Sport Soccer

Tuesday 17 July 2018

A sex discrimination case which revealed the shocking decay at the heart of Leeds

Leeds United's owner Massimo Cellino
Leeds United's owner Massimo Cellino

Ian Herbert

We live in a world where the protection of children is paramount and none less than those young footballers in whom the whole world seems to take an interest.

That’s why it was surprising to hear, in the course of the employment tribunal brought this week by Lucy Ward, the experienced Leeds United head of education and welfare, that one of her duties was to keep an eye on the training fields, looking out for trespassers through her office window. “There was no security,” she told the court in Leeds this week, where she has won her case for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination.

There has been no self-aggrandisement in Ms Ward’s testimony in the past three days. The roles she played at the club’s academy came out incrementally in the testimony. She evidently did some of the laundry of the eight to 21-year-olds in her care - “the lads,” as she frequently referred to them. She would be found in the kitchen - ensuring that vegetables were a part of the diet, by the sounds of it. (“Making sure the kids were eating.”) At most football clubs, the task of overseeing and detailing weekly results of the drug-testing regime is assigned to a full-time member staff with that designation. At Leeds, Ms Ward did that job, too. She was also available to parents on Saturdays, when the boys played their games. “I filled in the holes,” she said.

If there was anything in her conduct which the club was unhappy with, then no one had told her. Her disciplinary record was without blemish for 11 years, with none of the official first warnings which are often the first part of removing someone is removed from post. And then, on July 3 last year, she returned from a stint commentating on the Women’s World Cup in Canada for the BBC to be told by the new executive director whom she had never before met, that she was being suspended.

She had exceeded her annual holiday quota by 16 days, without “appropriate authority,” Adam Pearson told her. The timing seemed significant. Her partner, Neil Redfearn, had been told by Pearson five minutes earlier that he was being sacked as manager and put “in the garden”- to quote one of several quaint football terms the tribunal had acquainted us with - because the owner, Massimo Cellino, was unhappy with the results.

Ms Ward said, through her barrister Nick Randall QC, that she was being sacked because Cellino viewed her as Redfearn’s “baggage” and because they came as “a pair.” Even the club’s secretary Stuart Hayton, a witness for United, admitted that being in a relationship with the manager was what did for her. “People with close linked can cause difficulties at a club,” he said.

There’d been no problem when Ward, a former Leeds Ladies midfielder, had taken leave to commentate on women's football at six tournaments in the past: the 2007 and 2011 Women's World Cups; 2008 and 2012 Olympics; and 2009 and 2013 European Championships. The club benefitted. Since when did you ever see Leeds United part of the punditry team, in their current diminished state?

The man left to defend the decision to sack Ward was Pearson, a man who arrived with excellent reputation at the helm of Derby County and Hull City, when Cellino hired him on May 11 last year to “look at certain projects on his behalf,” as the executive put it. “Mr Cellino handled the transfer dealings of players in and out,” said Pearson. “The rest he assigned to me.” That ‘rest’ proved to be a Godforsaken assignment. What has emerged in the past three days of evidence is the story of a careworn football club being hollowed out from within.

The once mighty Leeds United – still one of Britain’s most intensely and loyally supported clubs – is one whose entire HR function is run by one person – the payroll manager, Aileen Johnson, the tribunal has told us. It’s impossible to tell who is working when at the Thorp Arch academy, where the club’s future talent is nurtured, because there are no attendance records. Cellino’s decision to dismiss or make redundant a number of cleaners led to a number of players and staff there picking up a sickness bug, we now know. The whole place was closed down while it was deep-cleaned, the tribunal heard. “I think Thorp Arch was very laissez faire,” Pearson told the court.

The academy’s administrative management fell to Adam Underwood, a man characterised in court by Pearson as “vague” and evasive when it came to telling him who had said what to whom about Ward’s request for leave, and who also lacked command. Ward had described him in one document read to the court as “scurrying away in fear.” Ward was said to be the stronger individual in their working relationship and Pearson apparently found fault in her because of it. He sneered at the informal opening words - “Hi Ad” – that Ward used in an email she sent to Underwood, officially requesting leave to work for the BBC in Canada. It was supposedly an example of a controlling nature.

The court was asked to believe that Ward had committed an act of gross misconduct by taking an eight-week period of leave when Pearson admitted that he knew she had asked for permission and knew that she had not received any negative reaction to her email, sent four days before she flew to Canada. He also knew that a group of academy staff had been told they could absent themselves for two months in the close season. “I’m amazed that Mr Underwood is not here to be a witness to this because as far as I’m concerned his evidence is key,” Mr Pearson said. It seemed to say everything about Leeds’ attempt to defend itself if the club did not value their own academy manager enough to call him to testify.

Neither was Cellino called, though he was central to the club’s case that Ward’s gross misconduct stemmed from her paying him a lack of respect and courtesy to him as a new owner, when deciding to take the BBC trip and “just wander off for two months to take paid employment,” as Pearson put it.

A bad day in court for Leeds descended into something materially worse when it came to the examination of her two other supposed forms of misconduct, which had been loaded onto Ward’s charge sheet without prior notice for her.

Only when she was sitting in a disciplinary meeting with Pearson did she learn from him that her regular absence from the Academy on Wednesdays was seen as a disciplinary offence – the inference being, the tribunal heard, that she was away because that was Redfearn’s day off. Pearson said it was inconsequential that she was not told of this allegation in advance and said he could not remember how soon before the disciplinary meeting he had information to support the ‘Wednesday’ allegation. “Twenty four hours before, 30 minutes before.. I don’t think there was a world of difference between 30 minutes and 24 hours,” he said.

Her working hours had never been agreed upon because she had not been issued with a written contract until an impending audit of the Academy under the new EPPP licensing system meant one was provided in 2014, nine years after she’d started work for the club. The contract stipulated a mere two hours of Wednesday work, to compensate for pastoral care and meeting parents at Academy matches on Saturdays.

Ward was also told by Pearson that she had failed to inform Leeds’ payroll of her freelance broadcasting salary, though he told the tribunal he had been wrong to raise the point.

The picture painted to the tribunal was one of an owner – Cellino – allegedly looking for reasons to remove Ward, convinced that the small details of employment law would not stand in his way. The Italian occasionally materialised in the course of evidence. Gary Cooper, chairman of the club’s women’s team, had been in a meeting with Cellino in which the Italian allegedly said: “Why do women want to play football? Football is not a place for women. It should be in the bedroom or beautician’s.” That testimony was not challenged.

The tribunal revealed anxiety and fear behind revolving door. A feature piece in the Daily Telegraph by the journalist Henry Winter a year ago extolled the virtues of Ward and Redfearn in developing talents such as18-year-old midfielder Lewis Cook, who had just been named 2014/15 Championship Apprentice of the Year. Ward said she had been accused by the club former chairman Andrew Umbers of influencing the writing of the article. "The idea of me influencing a respected writer… is ridiculous," she said. There were also suspicions about her social media output, though the suggestions that a series of tweets from her personal account implied she was questioning Cellino reduced the courtroom to laughter.

Ward had tweeted #reddersforprimeminister – though the notion that this was a challenge to Cellino’s decision to replace him as manager was deconstructed by the timing. It was sent on General Election day. Another tweet, which Ward quoted Mark Twain to say: "Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference" was, it transpired, not a Cellino reference but part of a brief argument with a Nigel Farage supporter on Twitter, which she was deciding to draw a halt to, during the Election. Ward had dared to engage in political debate.

When The Independent asked Cellino about Ward’s sacking last October he said he had “never heard of her,” stating when reminded of her role overseeing the development of 250 players over 17 years: “Yes, I remember her name.” Fabian Delph certainly does remember her, from his time developing at Thorp Arch. “She was unbelievable with me,” he said last year, attributing the biggest parts in his development to Ward and his own mother.

Pearson’s time at Leeds lasted a mere four months. He told the tribunal he had stepped down last September because of ill health – diabetes – and he is now the owner of Hull FC in rugby league’s Super League. Ward is looking for somewhere else to make use of her 11 years’ experience which Leeds United - a club utterly diminished - apparently has no need of.

Independent News Service

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