Thursday, 6 November 2014

Why hasn't Cellino been able to buy back Elland Road?

Talking to Massimo Cellino over the course of 2014 has taught me that when he says ‘the deal is done’, he means ‘the deal is agreed’.

He doesn't necessarily mean 'the deal has been signed’, which is how you and I would probably take it.

This might seem insignificant, but it is an important distinction, as you'll see during the course of this post.

The distinction has become evident when the Italian has talked about transfers, incoming managers and, most recently, about the attempted buyback of Elland Road.

Back in August, I interviewed Cellino in the stands of the stadium for ITV Calendar.

On a sunny afternoon, he was bullish and buoyant and everything seemed good at Elland Road. Cellino announced that the terms of the share purchase agreement (SPA) with GFH had been renegotiated, essentially meaning that his debt to them was written off until the club reached the Premier League.

So he declared that the club was 'debt free'.

Cellino said all parties realised this was for the best of Leeds United. He would have more capital for the development of the team and purchase of the stadium and so the club would have a better chance of reaching the Premier League.

And for their part, GFH would have a stake that was significantly more valuable if the club were able to reach the promised land of the Premier League.

There was also another apparent reason for the compromise agreement - the parties disagreed about the state of the club’s finances when it was sold to Cellino, and this was a good way of avoiding potential legal action.

Cellino also made his now infamous promise to purchase Elland Road ‘by November’.

Originally, he had told me he would buy the ground back the day after his purchase of the club in April, but that obviously hadn't happened.

Fast forward to this week and we witnessed a very different Cellino - beleaguered. tired and weary.

Now he conceded he wouldn’t be able to buy the ground back by November after all. In fact he probably wouldn’t be able to buy it this year.

The exact reasons have been a little unclear, but I will try and shed as much light on them as I can.

Not only was Cellino a little hasty in promising to buy back Elland Road, but it turns out he was also hasty in saying a deal had been done with GFH over the SPA.

In fact it hadn’t been signed and still hasn’t.

Indeed GFH don't appear to have any intention of doing so. They want the original terms of the SPA to be honoured, meaning Cellino paying the next instalment due to them in December, for some £6 million.

Perhaps GFH now realise that those hopes of the club getting into the Premier League were a little premature and will have to wait for at least another season for that to happen.

I'm guessing their motives a bit, because I've tried to get a response from Salem Patel, via text and email, but received no reply.

Under the terms of the SPA, any substantive decision affecting GFH's shareholding has to be ratified by a majority vote of the board, including one of the two GFH-nominated directors, Salem Patel and Salah Nooruddin.

They have been unwilling to ratify a purchase of the stadium which would involve a contribution commensurate with their shareholding.

GFH have countered criticism of this stance by complaining that they thought the £10.75 million gained from the sale of Ross McCormack in the summer would be used to buy the ground.

And, in fairness to them, Cellino did say that himself.

Yet Leeds probably only received about £9 million from the sale of the Scotland striker, as a portion went to his former club Cardiff. And the Elland Road buyback clause is for £16 million - quite a discrepancy.

In any case, the terms of the SPA do not require consultation with GFH over transfers. And would they really have vetoed the sale of a player they had agreed to sell to Cardiff for a fraction of that £10.75 million in only January?

So Cellino has been looking for a mortgage to make up the shortfall.

This has so far proved impossible, mainly because of the club’s poor credit rating, which was hardly helped by the winding-up orders issued against it earlier this year.

As a result Cellino, who is even conservatively estimated to be worth £500 million, has been left with a stark choice - pay 100% for an asset that will greatly increase the value of GFH’s shareholding, yet to which they have not contributed, or risk the wrath of supporters by breaking a key promise.

The Italian has plumped for the latter, but been reluctant to express his dilemma in such stark terms, perhaps understandably. He said buying the stadium outright could cause the club to fall foul of the Football League's financial fair play rules. Yet when I called the League to check this, they said any spending on infrastructure or stadia was exempt from FFP.

Cellino has told me he hates breaking promises and letting the fans down, but unfortunately that’s exactly what has happened - for the time being at least.

The 58-year-old flies to Miami on Sunday to recharge his batteries and try and think of a solution to the current impasse.

My personal opinion, based on experience, is that this is a man who has good intentions for the club and is not there to enrich himself at its expense.

He can, however, be extremely rash, both in terms of his decision-making and his pronouncements, and that trait has cost him once again.

So we are left with a club that is still no closer to owning its own stadium and which yesterday released a statement saying its aim was to ‘stay in the Championship’ this season.

That's all a far cry from those heady days when Cellino first took over.

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