It is not easy to describe the anguish of the last month. A time when a club whose supporters already well versed in the dark arts of self-destruction found themselves teetering on the brink of civil war. A time when its owners saw their previously progressive reputation shattered, in a misjudged game of high stakes poker riddled with farce and financial disintegration. We now appear to be at the mercy of a superstitious Italian with ‘marked criminal tendencies’. Many argue that Massimo Cellino possesses the wealth, business acumen and buccaneering spirit craved for so long. Others fear his chequered history and refuse to forget his clandestine role in the monstrous events of that fateful Friday night. Here is my brief account of a tumultuous month.
Part One: Whites 1 Town 1
This rather tepid and disjointed performance provided a brief moment of solace for a set of punch drunk supporters forced to contemplate boardroom fiasco and broken promises. In the minutes leading up to kick off, Leeds fan, sponsor and prospective buyer Andrew Flowers used an official statement in which to launch a scathing attack on current owners Gulf Finance House and their handling of the proposed takeover deal.
Mr Flowers’ angry outburst was sparked by the investment bank’s reluctance to relinquish control of the club to his ‘Sports Capital’ consortium, while at the same time courting advances from rival bidders. Reports in the week suggesting that a group purporting to represent Cagliari president Massimo Cellini had been shown around the club’s estate seemed to be confirmed with the news of an expected Italian presence at the game. It was a development that Flowers described as ‘a breach of covenant with not only us but more importantly the fans’.
The ensuing chaos not only spelled the end for the Sports Capital bid but also left Flowers’ bidding counterpart David Haigh suffocating in the disarray. Haigh’s position as an employee of GFH and his extensive involvement in their initial purchase saw him installed as the club’s Managing Director and was expected to pave the way for a wonderfully straight forward change of ownership but instead an acrimonious boardroom battle fuelled by recrimination, accusation and double talking left the proposed takeover in tatters. Mr Haigh’s only recourse was to admit defeat and he did so days later with a public statement citing lack of funds. Although he was keen to reaffirm a committment to the club, he was fully aware that his reputation had been severely damaged.
Lying in wait with the smell of blood in his nostrils was the flamboyant Cellino. The agricultural magnate appeared with a long list of criminal impropriety including fraud and embezzlement. His time in Sardinia had seen him dispose of coaches ‘like the Trojans slaughtered the Greeks’. The notion of such a man taking charge of affairs has led to some lamenting the halcyon days of a certain white bearded shylock and fearing an uncertain future.
On the field the boys in white struggled to subjugate a mediocre Ipswich side and fears regarding tactics and lack of purpose again resurfaced. Michael Brown the veteran midfielder and stubborn remnant of Simon Grayson’s era turned in a man of the match display, while our most recent acquisitions’ performed with varying degrees of impotency. Cameron Stewart created the opportunity that led to a hasty equalizer but did little else, while Jimmy Kebe turned in a performance that one fan described as the worst he’d seen in ten years. Typically the manager moved to again extol the virtues of his misfiring Mali winger but in an atmosphere as poisonous as this, the existence of an easy target provided some kind of consolation.
Part Two: Whites 5 Terriers 1
I didn’t get any sleep that Friday night. I doubt many of us did. It was not only a public meltdown of a once great club but the reprehensible treatment of an honourable man. I must admit to shedding a few tears at the helplessness of it all. Perhaps it was time to draw a line under the whole sordid endeavour and choose a healthier pursuit. The last decade has taken its toll.
While the evening’s events had been scandalous they had not been altogether surprising. Gulf Finance House had spent the last few days looking increasingly susceptible to outside influence and although they had rejected Mr Cellino’s dubious request to allow long-term confidant Gianluca Festa on the bench for Ipswich, the collapse of David Haigh’s consortium seemed to strengthen the Italian’s hand. Brian McDermott appeared to be abandoned and by his pre match press conference he had the look of a man who’d been asked to weave his own noose.
Ross McCormack’s appearance on Sky Sports in the immediate aftermath of the ‘sacking’ was car crash television at its worst. Our club captain was caught in a moment of raw emotion by an institution that has played a key role in the modern game’s moral degradation. It was a malaise that the evening’s treachery encapsulated. The channel’s bloated and self obsessed ‘Deadline Day’ coverage seemed more interested in some second-rate midfielder’s aborted move to the Potteries rather than the calamitous events in the North. Football was at the point of devouring itself.
During the dead of the grimmest of nights Twitter bubbled with tales of signings, resignations and further sackings. Hundreds of fans descended on Elland Road to vent their frustration and the publication of a photograph placing Cellino at the scene only increased their anger. Firstly they formed a human barricade at the gates of the East Stand in a bid to cage their tormentors before chasing the Italian’s taxi around the car park to the chant of ‘We’re Leeds United and we’ll chase you all night’. West Yorkshire’s finest were called in to resolve the issue after an appeal by the car’s driver who claimed to be running out of fuel. It was a moment of humour that pierced the blackest of moods and was typical of a fan base that again was suffering at the hands of charlatans.
Those arriving at Elland Road for the match would have been forgiven for forgetting the identity of our opponents. The tragic farce of the night before had rendered football inconsequential and Huddersfield Town as irrelevant as ever. Buckling under the immense pressure of public disdain and sponsors’ threats to withdraw financial support, our spineless owners moved to reinstate Brian McDermott by insisting he hadn’t been sacked in the first place. An appearance in the dugout became a distinct possibility.
The demonstrations outside the East Stand were more muted than I’d expected and the prevailing tension seeped onto the pitch during a disappointing first half display in which both supporters and players appeared confused and drained of energy. The Terriers should have been two or three up before Ross McCormack’s scruffy equalizer just before the break. As it turned out the manager was still in absentia, perhaps wisely instructed to avoid the unfolding drama. Instead his long-term friend and associate Nigel Gibbs answered the embattled board’s eleventh hour call to take charge of team affairs and would deliver a telling half time team talk.
The Whites reappeared energised and shorn of the previous half’s paralysis, as if suddenly stung by the injustice and an increasingly feverish crowd’s protest at the maltreatment of an absent friend. Our bewildered opponents were swept away by the prevailing emotion and an exhilarating opponent hell-bent on some kind of redemption. Jimmy Kebe avoided challenges with the grace of a gazelle, Rudy Austin drove forward mercilessly, Luke Murphy prompted and probed and Ross McCormack was at his destructive best. Alex Mowatt concluded a surreal afternoon with a debut strike of real quality. It was as if the players had striven to underline the discontent with a performance that honoured their manager.
The euphoria of those post match hours combined with further boardroom machinations served to mask the malaise and allowed us the fleeting hope that the immeasurable damage from that shambolic Friday evening could be repaired. Official confirmation of the manager’s reinstatement was accompanied by reports that David Haigh had spent Saturday afternoon entertaining rival bidders.
The squalid behaviour of both owner and suitor was emphasised by the press conference that signalled our manager’s return to the front line. While Mr McDermott spoke with humility, dignity and respect, GFH and Cellino were left to desperately backtrack from their actions. There was a feeling that such a stinging public rebuke could cause a breakdown in cordiality between the pair, leaving investment opportunities for others.
Part Three: Glovers 1 Whites 2, Seagulls 1 Whites 0, Boro 0 Whites 0
It became clear in the build up to the trip to Somerset that Don Massimo was the only player in town. A breakdown in negotiations with other prospective buyers and GFH’s refusal to continue discussions were accompanied by rumours of further financial strife twisting their collective arm. By Friday evening contracts were exchanged and we were left to ponder the prospect of life under a tempestuous Italian.
While the Football League’s slow and painful process of ratifying the deal left boardroom matters in a state of suspended animation, the small matter of football reared its head. Despite returning to the fray with Massimo’s praises ringing in his ears, Brian McDermott remained keenly aware of the uncertainty. There is an episode of the classic seventies police drama Kojak, in which a young mob linked hood falls foul of impending gangland warfare and is found strung up in a meat factory, the ungrateful recipient of ‘butane hotfoot’. Despite claims to the contrary the manager carries the look of a man who metaphorically fears a similar fate.
The victory at Huish Park came courtesy of a spirited fight back but came with little quality and was followed by two more lacklustre and disjointed performances. Defeat on the South Coast saw the hefty travelling numbers suffer at the hands of a club whose supporters resemble Terry and June on a picnic, while Don Massimo’s first taste of English football came in the shape of a miserable encounter at the Riverside. He would not have been impressed.