Impasse on the Tyne: how Newcastle and Ashley ended up in limbo
Act in haste, repent at leisure. In 2007 Mike Ashley bought Newcastle United in a rush but soon found himself struggling to sell his rich man’s toy turned unwanted extravagance.
The sports retail tycoon has been endeavouring to offload the football club he apparently purchased on a whim for well over a decade now, without success.
With Ashley’s arbitration case against the Premier League adjourned until early 2022, the current owner is set to begin a 15th season in charge at St James’ Park.
If the hearing goes Ashley’s way, it could yet lead to the blocked £300m Saudi Arabian-led takeover going ahead.
Meanwhile, the coming campaign will kick off with the current manager, Steve Bruce, presiding over the nucleus of the squad that won promotion from the Championship five years ago, a maximum close-season budget of £10m and the expected reimplementation of a policy of mainly signing players aged under 25. A relegation skirmish surely beckons.
Ashley thought he had succeeded in selling up last spring when the Saudi consortium, also featuring the financier Amanda Staveley and the billionaire Reuben Brothers, not only agreed to purchase Newcastle but paid him a £17m non-refundable deposit.
After years punctuated by numerous so-called “fake-overs” – purported takeovers that often ended up looking like publicity stunts rather than serious buyouts – all that remained was to gain the Premier League’s blessing.
Which is where things became seriously sticky. Last April the changing of the guard on Tyneside seemed weeks, possibly even days, away. Sources close to the deal insisted there were no “red lights” and the Premier League would wave it through but 15 months on Newcastle remain in limbo.
Although the Premier League never actually rejected the bid, it in effect blocked it after failing to be convinced there was a necessary separation between the principal consortium investors, the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund and the Saudi state.
The impasse looked close to ending on Monday when the arbitration hearing opened but problems with disclosure of evidence – applicable to both sides – resulted in that adjournment.
Along the way, the governing body has achieved the hitherto impossible feat of uniting the widely loathed Ashley, Newcastle fans and local politicians in a common cause. There are legitimate, enduring concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record but assorted north-east MPs also know that, in blocking the deal, the Premier League deprived the area of hundreds of millions of pounds that the PIF had pledged to invest in urgently needed regional regeneration projects. Moral dilemmas can be complex.
Whether the Premier League’s stance is right or wrong – is it possible that protecting its lucrative overseas broadcast deal with Doha’s beIN Sports amid persistent allegations of Saudi broadcast piracy against Qatar was of more concern than the potential sports-washing of human rights abuses? – 15 months is far too long to maintain a wall of silence. Newcastle supporters have not forgotten that, in January, Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, promised “a timely resolution” to the dispute.
Ashley is a flawed, often self-destructively intransigent owner but he is entitled to ask why there was a clear sea change in the governing body’s attitude towards the takeover last June when the former senior Barclays executive Gary Hoffman became its chairman.
It had been suggested that a recent thawing in Saudi Arabia’s relations with Qatar might facilitate a compromise but it appears PIF might not have been completely transparent when it comes to supplying the Premier League with vital documentation. The consortium, however, deny this is the case.
Ashley has always been a high-stakes gambler and with the collateral economic damage inflicted by the Covid pandemic leaving would-be Newcastle buyers even thinner on the ground than usual, he reinvested some of his £17m deposit on engaging two leading QCs, Shaheed Fatima and Nick De Marco, to spearhead a two-pronged legal attack.
Citing evidence of opposition from several leading top-tier rivals – who did not relish the idea of Newcastle becoming possibly England’s wealthiest club – to the takeover, Ashley instructed his legal team to lodge a second case against the Premier League with the Competition Appeals Tribunal. This action centres on a claim that preventing the takeover amounts to a breach of competition rules.
Developments are expected imminently but, as Rafael Benítez knows, you can tire of waiting. It is no secret that the consortium planned to reinstall Bruce’s predecessor at St James’ but, ultimately, the Spaniard could not refuse an offer to manage Everton. “I was following Newcastle when I was working in China,” Benítez said this month. “I was in contact with a lot of people there. I was expecting something to happen. It didn’t happen. That’s it.”
His formerly adoring Tyneside public know the feeling.