BRIAN McDERMOTT was last night sacked by Leeds United as prospective new owner Massimo Cellino prepared to take charge of the Championship club.
The departure of the 52-year-old manager, axed over the phone by a lawyer, came as the final touches were being put to a £25m buyout that will see the controversial Italian buy a 75 per cent stake from owners, Gulf Finance House.
Former Middlesbrough defender Gianluca Festa, a close confidant of Cellino and someone whose request to sit in the Elland Road dugout during Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Ipswich Town was rejected by McDermott, is now expected to take charge of team affairs.
The futures of assistant manager Nigel Gibbs and first-team coach Neil Redfearn remain unclear, though acting chief executive Paul Hunt has left Elland Road.
Last night’s dramatic turn of events – which led to up to six clubs trying to capitalise on the uncertainty by snatching club captain Ross McCormack away at the 11th hour before the transfer window closed, just a few hours after the Scot had reaffirmed his commitment to United due to enjoying “playing under Brian McDermott” – left fans bewildered and angry.
A small number congregated at Elland Road and police had to be called to escort Cellino out of the stadium.
Sponsors, too, are believed to be distinctly unhappy by the manner of McDermott’s departure. Enterprise Insurance, whose name appears on the front of the club’s shirts, is understood to be ready to walk away, as is Academy sponsor, Flamingo Land.
Cellino’s proposed takeover is subject to approval by the Football League. Anyone buying more than a 10 per cent stake in a League club has to pass the Fit and Proper Persons’ Test.
The Italian’s chequered past – he has two previous convictions for fraud – must call into question whether United’s prospective new owner would pass the League’s strict rules.
Sources in Sardinia, however, suggest Cellino may opt to put someone else at the helm of the club with son Ercole among the favourites to take charge.
Last night, the Football League declined to comment.
Likewise, no one from United or GFH was available as the Yorkshire Post went to press.
The news that Cellino, who visited Elland Road and Thorp Arch a fortnight ago, has won the race to take charge will come as a blow to the rival British consortium that had also been hoping to take charge.
Former Sunderland marketing chief Mike Farnan and Adam Pearson, one-time chairman of Hull City, had earlier this week re-opened talks with GFH, the Bahrain investment bank that bought United from Ken Bates in December, 2012.
They had hoped to be granted a period of exclusivity after securing the necessary financial backing to launch a concerted bid for the club.
Now, though, Leeds are heading for Italian hands and, if sources are to be believed with regards Festa’s imminent appointment, their first foreign manager.
Cagliari-born Festa has made two visits to United’s Thorp Arch training ground in the past eight days. At least one of those was alongside Cellino’s son Ercole, while members of the United hierarchy were also believed to be present.
Aged 44, Festa is best known for a five-year spell at the Riverside with Boro from 1997. His only managerial experience, however, came during a brief stint as coach of Italian lower league side AC Lumezzane. He has previously been assistant manager at Cagliari.
Providing he does succeed McDermott, one of his first tasks will be to placate a squad unhappy with how their manager of the last nine months was dismissed. He will also have to win over a supporter base left despondent by this week’s drama.
McCormack, handed the captain’s armband by McDermott just a fortnight ago, remaining at Elland Road beyond the 11pm transfer deadline was a rare crumb of comfort for those same fans.
The Scot, with 19 goals this term, has been United’s talisman after signing a new long-term deal in the autumn.
Speaking about McDermott’s shock exit, McCormack said: “He called me up earlier and told me he was gone. It is hard times at the club and I am absolutely gutted because I had a really close relationship with the manager.
“He made me the club captain recently and I was looking forward to continuing to work with Leeds United and Brian McDermott.
“Obviously, things changed a lot quicker than anyone could have imagined.
“It is the last day of the transfer window and I can’t believe what has happened. It is incredible.”
McCormack was the subject of a £4m offer from former club Cardiff City that was rejected by United during the afternoon.
The Scot was happy with that decision but the subsequent sacking of McDermott left him questioning his future.
He added: “I am very happy and content at the club but a big part of that was Brian McDermott. Obviously, if I had known earlier on then I would have had a right decision to make.
“At the moment, it is still very raw and I am absolutely gutted.”
McCormack spoke with McDermott following his sacking. He said: “I think Brian was a little bit surprised in terms of how quick it has happened but he always had an inkling it might happen.
“The owners have come in and want to take it in a different direction. That is up to them. But, speaking on behalf of all the players, we would like to thank the gaffer for all his efforts, and wish him well in the future. I am happy at Leeds but I am gutted by the events that have taken place.”