Potless chancers. Manchester United fans. Too much mystery. Didn’t want the club enough. If you search social media and websites belonging to certain media outlets, these are just four of the accusations leveled at the Together Leeds bid for Leeds United earlier this year. In the immediate fallout from the Football League’s barring of Leeds United president, Massimo Cellino, Mike Farnan was invited to do an interview on Irish radio to give his comments on the current goings-on at Leeds United and was asked whether he and the Together Leeds group would be launching a second bid.
The interview touched on a few key points briefly, but did little to clear the fog around the group’s 2014 bid for the club, eventually beaten to the punch by Cellino after his deal was ratified by The Football League reluctantly following an appeal. I reached out to Mike Farnan, and offered him the opportunity to separate fact from fiction with regards to the Together Leeds bid. Mike was aware I had been rather critical of his group in the past, but accepted the invitation all the same.
What struck me first was his passion for Leeds United. We spoke within two hours of the final whistle following the defeat to Fulham, and Mike was clearly smarting, the same as all Leeds fans. One myth surrounding Farnan is that he’s not a Leeds United fan. Some take that even further and state that’s he supports “those [expletive] across the Pennines”. He doesn’t; he supports Leeds United and has done all his life, like many other Dubliners before and after him even when working at Manchester United as International Managing Director. He talks of Leeds in a way only Leeds fans talk about the club. Exasperated and enthralled, all at once. Mike talks at great length about the Leeds United fan base, referring to trips he takes to far-flung corners of the earth on behalf of clients of his Red Strike Marketing company, during which it has become very evident that Leeds United is still a “global brand”, one that can rival Manchester United, Liverpool and others on a global scale once again.
It is on that very basis that the Together Leeds group was founded, with a view to rebuilding the club from top to bottom. The group is made up of Gary Verity, Adam Pearson, Frank Devoy, Mike Farnan, and one person who can not currently be named because he holds a lofty position at a Premier League club. The financing of their bid came from UK and USA based investment groups, many of whom immediately signed up because of the wealth of experience and respect the five front-men brought to the table. What is evident in my talks with Mike is that financing was actually the easiest part of the bid, and this appears to have carried forward to current plans, with most of the original financiers already back on board or at least in discussions. He views Gary Verity as the darling of the group, describing him as a massively successful businessman, born into Leeds United, well respected, and “the perfect Chairman”. On Adam Pearson, he waxes lyrical about Pearson’s reputation in football following his stints at Leeds United, Hull, and Derby, and rightly points out that to date Pearson is still responsible for the highest grossing sponsorship deal in Leeds United history.
Frank Devoy, who I personally see as a hidden gem in the group, is on the board of directors at a FTSE 100 company, and is renowned as a “no nonsense man who gets the job done”. I spoke with an associate of Frank’s, and he described him as a dominating figure, someone who commands the room as soon as he enters. Frank was to be the COO of Leeds United should the bid be successful. Frank is reunited with the group as they look to form plans for the future. Mike and Frank spent countless time between July and October meeting with private investors and equity funds. One such organisation, which Mike states he simply can’t name until they’re ready, has a vast footballing experience, and Together Leeds met with these investors to put a plan together on taking over a “Leeds United that had a lot of financial holes, and that’s just on the stuff we were shown”.
The topic of conversation migrated toward Fan involvement, something which Mike said was the topic of his first conversation with then Leeds United Supporters Trust Chairman, Gary Cooper. He says that the ideal scenario for Leeds United is “a consortium with money, teamed with a gathering of fans, which is the very foundation of the group name itself : ‘Together Leeds’ “. While he applauds Leeds fans as some of the most vociferous and football-savvy fans in football, he also acknowledges that he receives a fair amount of abuse via social media, something he lays at the feet of former rival bidders Sport Capital, and their close involvement with GFH.
When Gulf Finance House made it known that their shares were available for purchase, several parties stood up to the plate, including Sport Capital, Together Leeds, and Eleonora Sports, fronted by Massimo Cellino though the bids were somewhat staggered in their start point. Of the three parties, only Sport Capital were privy to the most intimate details of the club’s accounts, given the involvement of David Haigh in the group, not to mention Ken Bates who would of course know where all the financial ‘bodies’ were buried. Together Leeds were given limited access to undertake Due Diligence, and Farnan says this is where the problems began to arise. During extensive research on Mike Farnan, I was able to find a few negative articles that referred to his days at Sunderland Football Club. Each article had a slightly different account, but all related back to The Daily Star as a source for the Sunderland story.
The basis of the story was actually very weak and used no direct accusations, but used all the right keywords. “Mysterious”, “Controversial”, “Investigations”. I decided to check with Sunderland Football Club, and spoke for around fifteen minutes in total to two current members of staff, plus one former. They described the allegations of controversy as “ridiculous”, and the only harsh words spoken were that Mike could be a bit hyper-active at times, and single-minded. Chasing down the source of the story, led me to Sport Capital’s Public Relations team. It became evident rather quickly that the words written in The Daily Star article actually mirrored that of GFH and Sport Capital from just weeks before, almost verbatim. The Daily Star was used as a mouthpiece by Sport Capital’s David Haigh, and Gulf Finance House. With so many critics still latching on to the words by Sport Capital and The Daily Star, I suppose you could say the PR campaign worked. Together Leeds went from ‘Promising bidders’ to ‘Potless chancers’ without actually doing anything. Genius.
Closing off the subject of Sport Capital, one that clearly riles Mike to no end, we talked about the involvement of Andrew Flowers of Enterprise Insurance, who was a part of the Sport Capital group. Mike spoke well of Flowers, describing him as “a true Leeds man”, and suggests that perhaps Flowers simply got on board with the wrong group, something I personally think will be rectified very soon. He spoke of a meeting with David Haigh, wherein Haigh was representing the club, and professed to be there to properly listen to the bid. Haigh did not ask any questions, nor take a single note. Infact, Haigh appeared to take nothing back to the club from the meeting, instead pushing his own Sports Capital bid in the press not long after the meeting.
Together Leeds’ bid was, according to Farnan, very clear: “The requested and required cash for equity, contingency payments, a commitment to purchase the Elland Road and Thorp Arch for which full funding was already in place.” Frank Devoy was in charge of discussions “with Jacob Adler and Leeds City Council with regards to the Thorp Arch and Elland Road acquisitions”. This offer was submitted to David Haigh, along with Haigh’s pre-existing knowledge of funding, but at the time of the meeting Haigh had not infact revealed himself as a potential buyer. After the talks, and once it was revealed that Sports Capital were launching a takeover bid with Haigh at the helm, Haigh served each member of Together Leeds with legal papers demanding they cease and desist with their bid to takeover Leeds United, following those demands with leaks to the press containing false information.
Once GFH, with Haigh as a major decision maker, locked Together Leeds out of discussions, Farnan says Together Leeds “accepted defeat for time being”, while Sports Capital were given a period of exclusivity, until Together Leeds “became louder about the bid” once it was evident Sport Capital were a group that simply did not have the money to go further in talks with Gulf Finance House. Infact, just prior to the resurgence of the Together Leeds bid, David Haigh reached out to Together Leeds to try and join forces despite all the previous obstacles he and GFH had placed in their way. Once the press caught wind that Together Leeds’ bid was very real, the group were approached by six additional businessmen who all pledged a further five to six million pounds each to push the deal over the line, pending due diligence and a sale purchase agreement with Gulf Finance House.
In the midst of these talks, Massimo Cellino presented himself as GFH’s preferred buyer, opting not to do any Due Diligence whatsoever (confirmed by Cellino himself as recently as last week), and signing an agreement that would infact keep GFH’s claws in the club until such time as contingency payments were either bought out, or paid out. It is no secret that GFH sought Cellino out (not the other way around), and had a dossier compiled on him that denoted he could potentially be barred under Football League rules, with GFH standing to make even more money by then leveraging their 25% as a sticking point in any deal in the future.
It should be noted at this point that during my conversations regarding David Haigh being detained in Dubai, I have asked quite a few probing questions of his advisors on this matter. They always respond, but never answer the questions posed. Farnan closes on the topic of David Haigh by sympathising with his current predicament despite their obvious disagreements and personal dislike of one another.
Speaking more on Fans involvement, something that will be discussed in person with a broad group of fans and fan groups in a meeting this coming Monday, Mike points out that it isn’t ‘Fans being in charge of the club’, but rather ‘Fans in control of who is in charge of the club’. It may seem like a rephrasing of the same idea, but it’s not. The Barcelona and Swansea models show that with fan involvement, clubs really can be held “accountable to the fans”, according to Farnan, and it offers a chance for the “club to become more transparent than it’s ever been”. Mike describes the last decade and a half at Leeds United as “a mess, after a mess, after a mess” with regards to ownership, and suggests that fan involvement could have been key to stopping the rot. He professes a deep admiration for David O’Leary, their families are quite close. He views the likes of David O’Leary as an unfortunate bystander to the chaos surrounding the club at boardroom level, continuing that he was speaking to O’Leary as recently as a few months ago, and that “if as a manager you are given the money to buy all these players, you’re going to spend it”, it wasn’t O’Leary’s place to question the source of the money, after all.
Toward the end of our chat, Mike described the talks with Cellino once his takeover had been approved by way of his appeal. He says that talks were very real, and very long, but communication was cut short rather abruptly. This coincided, in fact, with the hiring of forensic accountants at Leeds United as Cellino took to performing Due Diligence after completing his takeover. The results of these investigations caused Massimo Cellino to shut everybody out, while making it a personal mission to renegotiate the Sale Purchase Agreement with GFH that saw him stuck with endless debts to GFH in both his name and the clubs, not to mention a contingency agreement he signed that was a pay day in waiting for the Bahrain based investment bankers. Mike stresses that the work Cellino has done since taking over the club has been some of the best in many a year, but also sees GFH as an ongoing obstacle to anyone who tries to do business with the club.
In my final question to Mike, I asked what is the preferred shareholding moving forward. He stated that while a majority holding is of course preferable for any potential bidder, the 25% held currently by GFH would be a very good start, and would at least “give the fans some power”, which has been an end-goal for the group since the start according to Farnan.
The Together Leeds consortium holds talks this coming Monday evening with a cross-section of fans. Upon completion of these talks, the group is expecting to publish a clear roadmap for future involvement with Leeds United. I will be following up this interview in the coming days with articles specifically pertaining to Fan Share Schemes, Fan Involvement, and how fans can be represented at board level in a professional, secure, and transparent manner.
Some of those in attendance at the Monday meeting are very “pro Cellino” according to their social media posts, and some are known not to be fans of the Leeds United president, and this is where the message gets confused. The Together Leeds bid is not “Anti” anything, it is “Pro” Leeds United, according to the members of Together Leeds. It is on this very foundation that Fan Representation is long overdue. For too long our club has been divided on ownership matters, and off-field tomfoolery. It needs to end, beginning with Gulf Finance House being shown the door.
By Massimo Cellino’s own admission just days before realising the true horror of the financial situation at Leeds United, “this club needs help”.