Since Sports Direct CEO Mike Ashley took charge of Newcastle United in 2007, fans of the club have become acquainted with the disappointment of club takeovers falling at the final hurdle, with the detested billionaire remaining at the helm. This familiar pattern may soon be coming to an end.
Documents have revealed businesswoman Amanda Staveley and supporting investors have laid down the legal-framework for a potential £300 million takeover of the club, this being £40 million down on the original price. While there is still a long way to go, fans of the North East giants are right to be cautiously optimistic considering her previous success in negotiating the takeover of other Premier League clubs and powerful connections to wealthy Middle-Eastern circles. After all, Staveley was a key broker between Barclays and Manchester City’s previous owners in the 2008, helping to engineer and secure the purchase of the club for Abu Dhabi-based owner Sheikh Mansour, whose intentions to purchase originally proved difficult to push past Premier League authorities. Such success has led the Financial Times to label her firm, PCP Capital Partners, “a vehicle for the investment of Middle Eastern money”, in 2011.
The clear business acumen of the 47-year-old can also be displayed by her personal net worth amassing to £115 million and record of personally earning £30 million in club takeover-related commissions. If you couple this with the financial backing of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), headed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which have $320 billion worth of assets under management today, then one can see why the Toon army are starting to get excited. While UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules means that Newcastle’s potential new owners can’t spend their way to success over successive transfer windows, this huge financial firepower could propel them to the top half of the table sooner rather than later. Newcastle fans will be excited to hear that Staveley has promised to end Newcastle’s prior starvation of financial investment as part of a deal which will see her hold a 10% stake in the club, with the PIF making up 80% and a further 10% coming from British property investors the Reuben brothers, if the deal is ratified. This possible spending is not just confined to the pitch however: Staveley is alleged to have previously urged Man City’s new owners in 2008 to avoid excessive spending in the transfer market and commit substantial funding towards rejuvenating the community surrounding the club. Such an initiative would be wholeheartedly welcomed by the residents of the North East.
Nonetheless the prospect of massive spending from the Saudi monarchy on both the club and city doesn’t come without its own significant risks, drawbacks and concerns. Firstly, the Saudi Monarchy and state has an atrocious record on human rights, with clear evidence recently coming to light that the Crown Prince Bin Salam was directly involved in the decision to murder Washington Post Journalist and fervent critic of the House of Saud, Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018. Further, the national police’s record of arresting and torturing women who wanted to drive and executing members of the LGBT community must also be considered. While the ratification of this sale will not signal the city or club’s endorsement of the brutal actions of this theocratic monarchy, there is little doubt this will seriously damage the club’s reputation and lead to a lot of tough questioning in the future, such as from those which are a part of The Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ test. This involves a test being passed by all prospective suitors, with the aim of upholding the “reputation and image of the game”, something which this consortium may find hard to pass.
Yet it says something about Newcastle fans’ resentment towards Ashley that Saudi Arabia’s infamous record of cruelty barely registered when news of the potential deal first broke in January. Fans feel Ashley does not care and never really has. He rarely attends games, and uses the stadium as an advertising hoarding for his Sports Direct business. Ashley’s infamous reputation in the North-East is wholly understandable considering he recently placed non-playing staff on furlough and charged fans for next campaign’s season tickets, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Fans protests have been unsuccessful and news of any alternative to him has been met with excitement. It is clear that the days of low-budget and locally owned top flight teams are gone and have been replaced by a billionaire’s playground, where foreign investors fight for the top prize.
Despite such anticipation, there is no guarantee that Ashley will sell. Notorious for being a tricky negotiator, who is very unwilling to give any concessions, he called the Staveley-led consortium offer to buy the club in 2017 a “waste of time”. However, with the deal in its more advanced stages, Ashley may well be set to change his tune considering he will make £166 million from this possible deal, having brought the club for £134 million in 2007. While there is no doubt that Mike Ashley has spent money at Newcastle when necessary, considering Joelinton and Miguel Almirón were signed in 2019 for £40m and £21m respectively, Ashley has been unafraid to ruffle Newcastle’s feathers, showing a clear disregard for the club’s history and the fans’ desire. This was palpable when Ashley forced out ‘King’ Kevin Keegan for off-field matters in September 2008, after he had previously successfully navigated Newcastle to 12th in his nine-month reign. Further, Ashley controversially changed the original name of Newcastle’s stadium from St. James Park to The Sports Direct Arena between 2011 and 2012. More recently, Ashley refused to give previous Champions League-winning manager, Rafa Benitez, a new contract at the end of last season, replacing him with Steve Bruce, who previosuly managed at bitter rivals Sunderland. This decision culminated in season ticket holders boycotting home games en masse.
Whilst the anticipation in the North East is palpable, only time will tell whether the Saudi Monarchy will be the ones to finally end the soap opera between Mike Ashley and Newcastle United.