“I don’t want to be the one that breach the rules,” said Massimo Cellino, and when the Football Association picks apart the Daily Telegraph’s sting it will most likely conclude that he hasn’t. No deal was done, no shares changed hands and the governing body is left to ponder the legality of an idea in Cellino’s head.
Discussions about avoiding regulations on third-party ownership of players brought down Sam Allardyce on Tuesday but he and Cellino are not comparable. Allardyce worked as England manager for an organisation which preaches about best practice and safeguarding football. Either Allardyce had to go or the FA had to concede the high ground. Football club owners are bound by the same laws but not by the same standards. Cellino, after all, had an unspent tax conviction when he bought Leeds United. He has enough on his plate without bringing fragile charges against him.
The FA has requested a full transcript of Cellino’s comments to the Telegraph but Leeds batted the investigation off last night, saying the Italian’s proposal to undercover reporters posing as investors was “a perfectly proper suggestion” and “entirely consistent with the FA’s regulations.” Assuming that Cellino was serious, that suggestion still deserves some analysis.
Cellino’s concept was to sell a 20 per cent stake in Leeds - in theory bought by a fictitious firm in the Far East - in return for a 20 per cent cut of profits made on future transfers out of Elland Road. Straightforward enough and Cellino’s prerogative. But consider that until recently, Gulf Finance House held a stake of almost 20 per cent at Leeds. Imagine the Bahraini bank, a minority shareholder and an unpopular one at that, creaming the top off money earned from player sales: £1m or thereabouts from Lewis Cook, £2m from Ross McCormack, close to £1m from Sam Byram. Money further down the line if Charlie Taylor leaves, or Ronaldo Vieira or Pontus Jansson.
It might be legal and above board but it looks and sounds unhealthy. It looks like a scenario in which selling players is in the interests of one shareholder. If it is not about football, or solely about football, then the incentive for investors at Leeds should be the inevitable profit through promotion to the Premier League; the unrivalled wealth which comes in tandem. Speculate to accumulate, as opposed to ploughing cash in with the promise of pay-outs when players leave. The sad reality at Leeds is that their most lucrative outgoing transfers - the deals on which an investor would accrue most money - have been forced by their failure to escape the Football League and by the desire of high-value footballers, many of them young, to move on. Where is the will to change that if transfer fees are a guaranteed source of income?
It is at face value a strategy which mortgages investment on transfers. Leeds, while Ken Bates was chairman, were criticised for accepting a loan from Ticketus while agreeing to pay it back with future revenue from season-ticket sales. The deal broke no rules and the club were entitled to strike it but more than £3m of revenue for season tickets in the 2013-14 term was paid to Ticketus before Leeds or new owner GFH could touch it. It would hardly help United going forward if every incoming transfer fee saw 20 per cent of profit squirrelled away.
There is another issue too, concerning some of the people who surround Cellino. The Telegraph reported that its meeting with Cellino was arranged by Pino Pagliara, an Italian agent who was once banned for match fixing in Italy. Pagliara first came onto the scene at Elland Road when Cellino was attempting to buy the club in 2014. At the time, GFH went to great length to deny that it had dealt with Pagliara or done any business with him.
Then there is Francesco Marroccu, a man named in a different Telegraph sting which accuses Barnsley assistant Tommy Wright of accepting an illegal payment of £5,000. Marroccu worked for Cellino as sporting director at Cagliari before Cellino sold the Serie A side. He was pictured at Elland Road with United’s owner earlier this month and has been present at Thorp Arch, amid suggestions that he will soon become Leeds’ sporting director. Cellino is not accused of wrongdoing in relation to the investigation of Wright and is not involved in that case at all. But Marroccu’s appearance in it is an unhappy coincidence. So is the fact that Cellino enquired about appointing Wright as assistant to a foreign head coach in May, shortly before Garry Monk’s arrival at Elland Road.
Where regulations are concerned, Cellino is probably in the clear. More awkward for him is the perception of his appearance in the Telegraph’s investigation. The story is less than flattering and once again it starts the argument about whether Cellino is fit and proper, in the true sense of that phrase. This sting might not damage him but it does not help his cause either.
Discussions about avoiding regulations on third-party ownership of players brought down Sam Allardyce on Tuesday but he and Cellino are not comparable.Phil Hay, on the latest allegations made against Leeds United owner, Massimo Cellino.