Mihir Bose: Fit and proper? But is this ‘test’ hiding the real issue?

Whether Massimo Cellino is allowed to remain an owner of Leeds remains an open question. The board of the Football League meet on Thursday to decide whether to let him run Leeds.

The story has all the makings of a modern soap opera. Cellino buys 75% of Leeds in February. But then he is disqualified by the League under its fit and proper test for owners because of Cellino’s conviction for tax evasion in a Sardinia court. This relates to the non-payment of import duties on his yacht, Nelie. Cellino pleaded not guilty, but a Sardinian court fined him €600,000 (£500,800) and confiscated Nelie.

Cellino, as was only to be expected, appealed. The League’s case was Cellino’s behaviour was to be considered dishonest under its fit and proper person test for owners and directors which bars any person from becoming owner or a director of a football club if they have “unspent convictions for offences of dishonesty”. Cellino’s lawyers countered that their client was appealing against the Sardinia court’s conviction and that Cellino had not yet been convicted due to the procedural nature of Italian law. After a six-hour appeal hearing Tim Kerr QC, having initially reserved judgement overturned the League’s decision.

On the face of it the Kerr ruling sounds decisive. However examine the small print of what Kerr said and it turns out he came to his conclusion because the judge in Sardinia, Dr Sandra Lepore, had not yet given her written reasons for the conviction. This meant that Kerr could not rule that Cellino had acted dishonestly. As Kerr pointed out, this specific offence of tax evasion can involve dishonesty, or in Italian law a person can be convicted of failing to pay the tax without having done so dishonestly.

“If the reasoned ruling of the court in Cagliari discloses that the conduct of Mr Cellino was such that it would reasonably be considered to be dishonest, he would become subject to a Disqualifying Condition. But that is not a matter that is before me,” said Kerr. In other words if Dr Lepore’s report says that Cellino acted dishonestly when avoiding import duties, he would fall foul of the League’s fit and proper test.

The problem is Dr Lepore is not required to give her report until mid-June, within 90 days of Cellino’s conviction. So the question for the League is does it allow Cellino to run Leeds and then in mid June, should Dr Lepore’s report prove dishonesty, disqualify him? Or act now?

This, of course, is not the first time Cellino has wanted to buy an English club. Four years ago he was very keen to buy West Ham and was less than happy when he was thwarted. Cellino could with reason also point out that for all the talk of what modern foreign owners have done to English football the game has always attracted colourful characters to the board room. Indeed this was the theme of Arnold Bennett’s 1911 comic novel The Card – in 1952 it was made into a film starring Alec Guinness and Petula Clark. This tells the story of Edward Henry Machin who uses football in a way that some of our modern owners would recognise.

Born to a washerwoman’s son it is set in a town called Bursley, fictitious but clearly modelled on towns located in Staffordshire’s Potteries District. The title is meant to denote a sharp character who would do anything, including bending the law to promote himself, but was also a man who could amuse and entertain. From a very young age Denry, as he is popularly known, shows how useful cheating can be. So aged 12 he alters his Test marks to get a scholarship to the local grammar school. Later when on holiday at the seaside resort town of Llandudno he makes money from a shipwreck. This involves acquiring a life boat, getting some of the stranded mariners to act as rowers, and organising conducted tours of the wreck. Then having made money he launches the Five Towns Universal Thrift Club. This allows members to deposit money and once they have half the money they need to buy something the club effectively lends the other half but only if they buy from stores associated with the club. Machin’s swag comes from the fact that he gets these shops to give him a discount because he is getting them so many customers. His great coup comes when he makes sure the carriage of the Countess of Chell is damaged, Machin then drives by to give her lift and the grateful Countess becomes the club’s sponsor. This means access to a plentiful supply of money and after that Machin rises quickly, becoming a town councillor and then the youngest mayor of Bursley.

And this is where football comes in. In order to get votes he buys the rights to Callear who plays for Bursley football club and is described as the “greatest centre forward in England”. Although Bennett was not to know this Callear must have been the first instance of third party ownership of a player, long before it became so much of a menace that Michel Platini never ceases to rail against it.

Councillor Barlow, an opponent of Machin, is not amused and says, “It will probably be news to him [meaning Machin] that Aston Villa have offered £700 to York for the transfer of Callear, and Blackburn Rovers have offered £750, and they’re fighting it out between ’em. Any gentleman willing to put down £800 to buy Callear for Bursley? I don’t mind telling you that steam-engines and the King himself couldn’t get Callear into our club.”

Machin responds, “Quite finished?” And then raising his voice says, “Mr Callear, will you be good enough to step forward and let us all have a look at you?”

By the end of the book Councillor Barlow remains unconvinced asking, “What’s he done? Has he ever done a day’s work in his life? What great cause is he identified with?”

To which the response is, “He’s identified with the great cause of cheering us all up.”

Now I do not know what great cause Massimo Cellino has identified with and it is unlikely he will cheer us all up, or even the Leeds supporters. Whether there is a Callear lurking about that Cellino could bring to Leeds is not clear. But given that in his two decades ownership of Cagliari, his hometown club, he has gone through 35 managers suggests the dug outs at Elland Road will see a lot of comings and goings. It will be argued that through this turmoil he has managed to keep his club, hardly a power house in Italy, in Serie A for most of the time. In 1994 the club even reached the semi-finals of the then UEFA Cup.

Yet in many ways the whole drama of the Cellino take-over has missed one hugely important point which goes well beyond the fit and proper person test of ownership. This centres round the more fundamental question of whether we should continue with the free for all attitude to club ownership and allow anyone from any part of the world to come and buy a British club? This is the question that should be at the heart of any debate about ownership. Football clubs may now be commodities and no longer community institutions but in other countries, even America, where sport is a business, they do not allow anyone to come in and buy their sports clubs. Should we not also consider similar legal restrictions for our football clubs?

The fact that football authorities have refused to consider this question and our politicians have done nothing is a scandal. The fit and proper test that has come in the wake of ownership scandals at Portsmouth and some other clubs was a cop out meant to cover up for the fact that nobody was prepared to tackle this fundamental issue of foreign ownership. The result is despite having a fit and proper person test the League cannot decide on Cellino’s ownership of Leeds because it has to wait on a judgement of an Italian court and the very different legal standards that prevail in Italy.

I can see why the football authorities took this soft option. For more than a century who owned football clubs did not matter. The idea that an owner should pass a fit and proper test would have been considered absurd. This was because there was no money in football, owning clubs brought no financial gain and clubs were generally owned by local businessman – the classic butcher, baker, candlestick maker. These were often people who had inherited little or no wealth. This was not the world of Downton Abbey. These were men who had made their way up the ladder and owning their local football club gave them a status in their society. If nothing else it meant they could park their Rolls in the space marked chairman, everyone at the club from the tea lady to the manager called them chairman, and the whole match day experience gave their ego a massive boost.

Indeed Leeds itself for generations was owned by people who could claim they were very much from the city such as Manny Cussins and Leslie Silver. Anthony Clavane’s magnificent The Promised Land describes the club and its connection with the well established Jewish community of the city. Indeed Cussins, a rich businessman, once joked that “Leeds rugby has Lewis Jones, Leeds United has Jewish loans.”

Those days are long gone but it is only in recent years that ownership of Leeds has moved out of businessmen with no connection with Leeds and then eventually abroad. Leeds, of course, is not the only one. Some of these foreign owners have proved very benevolent, as supporters of Chelsea and Manchester City will surely argue. But whether they are like Roman Abramovich or the owners of Hull the question of whether football clubs meant to be for the community should ever be foreign owned has never been raised. And the whole Leeds saga shows how short sighted this policy is. The great tragedy is despite all the problems that foreign ownership has caused there is no appetite to look at this question. And you do not have to look at the US to find a solution. Germany has shown how well money can be welcomed into football yet ownership retained within the land. But our football authorities refuse to look at the German example. And as long as this little England attitude prevails the wider issues raised by Cellino’s take-over, whatever happens to Cellino’s ownership of Leeds, will not go away.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose