Shaun Harvey who sat between David Haigh and Salem Patel at the press conference to announce that Ken Bates had sold the club to GFH Capital.

“Players play, managers manage, and supporters support,” Harvey once said, making plain what he thought of the idea that fans should have a say in the people’s game. He could easily have added, “And lapdogs come yapping at their mistress’s call,” if he wanted to explain his own place in football.

Shaun is free from Ken’s influence now – well, we hope Shaun is free from Ken’s influence now – but all that means he is that he needs to find a different tune to dance to: a new position to defend.

Dealing with Cellino at Leeds ought to have been easy. The Football League’s Owners and Directors Test said that Cellino should be disbarred from owning a club; easy. With the decision made and with the support of the Football League board, Harvey could defend that all day – he just had to point to the rulebook where, to be fair to Harvey, how Cellino failed the test is written down in black and white.

Even if the independent QC who reviewed the decision, Tim Kerr, had overturned the initial ban, that would have been fairly simple for Harvey too; with a legal opinion that allowed Cellino in, Harvey would have had a new position to defend, and new black and white writing to point to while he did it.

But Harvey must curse the name Tim Kerr as much as he curses the name Cellino. Kerr’s judgement was not much better than a shrug; until Judge Sandra Lapore, in Sardinia, provided more information, he couldn’t say Cellino was definitely in or definitely out. When might that information be forthcoming? Nobody knows. Nightmare. For Shaun Harvey, anyway.

He described it this week as “a cloud still hanging over both the Football League and the club and Mr Cellino himself,” but as he faced up to the questions about Leeds United at the Soccerex conference, he should probably just have said, “It’s a cloud over me.”

Having to wait indefinitely for the opinion of an Italian court and then seeing what it says is not an easy position for someone like Harvey to defend, because it immediately leads to more questions that it would be unwise to answer. The truthful answer about what happens when judgement day comes is that it depends on what the judgement says, but when you’re the chief executive of the Football League there are only so many times you can say ‘It depends’ before you end up sayimg something like, “If it is clear in there that the act was one of dishonesty, which is the test that we apply, then at that stage he would fail the owners and directors test and as such wouldn’t be able to be a director of the football club or exert any control. He is under an obligation to divest himself of his shares at that stage.”

Which is what Shaun Harvey did say, which is why he’s suddenly public enemy number one in West Yorkshire again – for expanding upon the possibilities of a hypothetical situation that might never arise. It’s nothing new; since the day the Football League accepted their independent arbiter’s opinion, this has been their stance: that Cellino is a-okay unless Judge Lapore’s judgement says his tax evasion was the wrong kind of dishonest. But by talking about it, Harvey sounds like he’s willing it to happen.

Perhaps he is; I suppose at least it would give him an actual position to defend, rather than dealing in hypotheticals. But there must come a time when being hated by large sections of the population of a major city becomes tiresome; when you long to be able to say, ‘The Judge says it was the good kind of tax evasion! Have your Cellino, and be of good cheer!’

Of course everybody would still hate Shaun Harvey because he’s Shaun Harvey and he deserves it, but at least people might leave him alone for a while. Until the matter of the alleged unpaid tax for Cellino’s other yacht reaches court, and reaches Harvey’s desk; oh, and the Range Rover. Still, Harvey might enjoy the respite.

Massimo himself has glided blissfully through all this, as since last Monday he’s been in Miami and out of reach, except to occasionally confess to confusion over who he should hire next to coach the team. Cellino’s apparent lack of urgency on this is a frustrating extension of the suspended animation that is affecting the club as a whole for as long as Judge Lapore is ‘getting round to it.’

Cellino, you would like to think, is up for the fight; up for every fight that comes his way as owner of Leeds United. But without a permanent coach, whether it’s Neil Redfearn, Robbie Fowler, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink or anyone else, it’s hard for the team to fight properly on the pitch.

Long term – okay, as it’s Cellino doing the hiring and firing, less short term – the players need to know how they’re expected to fight, and who they’re fighting for; a caretaker can’t tell them to do any more than fight from game to game. While Redfearn is more experienced than when he temporarily took over from Simon Grayson, that spell showed the diminishing returns that can come with caretakers: a bright early win over Bristol saw Redders given an extended chance, which blew up with poor defeats against Brighton and Coventry. We’re risking that again now, and last time it ended with us hurriedly inviting Neil Warnock over the threshold. To give Leeds a fighting chance of improving this season, Hockaday should have been quickly and properly replaced; ‘too many applicants’ is not a good excuse.

There’s not much sign of Cellino fighting off the pitch, either. The YEP’s Phil Hay reported the other week that the rush of signings in this transfer window was partly because Cellino expects GFH’s legacy of Financial Fair Play failure to mean a transfer embargo in the next one; but while the proprietors of other soon-to-fail clubs get ready to take the authorities on, like Tony Fernandes at QPR, out supposedly balls-on-the-line President is meekly stockpiling players like toilet rolls before a nuclear war.

Perhaps he’s going to fight that ruling as well as having the players to see him through; perhaps he’s going to let other clubs take the hit on the legal fees, while he watches and waits. Or perhaps he’ll go on holiday again and complain of being confused.

Or perhaps he’s husbanding his resources against the bigger battle; the one where Shaun Harvey comes to town and tells him to sell. Everyone expects Massimo Cellino to run Harvey out of town on a rail when that day comes; everyone thinks he’ll make legal mince out of the Football League should they try to force him to sell Leeds United.

But I’m yet to find the precedent for Massimo Cellino striking a mortal blow against authority. I can’t find the occasions when he enthralled a courtroom like Perry Mason and won the unwinnable case. Back when he went into court about the tax on Nellie in the first place, Massimo and his lawyer Johnny Coconut went in expecting to win.

With his collection of Serie B journeymen, Brazilian misfits and second-chance South Americans, there’s every chance that Cellino has somehow built the most exciting team Leeds United have seen in years. It’s certainly the most interesting. But when Shaun Harvey says there is a cloud over Leeds United, we have to swallow hard and forget who’s saying it and admit that yeah, yeah there is. Whenever it comes, if Judge Lapore’s ruling goes against Cellino, we have to hope he’s got a better plan than just leaving Redders in charge and hoping the problem goes away.

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