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the square ball week: “dear david, can you handle this guy?”

the square ball week: “dear david, can you handle this guy?”


Massimo Cellino has a recurring tick in his way of speaking, a cadence that cropped up again this week when he told a TV show in Miami: “I do not like football.”

It was an answer to a question that hadn’t been asked, at the end of a paragraph from the man himself. “As a young man I wanted to be a rock star, the actor, the airplane pilot, but I found myself eighteen years to sell flour in bakeries of Sardinia,” he said. “If you do not do what you love, love what you do, my father told me. I do not like football.”

Whether he was channelling 10CC and was about to shout “Oh no! I love it!” isn’t clear from the clumsy Google translation of his highlights from the show, but I’m not sure a full transcript would be any clearer to a fluent Italian. Whether he’s speaking in English or Italian, Massimo likes to pause at the end of a statement, leaving a gap for you to ask a question but making it clear, from his intent expression, that you should not. Then he gives you a bit more anyway. “I don’t like football”; not that we asked.

It’s tremendously engaging. When he holds you with that twinkling gaze, you’re drawn for a moment into Massimoland. You’re waiting to find out what comes next; you feel that he doesn’t know either. You’re going to find out together, and the traces of a smile at the corners his slightly parted lips suggest it’s going to be worth the wait. We have so many prooooblems, this life is many trouuuuubles, all I want… is ice cream. You like ice cream?


David Haigh’s speech patterns strike a different note. At the press conference to introduce Brian McDermott at Leeds manager, he seemed to begin an engaging pause, but the pause was all he had: we never got no ice cream from David Haigh. His eyes went blank as if someone with a remote control had put him on standby.

We got more of the unvarnished Haigh this week as part of a series of leaked documents from a Twitter account called GFHInfo, but rather than habits of speech, these were habits of WhatsApp. “It’s so awkward for me,” he told fellow GFH Capital and Leeds United board member Salem Patel. “I’m so conflicted it awfull … But how can I be professional when I know stuff like Gfh stole clientsoneu [client’s money] to pay for Leeds then put it back … I think I have to re[s]ign. Conflict is too much now.”

David is apparently dyslexic; combine that with a predictive keyboard and you can understand the spelling. But less understandably he also appears to be a ham actor in a low-budget murder-mystery from the 1930s. ‘Oh but Salem!’ he gasped, fainting on the floor. ‘How can I carry on?’ he gasped, fainting on the couch. ‘When I know so much!’ he gasped, fainting on the table. ‘Like the things I’m going to say out loud right now that don’t actually need explaining to you but which might prove useful for the audience in case they’ve not been keeping up with the plot!’ he gasped, fainting into his tower of empty Red Bull cans.

To all of which Salem Patel replies with probably the safest comment imaginable when someone is drawing you into a potentially incriminating conversation on a not-so-secure message service, the transcript of which you suspect may be used against you later: “Lol.”

There’s a lot of wiggle-room in a LOL. As dumb phrases go, it’s one of the smartest you can choose if you want to play dumb. Asked to explain that particular ‘LOL’, Patel can take his pick: I didn’t know what David was talking about and thought it was a joke; it was nervous laughter; the man was clearly hysterical and it was always funny when he did that; I thought it still meant ‘Lots of Love’, like the old days. Can anyone say, without reasonable doubt, what Salem Patel means by “LOL”, or ever meant by “;-)” and the rest?

This example of the supposedly damning evidence against GFH, sent to Dubai Financial Services Authority by Haigh’s lawyers and leaked through the GFHInfo account, really only tells us a couple of things: that if there was wrongdoing going on, David Haigh knew about it; and that Salem Patel has quite a brusque manner on WhatsApp: of a 58-line conversation, Salem contributes 12.

The rest of the leaks are similar: damning in terms of GFH’s business practices and intentions for Leeds United, but fairly underwhelming. The biggies are the evidence that indicates GFH were setting up discussions to try to sell Leeds United before it was even bought, something that was put to David Haigh by the YEP’s Phil Hay over a year ago, when Haigh was trying to buy the club himself; an email exchange about cash-flow issues in February 2013, when administration appears to have been a looming threat; and a copy of the Share Purchase Agreement that brought Massimo Cellino to the club but bound him to GFH’s will, the context for many of the troubles Massimo has had while pushing the plane since – troubles and context that has been widely discussed, without forcing anyone to wade through the original PDF file.

“Yes, we have the ‘smoking gun’ information,” tweeted GFHInfo on Thursday. “We are keeping it safe for release soon”; that might explain why there has been more light than heat around these leaks so far. It also fits with the unsettling mannerisms that have characterised the release of these documentts to the world, or at least to Twitter. “A bomb shell relevation about GFH coming soon to get us off to a start!” began GFHInfo; “Are we ready”.

If there’s information to be shared that’s worth sharing, then it’s good that it’s shared, but I’m not sure it needs Eye of The Tiger played over the top. Or, maybe it does. Phil Hay of the YEP and Wayne Gardiner of the Press Association got dragged into a Twitter exchange on Thursday night about why the week of leaks hasn’t been headline news; it isn’t particularly newsworthy, was Wayne’s response; none of it has been a secret, was Phil’s, who can point back more than a year to when he was asking David Haigh specifically about accusations that GFH were flipping the club. That question was being asked, in fact, at the press conference on the day they arrived.

David Haigh & Salem Patel, GFH

What we had then were the questions but no proof; what we have now looks like proof, but without questions. Instead it has teaser trailers, trying to keep us in thrall to Twitter so we don’t miss the moment the next revelation is posted: “Wow!”; and excessive editorialising. Over at a collection of the documents on, we’re told that “Hisham’s response to the threat of administration is mind numbing”. I’ve never needed to be told when my mind is numb, ta. A “year-long battle to get even the fish tank cleaned … a year-long approval for fifty pounds” actually shows spending on fish tank cleaning being approved within a day of receiving the quote. The fish tank had not, the emails say, been cleaned for a year – but there’s nothing in the emails that suggests a “battle” to clean it in that time, despite what we’re being told to think about it.

The footer to that page refers to the sources of the documents. “All documents found herein are legally obtained from past and present employees of Gulf Finance House and GFH Capital Ltd. These documents were not requested by any contributor, they were given to us along with several other documents that we have chosen not to display, out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved.”

What’s missing from that, and from GFHInfo, is a reason. These documents were given to, and presumably to GFHInfo if they’re the same documents – why? Why now? And why the fanfare?

One of the big lessons of the past few years at Leeds United is that nothing leaks for no reason, and that often the reason is more important than the leak. If information comes to you second hand, it has to be stress-tested to be of any use; and to be of any use, if actually has to be used for something. That in January 2015 minutes from a board meeting that suggest GFH were intending to flip Leeds United are available to read online doesn’t really help any Leeds United fans; nowhere near as much as the questions about a planned flip being asked at the original press conference could have helped, if we’d paid more careful attention to the answers – or to the fact that those questions were being asked in the first place.

These documents are coming out as part of a battle to control a game. Some coaches reckon you can win without the ball if you control the midfield; the midfield, in this case, is social media. It’s the same game that has used Leeds fans for a battleground since the day GFH appeared. The documents posted this week show boardroom discussions from that time about the positive effects buying LUFC could have on GFH’s public image; David Haigh’s campaigning Twitter account makes a big point these days about GFH’s multiple public relations companies concealing the truth about Haigh’s incarceration. It was David Haigh, though, who when GFH arrived in Leeds confused everybody with his independent website, complete with ‘crafted narrative’ by Peter Botting, and his own PR company, separate to GFH’s. And it’s to David Haigh that Hisham Alrayes, angered by “nonsense” (this nonsense) written by Phil Hay in the YEP, turns in February 2014: “Dear David … Can you handle this guy?”

This part of Phil Hay’s “nonsense” still holds as true today as it did a year ago: “There are various interests being served here but very few are Leeds United’s.” And yet Leeds United’s is the parade ground upon which the rival factions continue to troop and spin their colours. It feels, at the moment, as if the world of Leeds United has gone completely mad, amid hype and tease and bluster and argument; and there is so much noise being generated at the moment that it’s hard to keep listening. And Massimo Cellino hasn’t even been in the country for two weeks; this has all been about the other guys.

It’s only by listening, though, that we can hear what’s actually being said; and it’s only by thinking that we’ll eventually find the reasons why we’re hearing what we hear.

There are signatures in sounds. It’s why, when you watch Massimo Cellino talking in rapid Italian on a TV programme about rich ex-pats in Miami, you can still tell when he’s doing that thing that he does: the slight increase in intensity of his stare, the gentle lick of the lips, the barely perceptible raising of the eyebrow that asks, “Ice cream?”; even if you don’t speak Italian and can’t understand a word.

Those are the signs to look for as leaks and revelations and “smoking guns” come your way during the increasingly frenetic gaps between games of football played by Leeds United; those are the sounds to listen for, behind the blare you’re hearing. Somewhere in there you can hear the sound of the game; a game that some people obviously love to play, even if they don’t want you to know the rules.

“#LUFC fan power” tweeted GFHInfo, as they encouraged Leeds fans to report GFH to West Yorkshire Police. As a Leeds fan, I already have that power. It’d be good to know on whose behalf I’m being asked to use it, and why.

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