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the square ball week: finding a test to fit massimo cellino

the square ball week: finding a test to fit massimo cellino

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Massimo Cellino’s arguments with the Football League must make him feel like his punishments will never end. Punishments that are all for something he says he didn’t do.

Even if he doesn’t feel like an unhappy schoolboy being dragged over to Preston to appeal in front of the headmaster, his protestations of innocence still make him sound like one.

We’ve not been privy to the details of his legal arguments in Sardinia; it’s bad enough for the average football fan when their sports pages fill up with English legalese, let alone an Italian version. His Italian lawyer, Giovanni Cocco, who I still can’t resist calling Johnny Coconut, has publicly relied on the ‘it’s all rubbish’ defence when talking about Judge Sandra Lepore’s findings against his client: they are “full to the brim of errors” he says; “I have already … lodged an appeal and have also completely demolished the [judge’s] reasoning.”

Massimo’s own defence is even simpler: as if. “Do you believe that I bought in Italy an American boat to save $180,000 of VAT?” he told his pet journalist Simon Austin this week. “My money situation is not that bad.” That’s a relief. “For sure it is not that.” Alright Massimo, we believe you.

Massimo insists that he can’t be guilty because such petty fraud is beneath a man of his means, and perhaps he is right. Certainly his previous convictions, including for defrauding the European Union of £7.5million (later annulled) and for false accounting in player transfers in the early nineties, have been on a grander scale than the case of a yacht named Nelie; proper crime, you know, not this kid’s stuff.

It’s one of the bizarre aspects of the Owners’ and Directors’ Test, though, that lesser convictions can outweigh the greater with the Football League, simply because they happened more recently and a conviction is ‘unspent’. When you separate cases by time rather than severity, it’s hard to understand just what the Football League hope to achieve with a test that disqualifies for one but not the other.

Back when it was called the Fit and Proper Persons’ Test, its aims were more easily read in its name. The test relies on a person’s history as a means of telling their future; it is, basically, the plot of Scrooge. Absent from the test, though, are the guiding ghosts; Shaun Harvey might send a shiver down Leeds fans’ spines, but I don’t think he spent Christmas night at the end of Massimo Cellino’s bed, pleading with him to see the error of his ways. The ghosts of A Christmas Carol taught Scrooge that, no matter his past, good behaviour in the present would have its reward in the future; Harvey and the O&D Test, however, seem determined to ignore the present and instead condemn for the past.

The recent past, anyway. Harvey himself had a lucky scrape with the Fit and Proper test; his first administration at Bradford happened before the test’s cut-off date, otherwise 2007 and admin with Leeds would have been the end of him. That he took a football club into administration twice during the period the test tested was presumably seen as evidence that he’d mended his ways, and to be fair he hasn’t taken a club into administration since, so the trend turned out true.

Although they’re used to judge the fitness and character of potential club owners, the League’s tests so far have relied heavily on outside forces. I hope for his sake that Cellino has more to his appeal that protestations that he didn’t do it; whether he can convince anybody in England that he didn’t do it is beside the point. Massimo needs to convince the League that the Italian courts are convinced he didn’t do it; the same courts that seemed pretty convinced so far that he did.

If it wasn’t for those Italian courts the Football League wouldn’t have a decision to make. The Owners’ and Directors’ Test only catches you if you’ve been caught. As a club Leeds United are still reeling from the Ken Bates and GFH eras – reeling partly because they’re not entirely finished – and fans are right to question ask why, if the Football League are so hell-bent on protecting our football club, nothing was done about our previous owners. Faced with questions like that, the League are reduced to standing outside the murderer’s house after he’s been caught, tutting to the TV cameras and agreeing that “It’s always the ones you least suspect, isn’t it?”

For as long as it relies on the Owners’ and Directors’ Test, the Football League can’t catch ’em until they’ve been caught; they need an Italian court to convict, or the HMRC to call in a debt, before they have something to think about. If you’re good at not being caught, then you won’t have any trouble from the Football League; but those are exactly the people the League needs to defend its clubs from.

When you talk about defending clubs from a certain sort of people, though, that takes us into the realms of morals and subjectivity; of League officials rifling through school reports, of Shaun Harvey scrutinising a candidate owner and making a note on his A4 pad: ‘Eyes too close together.’ To many fans, though, that would feel like a more useful test than the one we have, because a club owner’s fitness or otherwise can seem, to our weary eyes, obvious, and the League’s inability to share that view frustrating. The football authorities’ various rules and regulations were no use to Hereford United, even as their fans begged for action to be taken against the people who ultimately oversaw the ruin and closure of their football club.

If the Owners’ and Directors’ Test can’t protect Hereford, then it’s either testing the wrong things, or testing them the wrong way, or both, because situations like Hereford’s are exactly what the Test is supposed to protect football from; situations that keep recurring at all levels of the game. For all we know, Leeds United could be heading into a similar situation with Massimo Cellino, and a ban from owning our club could be the one thing that saves us; if it is, though, a ban imposed under the current test and for the current reasons will have saved us more by luck than by judgement.

Of course the League should take past convictions and, to an extent, character into account when assessig whether someone is fit to run one of its member clubs. I’m not personally convinced that Nelie alone should be enough to exclude Massimo Cellino from our game, but when taken together with Lucky 23, his Range Rover, his multi-million Euro fraud, and what an arrest warrant called his “marked criminal tendencies”, there’s enough there to worry me.

But what really needs testing is competence and intent. GFH, whose Salem Patel needed the Elite Player Performance Plan explaining to him by fans, would have struggled with the first. Within a few months it would have been noticeable that there were serious questions to be asked about the latter. Cellino, with his experience at Cagliari, ought to sail through the competence part; with guarantees from Cellino of his intentions, the League wouldn’t have to fumble around with recent convictions to judge whether he’s a reforming character, it could test him against his own claims on an ongoing basis.

One of Cellino’s complaints about the League’s treatment of him is basically that it’s not fair: “When I came to England, I saw it as the country of justice and fairness. But I am facing the same problems I did in Italy – misjustice.”

But even Massimo would agree that, what are you going to do with Leeds United? and how equipped are you to do it? would be very fair questions for the Football League to ask any prospective owner; and that it would then be fair for them to hold owners to account based on their answers.

Which isn’t actually a new idea. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport produced a report in 2011 that recommended pretty much this: a licensing model for football club owners. It makes perfect sense. Football club owners are the only people in football who don’t actually have to prove themselves in any meaningful way. Players have to come through youth teams before they get the chance to become professional. Coaches and managers must study for qualifications and licences before they take to the training pitch. To buy an entire god damned football club, though, you only need the cash and a couple of years’ worth of a clean criminal record.

If Massimo Cellino is unhappy about being treated like a schoolboy now, I don’t imagine he’d relish being given coursebooks to cram (‘Leeds United Chairmanship The Leslie Silver Way’), or being made to sit at a desk to take an exam to prove his competence to own an English Football League club, or being summoned to Preston to explain himself whenever the club’s path appears to deviate from his stated intentions.

But I hear enough about how Massimo Cellino feels. “I feel like I am forcing England to accept me,” he cried into Phil Hay’s shoulder this week. If he’s that good of a boy, let’s make him prove it in a meaningful way, to a body that has meaningful powers to take action if he lets us down.

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