Awkward questions surround Steve Evans but answers can only come from above him. In the midst of another aimless season and the disillusionment caused by it, Massimo Cellino has been conspicuous by his silence.
Leeds United’s owner is very much on the scene at Elland Road, no longer subject to a self-imposed ban from the club’s games, but his outlook and his intentions are as unclear as ever. Cellino hovers in the background, aware of pressure coming from different angles but yet to succumb to it.
There is much for Cellino to speak about: the state of United’s season and squad after an underwhelming transfer window; the status of his Football League disqualification which, almost four months after the governing body imposed it, has still not taken effect; and the suggestion that he continues to look for a way out of Leeds, fuelled by sightings of him with Steve Parkin, the Yorkshire businessman who has tried and failed to buy a majority share in the club at least twice before.
The situation with Cellino’s Football League ban is remarkable, not only because of the time it has taken the governing body to enforce it but because of the confidentiality surrounding it. When Cellino was previously disqualified from running Leeds in 2014 – a penalty incurred after he was found guilty by an Italian court of evading tax owed on a private yacht – the Football League announced the sanction and dealt with an appeal in the space of a month-and-a-half. Even now it cannot say if or when Cellino’s second ban will come into force.
Cellino faces a 223-day suspension as owner of United after a judge in Cagliari ruled in June that he had deliberately avoided VAT due on a Range Rover imported by him from the USA. The Football League studied the court’s written judgement and announced on October 19 – the day Cellino sacked and replaced head coach Uwe Rosler with Evans – that the 59-year-old was in breach of its Owners and Directors Test. Cellino appealed on October 28.
The Football League will not comment on the delay, apart from reiterating that Cellino will be barred from Elland Road for 223 days if his challenge fails. But the process is believed to have been held up by a separate attempt by Cellino to quash his ban via the Football Association.
Cellino has long argued that the FL has no grounds to disqualify him, in part because convictions in Italy are not formally recognised until criminal cases have passed through two stages of appeal. That argument was dismissed by QC Tim Kerr, who overturned the FL’s bid to block Cellino’s takeover of Leeds in April 2014 and has never held sway with the League itself.
Shortly after his first ownership ban was imposed, Cellino asked the FA to arbitrate. The Italian, however, is understood to have suspended that process in July of last year following the conclusion of the Range Rover tax case. Sources close to him say he took that decision because he believed the FL would not seek to disqualify him again, despite his fresh conviction. The League’s move in October to bar him for a second time – a penalty which caught Cellino by surprise – is believed to have led him to restart the arbitration process.
FA arbitration, detailed in section K of its rules, is confidential. The FA will not even confirm whether Cellino has asked it to arbitrate. An FA spokesman told the YEP: “Rule K is a completely private process and thus we (the FA’s general staff) are never informed of any such motion and certainly could not comment.”
Some with experience of FA arbitration say Cellino’s appeal against his 223-day Football League ban cannot take place until the FA has ruled on the dispute first. None involved will say if a date for the conclusion of arbitration has been set or if the process has a fixed timescale. Cellino’s pending disqualification has now been hanging over him and Leeds United for 113 days, with no obvious end in sight.
Cellino claims his position has been strengthened by a change to Italian law, downgrading certain offences from criminal to civil. The Football League only has the power to disqualify directors for unspent criminal convictions which represent a “dishonest act”.
Before Christmas, a case in which Cellino was accused of failing to pay tax owed on transfers completed during his time as Cagliari owner was dismissed on that basis. Another case, in which Cellino was said to have evaded VAT on a private yacht named Lucky 23, was due to return to court on January 27. That hearing does not appear to have taken place.
With so much playing out behind the scenes, Leeds have meandered through Cellino’s second year as owner. Back in April 2014, a few days after his takeover, he predicted that the club would win promotion to the Premier League this season. Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest was their 10th of the campaign, pinning United in joint 15th position and allowing the Championship’s top six to break further away.
Evans came under pressure after that loss, forced to offer a fresh defence of a transfer window in which Leeds failed to address weaknesses in their squad.
“Primarily it never happened because of financial (reasons),” he said, explaining the deals which got away from him. “I don’t make those decisions but when the decision’s made that it’s too much money for the football club, I have to respect that.”
According to the ownership statement published on United’s website, Cellino remains in control of an 81 per cent stake at Elland Road and despite the presence of Parkin alongside him at recent matches, shows no sign of relinquishing control.
Cellino admitted recently to the YEP that the Italian trust used to fund his original buy-out would not inject further cash into Leeds until his dispute with the Football League was settled.
But he declined to discuss his future, or his immediate plans for the club. Rumours of a possible Qatari takeover bid he described as “fairy tales”.