The first thing you think when somebody reputed to be a billionaire – with annual income well into seven figures – takes over your beloved football club, is: brilliant; now we shall have the best of everything. No more poverty, no more crushingly-disappointing transfer windows. We are back.
This being Leeds United, of course, it looks like it might not actually work out that way – at least, not at first. The first order of business for Massimo Cellino is evidently to sort out the mess off the field. And, from all accounts, what a hell of a mess it looks like it is. Apparently, Massimo’s advisers have described the financial situation at Leeds United as ‘the worst mess they’ve ever seen at a football club’. So, who says we’re not still the leaders in at least one field??
Still, that’s some going for a club that, over the past few years, has enjoyed some of the biggest commercial revenues of any outfit at this level, charged the highest ticket prices and still attracted among the highest attendances, appearing with monotonous regularity on TV. Yet this same club has paid out wages at somewhat under the top rate for the Championship, as well as displaying very little ambition in the transfer market – whilst selling some of its top talent on a depressingly regular basis.
So how has a club run along these lines managed to embroil itself in such utter fiscal chaos? Where, exactly, is the gaping hole through which so much money every month is haemorrhaging away? You can point to certain peccadilloes of past regimes – the lavish re-upholstery of the East Stand, for instance, improving part of a stadium that the club doesn’t even own. There may be a certain reckless foolhardiness detectable there, especially if, as is rumoured, future season ticket revenues were mortgaged against the cost of what seems to have been a vanity project, to titivate a ground costing megabucks in annual rent. The ultimate beneficiary of that has never been satisfactorily identified – but may not be entirely unrelated to certain craftily-advantageous financial arrangements centred around the Cayman Islands part of the world.
Even so, it’s difficult to see how the sums add up to such a distressingly appalling bottom line as has been hinted at by Cellino’s horror-struck people. Small wonder, then, that the King of Corn is taking the step of recruiting “forensic accountants” to conduct a root and branch investigation. The image thus conjured up of intense and focused, pale and determined men, poring over every scrap of paper and every byte of data remotely connected to Leeds United over the past decade or so, is actually rather a pleasing one. Let’s face it, we all want answers – and they’ve been conspicuous by their absence at Elland Road this century. Excuses we’ve had aplenty, together with some hollow boasts about how things are moving forward. And yet here we are, in this parlous mess. Something needs to be done, and Cellino is taking the forensic approach to doing it.
‘Forensic’ might loosely and unscientifically be interpreted as “leaving no stone unturned – and no rat untrapped”. There are a few rats that immediately spring to mind who may very well be quivering in their lairs right now. One such lair might better be described as a tax lair – the bolt-hole of a venerable old gentleman whose financial affairs mean that he must perforce spend the better part of every year – better for us, that is – in the sunny climes of southern France. Does Master Bates have skeletons concealed in his closet? Are they about to be yanked out and made to perform a Danse Macabre? These ‘forensic’ types tend to wind up knowing exactly where the bodies are buried, and with a fair old clue as to how they got into that sadly moribund state. What revelations might they have to make concerning Uncle Ken and his Monaco closet?
Those “ten percent parasites” GFH might also be wriggling uneasily, wondering just what salient facts, which they would prefer to remain concealed, are about to be brought, glistening nastily, out into the cold and pitiless light of day. What will be the story concerning the GFH input into Leeds United during their term as majority owners – as opposed to any financial benefit they may have extracted during that period? As that excellent investigative organ Private Eye is always saying, we think we should be told – and it seems to be on the agenda that we might be. And there is a lot of fascination, on the part of the fan in the street, regarding the nitty-gritty of just exactly how these preceding two sets of owners have conducted themselves – and at what cost to the football club and the football fans whose interests they supposedly had in safe-keeping.
Whatever the controversy of some of the measures currently being implemented by Cellino – and whatever the likelihood in the short term of more hard times ahead – it does appear that he is set on cleansing and re-inventing a club that, from all appearances, has been rotten from the top downwards for far too long now. The Italian seems to have availed himself of pretty much the best legal team Euros can buy in his ultimately successful fight with the Football League to gain control of Leeds United.
Now, it appears that no expense will be spared in securing the services of the most effective accountants to wade through the murk of the financial situation at Elland Road. Perhaps one day, this “only the best will do” approach might yet be applied to the recruitment of playing staff. That’s the dream, after all, when you get a billionaire owner.
First things first, though. From the revelations accumulating day on day, it would appear that the Leeds United edifice is not so much crumbling as dissolving away before our very eyes. Cellino looks to be dealing with a structure that is on the edge of total collapse – and it’s understandable that this situation has to be addressed before any on-field luxuries can be contemplated – so it may well be a ticking-over season next time around.
That, of course, would be down to the competence and application of whatever players we end up with in the squad, as well as the motivational and coaching abilities of whatever manager is in charge next time around. Comparisons are usually invidious – but look what Sean Dyche and an unheralded Burnley squad did last season. They had been tipped for relegation.
Things at Elland Road are looking so very unhealthy though, that the on-field issues might well take second place in the minds of United fans, to the even more burning issue of who has done this to us. Who, when and how – not to mention why. There are some glaringly-obvious suspects. Maybe – just maybe – Massimo’s Meticulous Money Men will have them bang to rights before too long?