Yesterday’s Football League decision to block Massimo Cellino’s bid for Leeds United still reverberates around the football world – and appears set fair to make a proper old impact in the bewigged legal environment also. An appeal is inevitable and m’learned friends will be getting their fangs into the meat of the matter, dissecting the terminology of the rules in question (the Owners and Directors test) and entering into interminable semantic debates in an effort to prove white is black and “this” actually means “that”.
Therein, to this blog’s mind, lies the real problem. For, in their eagerness to show the technical application of their regulations to the instant case, the League have failed to pay any attention to common sense, practical considerations and real world consequences. In short they have done what they have leant over backwards to convince themselves they technically can – without anything like enough thought given as to whether they should.
This much is absolutely clear from a reading of their judgement, a not particularly accessible document which is redolent of some player in a game of strategy, anticipating the moves from the other side and exclaiming “a-HA!” as they trump that ace with some wily move of their own. It all looks rather clever, perhaps, but it’s not at all wise – not in the real world. Out there, real people are stuck with the consequences of these endgame machinations from remote, aloof players whose primary concern seems to be showing that they are technically right and that their view should therefore prevail.
The old saying “Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should” has absolute relevance here. And before anyone decries old sayings, let’s not forget that they become old sayings because of their simplicity and impact, because of the sheer, concise, logical beauty of their common sense and reason. Not for them the contortions and convolutions of legalese, the twisting and turning to try and make a default position appear technically unimpeachable. Cleverness is all about winning in a head-to-head battle of cat and mouse, or in the strategy of chess. Wisdom, on the other hand, is about finding the right solution for the greater good – meeting the interests of the many, not just showing how one ego or the other has succeeded in “proving their position is legally correct”. What we have here, in a nutshell, is the distinction between law and justice. The League have strained every sinew to justify themselves in terms of the former, with scant if any regard for the latter.
In all the acres of print I read yesterday, there was far, far too much about interpretations of law and regulations – and hardly anything about the practical impact on the people who matter – the fans and, by association, Leeds United football club and its employees. The League, after a farcical delay during which everybody with any interest in the matter suffered pain and humiliation to an uncalled-for degree, appeared to have ended up justifying what must have been their default position from the start. Where was the recognition that here was a famous old club that had been in financial difficulty for over a decade, and now had the chance of a fresh start? Where was the consideration of the impact of this decision on thousands upon thousands of people for whom their football club represents a massive emotional and – for the individuals concerned – financial investment?
These real-world issues just weren’t there at all. It was all dry as dust; here are the legal reasons why the bid fails. But what do the League imagine Cellino will actually do, if he was accepted as Leeds owner? Buy another yacht, perhaps, and display it in the West Stand car park with a sign on it saying “No tax paid on this – bollocks to the authorities”. Or perhaps he’d buy the stadium back, fund the club and get them promoted and competitive in a higher division under separate jurisdiction. Maybe that’s what they’re scared of.
What is needed here, what was totally absent yesterday, is a measure of wisdom. The Wisdom of Solomon, perhaps – that classical example of the magical compromise solution. Compromise requires give and take, negotiation, the willingness to apply common sense to a situation too fraught with humanity for the application of mere, prosaic regulations alone. But the League have neglected any such avenue of common sense or compromise. In reaching a decision to disbar Cellino because they feel they technically can, without sufficient or any regard for whether they really should, they have ended up throwing that Solomon baby out with the bathwater – and achieving an outcome which threatens to fly in the face of their own duty of care where their member clubs are concerned. Remember that duty of care, gentlemen??
And what do we actually have here, after all? Well, we have a man in Cellino who has made a considerable fortune in his working life – somebody who, as with anyone in that position, will have trodden on toes and made enemies as he rose to the top. That’s hardly unusual, as some of those Football League mandarins will be all too well aware. There are not too many squeaky-clean billionaires out there; omelettes are not made without eggs being broken at some point in the process. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”, said a wise man once upon a time. That was another old saw that went missing yesterday. So we have this Italian guy, loaded with money, wanting to invest in an ailing football club – and he’s demonstrated his bona fides already to the extent of funding that club to a significant degree – without even being recognised as owner. The Football League need their member clubs to be financially viable. It is a vital part of the whole thing working. They should have been crawling on their hands and knees to thank Signor Cellino. So what do they actually do? They reject him, because one interpretation of a complex form of words says they can. Is that wisdom? No it’s not, it’s foolhardy, cack-handed incompetence. Or even worse, it might be prejudice and self-interest. Whatever it is, it’s not common sense.
The fans have admittedly been divided over Cellino, much more so than over certain unsavoury faces from the recent past. Ken Bates, for instance, was regarded as the Devil incarnate by most Leeds fans – and it’s clear from all sorts of evidence and his own personal demeanour that Mr Bates is a deeply unpleasant, profoundly dodgy individual. The fans knew that, and they agitated accordingly, to get him out of the club. The League merely sat on their hands and watched Leeds limp along in poverty and humiliation. And yet, on the other hand, they rule out of court a man that most Leeds fans do want to see at least given a chance – mainly because he represents the best hope of a properly-funded future for a club of history, pedigree and achievement. The blind arrogance of the refusal to afford that chance, the sheer self-defeating stubborn illogicality of it – it’s utterly mind-boggling. The moral is: the fans know best, instinctively, about their own club.
This process still evidently has a way to run – so maybe it’s not too late for the whole rationale behind it to change, and for the better. So let’s not get caught up in the esoteric interpretations of complex regulations – let’s have a little common sense. Let’s not end up with an outcome which will leave the Football League open to charges of failure in its duty towards a member of its own “football family” as that smug article Brian Mawhinney put it so unctuously on several occasions – let’s have impartiality and some pragmatism. The League, though, have form for coshing Leeds United over the head, allegedly in United’s own best interests. They keep feeding us this nasty medicine, saying it’ll do us good – when in reality the appearance is of a draught of poison that might carry us off. We’ve seen it all before – and the fact that we survived in 2007 is no fault of the Football League’s.
So please – let’s have some wisdom and common sense now, instead of dry law and rough justice. There are people out here, gentlemen of the League, people who will genuinely suffer if you carry on in your insistence on disappearing up your own fundament to justify decisions that damage the interests of a struggling football club. Leeds United matters – it matters far more than any legal principle or set of regulations allegedly drawn up to “protect” League members. If the League can’t see that for themselves, then somebody with a bit of common sense and clout needs to enter the process, even at this advanced stage.
Solomon the Wise is sadly not available – so who will step forward and provide the wisdom and insight this farcical situation so sorely needs? It’s sincerely to be hoped that the next few weeks will provide an answer to that.