LEEDS UNITED officials were last night attempting to plot a path through the latest chaotic events to befall the Championship club, but Massimo Cellino dismissed the notion he might walk away in the wake of his ban by the Football League being upheld.
Following the verdict of a three-man professional conduct committee, the controversial Italian – barred from being an owner by the governing body in December over a conviction for tax evasion in his native country – has until tomorrow to sever all ties with Elland Road.
Cellino will then remain disqualified until April 10, after which he will be free to take up the reins again.
However, as The Yorkshire Post revealed on December 2 last year, Cellino is facing a second court trial for non-payment of import duty on a second yacht in his native Sardinia which could, if he is found guilty of a charge he denies, lead to a further 12-month ban in the future.
The trial – over a failure to pay import duty on a yacht called ‘Lucky 23’ – was delayed last October and a fresh date is yet to be confirmed.
But this newspaper has been told a second guilty verdict would be considered by the League to be a brand new case and, therefore, open to a fresh punishment.
Added to this potential headache is a misconduct charge over the club’s failure to accede to the League’s request for the Judge’s written explanation of the verdict that has led to Cellino’s current ban. Instead, the League had to write directly to the Italian court.
No date has been set for the hearing, but the Commission has a full range of powers at its disposal. These include a further period of disqualification for Cellino or a points deduction, though it is understood the latter punishment is highly unlikely in a case such as this.
As for Cellino’s future plans beyond the current ban, the Italian had been hoping to win the appeal after stating his case last Thursday at the London offices of the League’s solicitors, Bird and Bird, to a panel chaired by Tim Kerr, QC.
Yesterday’s verdict, he says, left him “shocked”, but he vowed to “abide by the rules”, adding: “I’ll resign but then in April, finito, I’ll come back. I was signing the cheques before. Now someone else will sign them for me.”
Amid the chaos and confusion, United are in action tonight at home to Bournemouth and Neil Redfearn insists his players are focused on a game that has been brought forward from Saturday.
However, with tomorrow D-Day for Cellino to step aside, and the onus being on United to prove to the League that all ties have been severed with their president, the club hierarchy is going to have to move fast.
Matt Child, recently appointed as Leeds’s chief operating officer, said: “I can’t at this stage (say who will run the club). We have a few more discussions to have.
“We will be talking to the lawyers about our opportunities. The key thing is we need to beat Bournemouth and that is the message to the players and fans.”
United are 75 per cent owned by Cellino’s family company, Eleanora Sport Limited, with previous owners, Gulf Finance House, retaining a small shareholding.
Among the options in the short-term in the absence of the club’s previously hands-on Italian owner is for Child or Andrew Umbers, the financier who helped arrange GFH’s ill-fated purchase of Leeds from Ken Bates in December, 2012, to assume control.
Alternatively, GFH could step back in, though sources at Elland Road indicate this particular option is highly unlikely.
Either way, United are heading into largely uncharted territory with cases of owners being banned by the Football League relatively rare.
Carson Yeung was disqualified from having any involvement in running Birmingham City after being sentenced to six years in prison for money laundering.
Just five days ago, however, the League wrote to the Blues to raise concerns Yeung was still wielding influence at St Andrews amid suggestions he is trying to force out three existing directors and replace them with his associates.
At Leeds, meanwhile, supporters are anxiously waiting to see what happens next at their club.
Cellino’s ban ends on April 10 – a date that, by prior agreement, had been put back from the initial date of March 18 due to delays in holding the appeal – but the club just ticking over in the meanwhile is not enough for a club locked in a relegation fight.
New signings are needed, Palermo defender Sol Bamba being one of several possible new arrivals that United are hoping to bring in this month.
The club’s financial position, however, is far from healthy with United director Umbers, in his submission to the appeal panel, warning of “severe adverse consequences” for the club should Cellino’s ban be upheld along with a “real likelihood of insolvency”.
Such claims were dismissed by the panel as being “exaggerated, speculative and unsupported by any external evidence”. Nevertheless, a director coming out with such a damning statement is hardly something to ease anxiety among supporters.
Last six games: Leeds United DLLLDD, Bournemouth WWWWLW.
Referee: O Langford (West Midlands).
Last time: Leeds United 2 Bournemouth 1; October 1, 2013; Championship.