There is usually at least one club in the Football League that supporters of other teams look at and think: “At least we’re not them”. There are a number of pretenders to the crown, but Leeds United are frequently on that list.
Leeds fall into the category of a ‘once-great club’, with a vocal and loyal fanbase which still pines for the days of Don Revie. Their Icarus-like flirtation with Champions League success in the early 2000s has been followed by a decade of questionable ownership and heartache on and off the field.
The latest chapter of that story continues to play out, with former club President Massimo Cellino confirming he will not return following a Football League ban over unpaid tax on a yacht in his native Italy. Cellino has sold his personal stake in the club, and in the investment company Eleonora Sport Limited which is the majority owner of the club. Two Cellinos remain on the board, alongside representatives of Gulf Finance – the former majority owners who now hold 25%.
Cellino’s arrival was a rocky one, with confusion over manager Brian McDermott, who was sacked, reinstated, then sacked again, while the new owner fought a disqualification under the fit and proper persons test. But having had that disqualification overturned, it appeared that the club, while still subject to Cellino’s managerial whims and other assorted eccentricities, were at least stable on the ownership front.
That changed in January when the League revisited the case and handed out a three-month ban to Cellino. Now, the news he won’t be coming back at all and has removed himself personally from the equation.
It doesn’t paint a happy picture of the future at Elland Road.
But after Cellino, Crowe?
A casual tweet from a Leeds fan drew a response from Gladiator star Russell Crowe, who owns an Australian Rugby League side, appearing to suggest he would be interested in the club. A fan-run group campaigning for supporter-representation on the Leeds board engaged in a brief dialogue with Crowe. Crowe tweeted:
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) February 25, 2015
However, Leeds chairman Andrew Umber shut the idea down by confirming the club was not for sale.
The model is a workable one – Swansea City are part-fan owned and have built a successful Premiership side, and the Bundesliga mandates multi-party ownership of clubs to create stability.
Ownership scandals are occurring with alarming regularity – Leeds are currently under the spotlight, and Portsmouth’s desperate slide from FA Cup winners bottom half of League Two in a little over seven years is well-known. Reading narrowly avoided a scandal of their own last summer as Russian owner Anton Zingarevich departed, leaving the club in debt and facing a tax bill (paid with the sale of striker Adam Le Fondre), and have now entered the ownership of a slightly murky Thai consortium. The examples are easy to come by. And too many clubs lurch from one unstable period to another.
The enthusiasm with which the Russell Crowe Scenario was met suggests a model of fan ownership warrants further investigation. Hollywood actors aren’t necessarily the way to go, but the financial weight they could gather is certainly an enabling factor which could galvanise supports and allow the movement to gather momentum. As Paul Keats, chairman of the Leeds United supporter’s trust, said this week, “in football you need a good friend.”