Further detail has emerged concerning Papa Red Bull's alleged interest in purchasing Leeds United. Dylan Thwaites, chief executive of Leeds Fans LLP, the company formed to coordinate a movement by the team's fans to buy a stake in the club, has stated representatives of Red Bull approached the then-nascent fan-ownership group in February to discuss potential collaboration on a bid for Leeds United.
The full interview, with BBC Radio Leeds, is here:
The highlights are revealing (start around the 7:00 mark for the Red Bull stuff).
As a condition of any meeting, Leeds Fans LLP sought confirmation that Red Bull would be willing to provide legally-binding assurances that it would not seek to change the name of the club, and that there would be a "fan veto, effectively, on kit color changes and stadium naming rights."
Red Bull's response was said to have come direct from Papa himself, Dietrich Mateschitz:
"Trust Red Bull".
This was not considered a reassuring answer.
Leeds Fans LLP is not seeking a majority stake in LUFC, merely sufficient to have a significant voice on the club's board. According to Thwaites, five out of six potential bidders for ownership of the troubled Championship club have indicated willingness to collaborate with the company formed by supporters to secure a financial stake in their club.
Leeds Fans LLP did not interpret "Trust Red Bull" as a sign of intent to cooperate, and consequently considers Red Bull the only one of the six LUFC-curious groups it has met that is not interested in cooperating with the fan-ownership model promoted by the organization.
What does this mean? Primarily, it means if Papa does break cover and launch a bid for Leeds United it may be regarded as something of a hostile takeover by a significant portion of the fan base.
Thwaites and his colleagues have launched the Leeds Fans Community Benefit Society, which they see as the first step toward reaching a fund-raising target of GBP 10 million.This, they hope, will facilitate purchase of a 25% stake in Leeds United. That stake could be combined with another bid - one for a majority shareholding - to provide a new owner (or the current owner; Leeds Fans LLP has stated previously it is not seeking to eject the current ownership, merely to bring supporters' voices inside the decision-making processes of the club) with an ostensibly fan-backed takeover.
Of course, only a couple of days ago, Oliver Mintzlaff, Red Bull's head of global football marketing, made a very clear statement of his employer's intentions when questioned about interest in Leeds United:
"Another involvement in football is not planned."
This is not necessarily incompatible with the account of Red Bull's interest provided by Thwaites.
Plans can change. Thwaites said discussions with Papa started "as far back as the Reading game" (February 10; Thwaites involvement in Leeds Fans LLP dates back to December 2014). Mintzlaff's statement was reported on April 5.
Papa was interested in Leeds. After Mintzlaff's comments hit the news, reporter Simon Austin reiterated comments made to him by LUFC's (suspended) owner Massimo Cellino.
Cellino says he's been told Red Bull asked lufc board if they could look at the books and were told 'for the last time, we are not selling’.— Simon Austin (@sport_simon) April 6, 2015
Cellino also said Red Bull have never made formal offer. & compared himself to Ulysses from Homer's Odyssey. Says he will be back next week.— Simon Austin (@sport_simon) April 6, 2015
Cellino: "Being away,I have really felt like Ulysees from Homer's poem. Being a long way away while people fight over something you love."— Simon Austin (@sport_simon) April 6, 2015
It would appear clear Papa isn't interested in getting involved with any fan-ownership model that cedes control of the target club's identity to supporters. And Mintzlaff's statement is the third time in six months Red Bull has definitively distanced itself from rumors linking it to Leeds United.
But we're seeing plenty of evidence of fires behind all the Red-Bull-wants-Leeds smoke.
And it is worth noting another detail emerging from Thwaites' comments in his BBC interview: he was told "it most likely would be Mateschitz who would have at least 51%."
That is either an innocuous detail or a step toward confirmation of a report offered a few weeks ago by Simon O'Rourke on 2900miles.com. In that report, O'Rourke suggested:
It is believed that in late December, Red Bull CEO Mateschitz decided that in order to avoid the reaction to "Red Bull buys Leeds" and all that comes with it, this would become a personal venture at least in the short term.
Clever thinking, Papa, though perhaps not a move likely to be quite as incognito as you might imagine.
Still, that at least explains how it could be possible for Red Bull to categorically deny any plans regarding Leeds United and also repeatedly be accused of having plans regarding Leeds United.
And if Mintzlaff's use of the present tense ("Another involvement in football is not planned" - didn't say you hadn't been trying, Oliver) was calculated: plans can always change again. The incentive for perhaps another barrage of "Red Bull really is chasing LUFC" rumors to start up almost as soon as Papa tried to quash them has arrived with further news out of Italy: Cellino is reportedly actively negotiating to sell his stake in the club.
There is speculation he has an interest in Parma, a team whose recent ownership issues make Leeds appear a model of stability. But it is also true that Cellino is facing yet another legal battle in Italy. The last time he lost a court case over a similar matter (tax evasion, basically) in his home country, he was suspended by the Football League in England. That suspension is due to end on May 3. But he will face a similar charge (the first case involved unpaid tax on the purchase of a boat; the pending matter involves a car) on April 14. It is likely he will face renewed restrictions on his involvement with Leeds United (and indeed any Football League club) if found guilty.
So this may be an opportune time for Cellino to transfer his interest to other ventures, or at least similar soccer-type ventures in places other than England. And Papa's interest in purchasing some sort of stake in Leeds United ought now to be considered well-established.
If Cellino is interested in Parma, there is the matter of the club's reported $80 million debt to consider. Before Mintzlaff stepped in to spoil the fun, it was reported Papa had tabled a $90 million offer for LUFC.
Does this mean anything for the New York Red Bulls? There is still no suggestion Papa's interest in Leeds is contingent upon a reduced or withdrawn interest in RBNY. The abbreviated discussions with Leeds Fans LLP did address the question of LUFC's place in the Red Bull soccer empire's pecking order, and Papa reportedly stated Leeds would be treated as the "primary Red Bull or Mateschitz vehicle" (per Thwaites' BBC interview). How that shift in priorities in Europe (away from Salzburg and Leipzig) might affect RBNY is a matter to be discussed when or if a takeover happens.
Perhaps most pertinent of all, however, is another scrap of information dropped by Thwaites:
"Our understanding was that, even as far back as then [the original Red Bull approach for a meeting with Leeds Fans LLP], they were looking at either Aston Villa or Leeds United."
Hmmm. Red Bull interest in Aston Villa was rumored in late 2013. The Leeds matter might simply be the most persistent and well documented of what could be a wide-ranging effort by Papa to secure an English cousin for the Red Bull soccer family.