No question exists that the takeover of Leeds United by Italian businessman Massimo Cellino is controversial. Cellino’s attempt to acquire the club was initially rejected by the Football League, but that decision was overturned Saturday on appeal.
Leeds United fans have been through more than almost any other set of supporters in England over the past decade. While Cellino might be an unsavory character, he is more likely to advance Leeds forward than the collection of Ken Bates-controlled groups that have trashed the club over the past several years.
Bates, the former Chelsea owner, whose stewardship of Leeds from 2005 to 2013 was characterized by a lack of transparency, continuing financial shell games, high ticket prices and ultimately failure on the pitch. The former Chairman had long refused to reveal who his silent partners were in the club, twice plunging the team into administration to restructure the holding entities managing the club before finally “buying out” his silent partners (if they really existed) in 2011.
During his leadership, Leeds consistently sold its best players yet continued to regularly increase ticket prices to a level unseen in the history of the Football League. He refused to talk face-to-face with the Supporters Trust and often took to insulting those who cared deeply about the club.
Bates’ tenure was also characterized by megalomania. Under his stewardship, Leeds United failed to buy back its Thorp Arch training ground or Elland Road despite finding the capital to begin and maintain a radio station widely known for its propaganda about the club. Cellino has already pledged to buy back Thorp Arch and Elland Road this coming week. When Bates bought the club in 2005 (though claiming at the time he had no ownership interest and was just serving as an executive for the owners), he promised to quickly buy back both the ground and training facilities. Cellino has made the very same promise, though this time Leeds supporters believe it will happen.
The sport of soccer has been filled with questionable characters in ownership. Carson Yeung who bought Birmingham City in 2009 somehow passed the Premier League’s fit and proper test despite having a recent arrest. Thaksin Shinawatra was cleared to buy Manchester City in 2008 even though he was considered by many watchdog groups a serial human rights abuser. To many Leeds supporters whose history of tragedy includes the (arguably) stolen 1975 European Cup Final against Bayern, the deaths of supporters in Istanbul in 2000 and then paying the ultimate price for “living the dream,” it seemed Cellino’s initial rejection by the Football League was another example of Leeds being a victim of an unfair standard or circumstances that didn’t apply to other clubs.
Cellino may be a distasteful character but his takeover gives fans in Yorkshire and around the world of Leeds United hope that they can return to the club’s rightful place among England’s footballing elite. After the experiences with Bates’s ownership in its various incarnations and GFH Capital, one can understand why many of United’s supporters would be so welcoming of the new man at the top.