Massimo Cellino’s first home game as Leeds United owner throws up an interesting comparison, as – despite the recent appeal decision in his favour – the Italian remains under the shadow of Football League action at some point in the next few months. The visitors, Blackpool, have as majority shareholder (and still registered as a director and therefore “fit and proper” in the eyes of the powers that be) convicted rapist Owen Oyston. In a further twist of irony, Oyston’s son Karl sat on the Football League panel that shook its collective head, tut-tutted in righteous disapproval and sighed in a faintly scandalised fashion – as it ruled Cellino disqualified under its Owners and Directors rules, for import duty unpaid in Italy on an American yacht called Nélie.
Let’s start by exploding some myths. There are those who now feel that, since Thursday, when the FL announced it was ratifying Cellino as a Leeds United director, there is nothing further to worry about. This is manifestly untrue, and readers of that brief statement from the Football League will note the presence of giveaway words like “currently”. There is no stick to beat Cellino with at present – but the League are keeping their powder dry and believe me, they mean to get their man, as and when possible. On Thursday, the League merely rubber-stamped Cellino’s current status as fit and proper, having no other choice. He had been found not subject to the OaD disqualifications by a stage of the League’s own process and – for now – that’s it. But if the Italian judge in the Nélie case, Dr Sandra Lepore, in her reasoned judgement, were to impute dishonesty against Cellino, then he had better watch out again. Fortunately, he has some decent lawyers and what looks like a sound defence.
So, that’s the “Massimo is now safe from the League” myth dealt with. Now – what about Oyston? Here we have a convicted rapist who apparently causes the Football League no qualms at all. Ah, but – I hear you say – that conviction was ages ago and it’s “spent” now – so it’s not fair to say that the Football League are being unfair in a comparative sense. The problem with that argument is that it is factually incorrect. Oyston was found guilty of rape – a foul and horrible crime against the person – and sentenced to 6 years in prison. He actually served three years and six months, The rules relating to how convictions become “spent” – i.e. when they do not have to be disclosed in most circumstances and so become less restrictive in terms of professional status etc – are made under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA). In Oyston’s case, it is entirely clear that his offence will never become spent, as he was sentenced to (and actually served) over two and a half years. The other limb of the League’s Owners & Directors test relates to “dishonesty” – and it is this provision that threatens to snare our Massimo. As for Oyston – if it is to be argued that rape is not a dishonest act, then surely what should really be on trial here is the set of regulations that permits such a grotesque result in the first place. Can you really have an “honest” rapist??
Given that the League – which argued its case in front of Tim Kerr QC with unprecedented zeal and was not above the odd dodgy trick either – seem determined to “get” Cellino, then why, we are surely justified in asking, do they not display a similar determination to rid themselves of a character like Oyston? And yet that question never arises, except in this and other blogs who seem to feel there’s a blatant contradiction here.
Is it because Oyston was convicted before the Owners and Directors rules were laid down? That dog won’t bite, I’m afraid. One of the salient points to emerge from the Cellino appeal was that the OaD rules are on-going in their application. In other words, should any owner or director be found to rest within the scope of disqualification at any time, then the League can consider that person under OaD – and act accordingly. So, after all that – why is there no action against Oyston? And why, on the other hand, is there such a remorseless determination to exclude Cellino?
Some will point out that Oyston has always maintained his innocence and has persisted with all possible avenues of appeal. As regards his protestations – well, to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies in the Profumo case, “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” The appeal options have availed Oyston naught. He lost in the Court of Appeal and he lost again at the European Court of Human Rights, which held that his appeal was “manifestly ill-founded”. Given all of that, the Football League would appear on the face of it to have some explaining to do, as to why they continue blithely to ignore the fact that they are, in effect, nurturing a rapist viper in the bosom of their “football family”.
As Blackpool visit Leeds United on Saturday, the two contradictory sides of this whole issue are brought into close contact, whether both parties are actually present at the match or not. The more that Leeds United fans get to know Massimo Cellino, the more warmly he is regarded. His deeds in the short period of his control have more than matched the words he uttered beforehand. He has cleared off at least two debts that could have led to Leeds United being wound-up and going to the wall (whether in their heart of hearts the League mandarins consider this to be A Good Thing will probably remain moot). But Cellino is undeniably acting as a fit and proper owner should, in protecting the best interests of his club. Our various owners in recent history have signally failed to do this; indeed the newly released financial results for the most recent period available cast severe doubt on the fitness of GFH to run a piss-up in a brewery, never mind a leading football club. Which begs more questions: why were the Football League not more diligent in investigating GFH? Or Ken Bates? Why pursue the one man who is ready, willing and able – through his own resources – to steer Leeds United away from crisis?
The Football League, instead of sulking about their appeal defeat, need to look at this whole picture – including some of the dubious characters currently infesting boardrooms up and down the land. They need to be very sure that they are pursuing rectitude and not a vendetta. The upshot should be that they act fairly – and are seen to be acting fairly. It might seem, on the face of it, rather unfair to drag Oyston’s name into all of this, when he’s served his time and so on. But it’s the League who have to carry the can for that as well, in allowing such seemingly blatant contradictions to persist. They have hung Mr Oyston out to dry, simply by giving the appearance of leaving him – a convicted rapist and guilty under the law of a foul and disgusting crime – in undisturbed peace, whilst harassing Cellino at every turn as he tries to do thousands of people a good turn by saving their beloved football club.
It simply doesn’t add up, and the Football League would appear to be bang to rights on the most glaring double standards rap you could possibly imagine. I hope that these arguments can eventually be put directly to a responsible person in the League – perhaps by a Leeds area MP willing to take up cudgels on the club’s behalf. And I hope we get some answers because – again, on the face of it – Leeds United could very well lose their saviour in the next few months, under the least transparent and most unfair set of circumstances imaginable.
Do these arrogant, faceless people really imagine that we’re going to tolerate that?