MASSIMO CELLINO will today fly back into England to face a mounting series of problems at the helm of Leeds United as it emerged he could be hit with further possible punishment from the football authorities.
The Italian has been disqualified from owning and running the Championship club by the Football League after the governing body finally received a report written by the judge who earlier this year found Cellino guilty of failing to pay tax on a yacht called ‘Nelie’.
After analysing the contents, a meeting of the League’s board of directors unanimously decided to disqualify Cellino until March 18 next year when, under UK law, the conviction will be deemed spent.
In that respect, Cellino can be considered to have benefited from a recent change of law that slashed the time a conviction in which a financial penalty is imposed remains live from five years to just one.
Had the Leeds president been found guilty before the change, he would be facing a possible ban from involvement at Elland Road until March, 2019.
Cellino, who has been in Bahrain for the past few days discussing a possible financial investment deal with the club’s previous owners GFH Capital, has 14 days to appeal against the disqualification.
If he decides to challenge the decision – as the Italian last night indicated he would – the League have pledged to deal with the matter by Monday, December 29 at the latest. If he opts not to appeal, meanwhile, then by the same date Cellino must have cut all ties with the club and set up a management structure that can prove he is no longer involved in its running.
Regardless of whether Cellino appeals or not, it seems his problems with the League are far from over with an independent Football Disciplinary Commission set to investigate whether Leeds and their president breached regulations by failing to pass on the contents of the written report from the Italian court that led to yesterday’s shock news.
It is understood the governing body made several unsuccessful requests to United for a copy of the document, which under League rules any club/owner is duty bound to disclose.
In the end, the League had to apply direct to the Italian court for Judge Sandra Lepore’s written explanation of a verdict that saw Cellino fined £400,000.
No date has been set for the Commission to hear the case, but it has a full range of powers at its disposal – opening up the possibility of a further disqualification period for Cellino in the future.
As if that was not enough of a headache for the Elland Road hierarchy, Cellino is also facing a second court trial for tax evasion in his native Sardinia.
The Leeds president has been accused of failing to pay import duty on a yacht named ‘Lucky 23’.
The trial was delayed in October after it was revealed the judge had been forced to step down due to a conflict of interest.
A fresh trial date is yet to be confirmed. But if Cellino, who denies the charge, is again found guilty then The Yorkshire Post has been told the League will consider this as a brand new case that will be judged separately from the previous trial.
The likely punishment for a conviction and financial penalty imposed would be another 12-month disqualification, throwing United into further chaos.
Cellino, for his part, is yet to confirm to the League whether he plans to appeal against yesterday’s disqualification.
He has, however, vowed that the club – which is 75 per cent owned by Cellino’s family company, Eleanora Sport Limited – will not be put up for sale, even if he does have to step away for a few months.
“The club is not for sale,” he said. “We are not selling the club, not because of this. This doesn’t change anything.
“Massimo Cellino does not own Leeds. My family company owns Leeds. It is my family’s money which bought the club, not my money.
“I don’t know if I will appeal. I need to speak with my lawyers and look through all the papers to see what the League has said about me.
“What is their problem? We pay our bills, we do things right. Nobody was paying anything here when I bought the club. What did the League do about that?
“If my family company asks me to step back for two or three months then I will step back. If that has to happen then I’ll do it. But we won’t be selling the club.”
The purchase of Leeds by Eleanora Sport saw GFH Capital retain around 10 per cent of the club. The Bahrain bank also manages a 25 per cent stake.
Cellino, who took charge of Leeds in April this year by winning a High Court appeal after initially failing the League’s directors and owners’ test, is in the process of arranging a £20m investment into United, three-quarters of which will come from Eleanora and the remainder from GFH Capital.
He added: “I would not be investing capital if I was about to leave. I’m trying to sort out the problems that were left behind.
“The League wants me gone, I don’t know why. Come and look through the books at Leeds. We are not dishonest people.”