British bid could see Italians silenced at Leeds

David Haigh
David Haigh
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A BRITISH consortium bidding to buy a majority stake in Leeds United is hoping to be granted a period of exclusivity to conclude a deal after talks resumed with owners Gulf Finance House earlier this week, the Yorkshire Post understands.

Yesterday brought a further twist to an ownership saga that has now moved into a third month as Sport Capital, a group led by current managing director David Haigh, withdrew from the race to take charge at Elland Road.

It means an interested party led by ex-Sunderland marketing chief Mike Farnan – which also includes former Hull City chairman Adam Pearson and Gary Verity, chief executive of ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ – is now involved in a straight fight with controversial Italian football figure Massimo Cellino.

Sources in Italy have suggested that Cellino, owner of Serie A side Cagliari since 1992, is in pole position to take charge, having spent time at Elland Road last week with the club’s hierarchy.

Cellino’s trusted associate Gianluca Festa, a former Middlesbrough defender, has also been keeping a watching brief on events at Leeds’s Thorp Arch training ground.

A request for Festa, seen as a potential candidate to become manager if Cellino takes charge, to watch Tuesday night’s Championship encounter with Ipswich Town from the home dugout was rejected.

Despite the apparent confidence in the Italian camp that a deal can be done, Farnan’s group is believed to be equally hopeful of successfully purchasing a controlling interest.

Talks are understood to have resumed earlier this week between Farnan and the Bahrain investment bank that bought Leeds from Ken Bates when it became clear that Sport Capital’s own bid was teetering on the brink of collapse.

The two parties had not spoken since late last year when a bid by Farnan was rejected and a period of exclusivity handed to Haigh’s consortium, which also included Andrew Flowers, the managing director of current shirt sponsors, Enterprise Insurance.

Now discussions have resumed, Farnan’s group is believed to be pressing for its own period of exclusivity in which to push through a deal.

Whether GFH is open to such a request remains to be seen, but United’s owners did confirm yesterday that talks are on-going with a number of parties and that any deal would be “in the best interests of Leeds United”.

A spokesman said: “Since acquiring ownership of the club in December 2012, we have supported the club financially, supported the manager, and worked hard to forge closer links with both the fans and the local community.

“We have never made any secret about the fact that our aim has always been to attract investment partners, and we are currently speaking to a number of parties regarding the acquisition of shares.”

Farnan’s group – backed by former Leeds captain Lucas Radebe – has been forced to play a patient waiting game after initially being locked out of any possible talks by an exclusivity period granted to Sport Capital.

Now, though, the consortium are hoping to make up for lost time and push through a deal following yesterday’s news that the Haigh-Flowers group is officially out of the running.

The news about Sport Capital, while hardly surprising considering Flowers’s criticism of GFH on Tuesday ahead of the 1-1 draw with Ipswich, has nevertheless added to the air of uncertainty surrounding Elland Road.

During their attempts to buy a stake, Haigh and Flowers put around £6m in loans into United to help with running costs. It is not clear when the loans can be called in.

A further potential headache for United’s owners could come today when Sunderland could make a move for Ross McCormack.

The Scot, recently made captain by Brian McDermott, was the subject of a rejected £3.5m bid from West Ham United a week ago.

However, should Sunderland move Steven Fletcher out of the Stadium of Light – Celtic and Stoke are among those interested – sources in the North East have indicated that they will make a move for McCormack.

Gus Poyet believes a bid of £3.5m up front with another £1m based on add-ons may be enough to tempt Leeds into selling their 19-goal top scorer.

As for Haigh, his future role remains unclear following the collapse of Sport Capital’s bid.

He said: “Last year what I believed was the right opportunity presented itself in the shape of a chance for me to lead a consortium of investors, under the name of Sport Capital, to acquire a major stake-holding in the club.

“As fans know, we signed a share acquisition agreement with GFH Capital at the end of last year. I personally assure every supporter every public statement made regarding the acquisition was made in the utmost good faith.

“Unfortunately, however, some of the consortium’s backers ultimately didn’t feel able to deliver the financial backing we had hoped was agreed to take the club forward.”