Leeds United's owners Gulf Finance House Capital have not given up on Massimo Cellino’s company Eleonora Sport completing a takeover, despite the Football League’s decision to disqualify the Italian businessman from becoming a director of the club.
The Football League issued a statement earlier today announcing Cellino’s conviction last week for a tax offence in Italy constituted “a disqualifying condition under its owners’ and directors’ test”.
But GFH Capital has added to mounting confusion at Elland Road by revealing it is still in talks with the League and Eleonora Sport in a bid “to find a solution that is suitable to all parties”.
GFH Capital exchanged contracts to sell 75 per cent of the club’s shares to Eleonora Sport on February 7, and it would appear Leeds’ current owner is determined to keep the deal alive.
“The club and its shareholders are disappointed at the decision of the Football League not to approve Massimo Cellino as a director of Leeds United FC,” read GFH Capital’s statement.
“However, the board and executive management of the club will continue discussions with the Football League and Eleonora Sport to find a solution that is suitable to all parties.
“Our shareholders continue to support the club directly or through additional investments as has always been the case.
“We would like to reassure the fans of the continuity of our great club.”
Cellino, 57, who owns Italian club Cagliari, has bankrolled Leeds for the last two months, and fans fear the club could slide into administration if a new owner is not found soon.
Leeds managing director David Haigh has insisted there is “no chance” of the club going into administration.
The League’s decision to block Cellino’s takeover was taken at a board meeting last night which considered his eligibility in the wake of his conviction in Sardinia.
The league said in a statement: “Mr Cellino was recently found guilty beyond reasonable doubt by a Court in Sardinia of an offence under Italian tax legislation relating to the non-payment of import duties on a boat.
“This resulted in a fine of 600,000 euros (£500,800), an order for the payment of trial costs and the confiscation of the boat in question.
“Having fully considered the matter, the board agreed unanimously that the decision of the Italian court does constitute a disqualifying condition under its owners’ and directors’ test.
“The relevant disqualifying condition being that Massimo Cellino has been convicted of an offence involving acts that would reasonably be considered to be dishonest.”
Cellino is entitled to lodge an appeal against the decision within 14 days, but has publicly stated he would “walk away without a fight” if his takeover was not approved.
The League statement added: “In such circumstances, the League would seek to expedite the process to deliver certainty to all parties in the shortest possible timeframe.”
Cellino’s lawyer had argued that as he is appealing against his tax conviction, he should be viewed as innocent until a final sentence is passed.
The league’s board disagreed however, saying in its decision that “if a competent Italian court (such as the Sardinian court in this case) finds a defendant guilty of a crime and specifies the sanctions to be imposed upon him then under Italian law the defendant is considered to have been convicted of a crime even if the judgement is not final because the defendant has the right to appeal”.
Bahrain-based investment firm GFH Capital have been searching for major investment since buying the club from Ken Bates in December 2012.
A rival consortium to Cellino, headed by Andrew Flowers, chief executive of club sponsor Enterprise Insurance, withdrew from the race to take control at Elland Road at the end of January.
Another group, Together Leeds, fronted by former Manchester United international managing director Mike Farnan, has been waiting in the background, but it is understood there are other unnamed parties ready to step up their bids.
GFH Capital has so far refused to enter into serious talks with Together Leeds after rejecting a “derisory” offer from them in November.