Convicted fraudster Massimo Cellino's attempt to take control at Elland Road suggests that a more robust approach to vetting prospective club owners would be useful
To Leeds United, then, and the aftermath of a weekend in which a man who does not yet own the Championship club appeared to sack its manager through a lawyer, only to claim he hadn't, and for the manager to wryly present himself for work on Monday morning.
As convicted fraudster Massimo Cellino attempts to take control at Elland Road, reports into the latest edifying caper in English club ownership remind us that the Football League has retired its "fit and proper person" test, presumably on the basis that it had become so self-parodic that something had to change. That something, in the great traditions of English sporting administrative inertia, was the name.
Still, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and the "fit and proper person" test has become the "owners and directors test". So it's now a second-generation nonsense – a reminder that what we have above all in this country is heritage.
What we don't have, as both Premier and Football Leagues are always keen to point out, is any truck with "subjective judgments" about who should or shouldn't own a football club. As they have been at pains to remind bemused reporters in recent days, the leagues deal in objective facts. Or rather, they do if the owners feel like giving them any – although surprisingly, they sometimes don't. At one point a few years ago, the blazers were forced to concede that they didn't actually know who Notts County's owners were. They never found out, or at least not before the club was sold again – shortly after its director of football, a Mr Sven-Goran Eriksson, had been roped into a delegation to North Korea in which Pyongyang was encouraged to sell its gold mining rights. Funny old game, and all that.
Anyhow, despite this and many other episodes suggesting that a marginally more robust approach would be useful, the Football League has resolutely stuck to its insistence on box-ticking self-assessment by prospective owners or directors, with the rationale behind this apparently being that any sort of judgment call on its behalf wouldn't stand up to a legal challenge. A hostile QC would demolish anything amounting to a reasonable opinion in seconds, seems to be the immovable opinion of the men nominally in charge, so all they can do is allow the satirically unsatisfactory state of affairs to continue.
And yet, in the United States – a place that one might hesitate to describe as a stranger to aggressive litigation – the hoopla through which prospective owners are required to go is far more stringent. The NHL long ago tightened up its screening processes, after a businessman trying to buy the New York Islanders misled them wildly as to his net worth and ended up being indicted and convicted of fraud. Prospective owners in the league now have their affairs combed by accountants and are vetted by Ernst & Young – at considerable cost, but it's believed to be worth it.
Prospective Major League Baseball owners must have their business plans scrutinised by a committee of current owners, and have their purchase approved by at least 75% of existing owners in the league – just as they must in the NFL and NBA. In the latter league, a lengthy process of due diligence is required. A would-be owner must submit to investigation by the league and a specialist security firm. Its speciality? Risk management.
According to an informed New York Times report published when the first Russian oligarch attempted to buy his way in: "They will try to ascertain his net worth, debts, character, associates, personal history and integrity. The process is designed to rule out inappropriate buyers who lack financial clout or present public-relations risks to the league." Oh, and indictment for fraud is sufficient grounds for the league to step in and relieve an existing owner of their team.
This sort of merciless attention to detail doesn't guarantee total freedom from unsavouries, obviously – we are talking about sports owners here. But – how to put this delicately? – it is unlikely to end up ratifying the sort of insolvent chancer who would insist members of his coaching staff accompany him on a mineral prospecting expedition to North Korea.
In Blighty, alas, the football administrators' hands are tied – for reasons as unclear to fans as to many experts. This week, a specialist criminal lawyer told my colleague David Conn that she found it surprising that the leagues hadn't included a "catch-all" bar clause in their rules which they could simply trigger should they judge that a would-be owner would be more trouble than they were worth. "It is fairly standard for professional organisations to include a requirement that a person would not be accepted if he is likely to bring the organisation or industry into disrepute," she said.
Fairly standard in places other than English football, it seems, where the persistence in cleaving to this notion of "objectivity" begins to look less and less like the exercise in scrupulous fairness it is always cast as, and more like the reflexive inertia and mismanagement that characterise almost all our sporting bodies.
In fact, if the Football League needs an illustration of the continuing damage to its reputation, it should ponder how it possibly contrived to pull off the feat of leaving a convicted liar like Cellino with all the truest lines.
"They asked about my criminal record – I should have asked about theirs," he snorted last week. "The English don't know how to run football."