MASSIMO CELLINO has made his first steps as Leeds United owner towards easing the club’s crippling financial woes by wiping out an unpaid tax bill of over £500,000 – to quash a winding-up petition.
The Italian agriculture magnate, who headed to Yorkshire after the final whistle of United’s 3-0 loss to Watford on Tuesday, has wasted no time in addressing the club’s dire cash situation and is understood to have settled the tax demand today.
He is also set to pay the remaining wages owed to players – who have received just 65 per cent of their salaries for March – within 24 hours.
The players agreed to defer part of their wages on March 28 until after Cellino’s appeal against the Football League’s decision to stop him buying a 75 per cent stake in United, after the club failed to pay them on time.
As well as owing players cash, a potentially far more serious development nine days ago saw Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs serve a petition against United after they failed to honour a tax bill of more than half a million pounds last month.
Recent figures suggested that United are haemorraghing cash to the tune of up to £1m a month, with the club also settling another winding-up petition at the end of February after repaying £1.5m owed to Enterprise Insurance, Leeds’s shirt sponsor.
Funds pumped into the club by Cellino were used to pay off that particular liability, with the Italian’s financial wherewithal having previously paid the club’s running costs for February and January.
Having refused to put in more cash while he was fighting a Football League ban blocking him from buying the club, Cellino is now getting to work in a bid to make sense of United’s ailing finances – and was at Elland Road for the first time as owner yesterday.
The extent of Leeds’s bleak financial picture was exposed earlier this week in their latest set of club accounts, which revealed it lost almost £10m in the 2012-13 financial year.
The cash situation at Elland Road has since become more parlous over the past 12 months, with many supporters fearing the club could be plunged into administration without the intervention of Cellino, whose takeover was officially announced on Tuesday.
Cellino was appointed a director of LUFC Holdings following his company Eleonora Sport Limited finalising the purchase of 75 per cent of the club’s shares.
Following that announcement, the 57-year-old vowed that Leeds would never face the spectre of administration under his watch, commenting: “I will never let Leeds go into administration.
“None of my companies have ever gone into administration and none of them ever will.”
HMRC, which fought a long-drawn out battle with Leeds when the club went into administration in the summer 2007, are maintaining a silence on the current financial situation at United.
A HMRC spokesperson said: “HMRC do not comment on the affairs of individual companies.”
As Cellino focuses on remedying the financial crisis with hard cash, so the performance of beleaguered Brian McDermott is under the microscope.
The former Reading supremo, whose first anniversary in charge of the club is due to fall on Saturday, was famously sacked by lawyer Chris Farnell at the behest of Cellino on January 31, only to be reinstated less than 24 hours later.
The axing was not considered valid due to Cellino not then owning the club, but with the Cagliari owner now at the helm at United and hoping for final ratification from the league – which could come today after a board meeting – speculation regarding McDermott’s future refuses to die down.
But one man strongly linked with the United post should McDermott’s services be dispensed with in former West Ham and Watford chief Gianfranco Zola won’t be heading north, according to his agent Fulvio Marrucco.
Some reports have said that Zola – who wound down his playing career at Cellino’s Cagliari – is poised to take over either now or in the close-season with McDermott reeling after a run of eight defeats in nine matches.
But Marrucco scotched such talk, stating: “Absolutely not. But I think we will see him back on a bench in England soon enough, rather than back in Italy.
“The one thing I can tell you today is that Zola will not be Leeds’s coach for next season.”
For the time being, McDermott, whose side have won just three times in 22 games, with one of those victories coming when he was absent after taking legal advice following his ‘sacking’, remains in situ at United, with the 53-year-old meeting Cellino ahead of the game with Watford.
Cellino has shown a penchant for getting rid of managers in abrupt fashion at Cagliari, where he fired his 36th coach in 22 years as recently as Sunday.
But with more pressing concerns involving restructuring the club’s finances, Cellino has appeared to suggest he has no immediate inclination to address the situation with McDermott with Leeds’s competitive season over and time not an issue.
On his midweek meeting with McDermott, he said: “We spoke about the players and the game, just a friendly talk. Nothing about work.
“Yes, I hope so (to stay until the end of the season). One-hundred per cent. He’s a nice guy.”