Mike Ashley (centre left) bought Newcastle United in 2007
Newcastle United fans are used to false dawns when it comes to potential new owners replacing the much-maligned Mike Ashley.
But as a group of investors backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund move closer to ending Ashley’s 13-year reign, even the most-sceptical supporters are starting to believe in a new future.
Documents revealed on Tuesday show that the group’s leader, financier Amanda Staveley, has laid down the legal framework with Ashley’s company for a potential £300m takeover.
Those involved in negotiations are cautious about dealing with Ashley. Nothing appears over the line yet. But who are the main players involved and if they do take over, what can Newcastle fans expect?
Who is Amanda Staveley?
Amanda Staveley is a powerful figure in Middle Eastern financial circles having helped broker the purchase of Manchester City by current Abu Dhabi-based owner Sheikh Mansour in 2008.
Ashley’s opinion of her is not so complimentary having labelled previous talks with her in 2018 a “waste of time”.
That has not put her off, though, and this time her firm PCP Capital Partners has the financial backing of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) which, before the coronavirus outbreak, had targeted accruing $400bn (£313.81bn) of assets by the end of 2020.
The 47-year-old, who is reported to be worth £115m, has an interesting past.
She dropped out of Cambridge University, previously dated Prince Andrew, and began her route to Middle Eastern influence after setting up a restaurant near Newmarket racecourse where wealthy horse owners often dropped by.
More recently, she has said she is a big Newcastle fan and has spoken in glowing terms about what Manchester City have achieved over the last decade.
Will she be in charge of Newcastle? What is her leadership style?
If Newcastle is sold to Staveley’s group, she is expected to 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.
Staveley is likely to be on the club’s board with the chairman expected to be Yasir Al-Rumayyan – governor of the PIF.
Originally from Yorkshire, Staveley’s determination to return with further offers to buy the club show she does not take fall-outs personally. She told the National newspaper last year that Ashley’s “waste of time” comments are “water under the bridge”.
She also said that “the time to be bold is when markets are volatile” which might explain why she is still pursuing the Newcastle deal at a time of great uncertainty.
And for those who cross her, a warning: having helped raise emergency funding, including from Sheikh Mansour, to prevent Barclays Bank from a government bailout during the financial crisis, she is now in the midst of suing them for alleged deceit to the tune of a reported £1.5bn.
How much is Saudi Public Investment Fund worth?
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman heads Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund
According to its website, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is “seeking to become one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world” with reported assets of $320bn (£250.86bn) worldwide.
It is headed by the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and is aiming to “drive the economic transformation” of the country through a project called Vision 2030.
Part of that is hosting sporting events in the country via the General Sports Authority to show the country is open for business. The roster, which has included Anthony Joshua’s rematch against David Ruiz Jr, golf, tennis and wrestling events, the Spanish Super Cup and a Formula One Grand Prix set for 2023, is impressive.
For a fund which secures billion-dollar deals and has a portfolio which has previously included Uber, Tesla and General Electric, not to mention plans to build a $500bn (£391.93bn) city on the country’s Red Sea coastline, a potential £240m investment in Newcastle might seem small change.
But there has already been criticism from Amnesty International about the country’s attempts to use sport to whitewash the nation’s human rights record.
Amnesty’s Felix Jakens told BBC Sport: “The reputation of the club, the reputation of the city, can be brought into serious question if they embrace the Saudi Arabian regime and the authorities there, who recently imprisoned and tortured women human rights activists who were merely calling for the right to drive.”
And for any deal to go through, Newcastle’s new suitors must pass the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test, which is supposed to uphold the “reputation and image of the game”. That might lead to some awkward questions.
Could Newcastle match Manchester City’s investment?
With all the talk about the Saudi Arabian royal family’s wealth, it must be hard for Newcastle fans not to dream of the mega-star players the club could potentially buy.
More than anything, they hope the club can return to their glory years in the mid 1990s and early 2000s when they consistently challenged for Europe and even the Premier League title.
Newcastle United Supporters Trust board member Greg Tomlinson told BBC Radio 5 Live: “You have to take stock on what comes next, it’s very strange to be talking about the money that could be coming into the club in terms of where we find ourselves in society right now, where many clubs are in danger of going out of business.
“You have to look at sustained growth and sensible acquisitions – we are not going to go out and get Mauricio Pochettino are we? It has to be proper growth.
“We want the club to be the best it can be. That doesn’t mean winning the Champions League, we are not deluded, it’s about supporting something that you can believe in and we haven’t had that for so long.”
Staveley, involved in the Manchester City takeover 12 years ago, has previously urged caution about lavish player spending. What has impressed her most is the way that City have invested in Manchester’s Eastlands.
She has said: “That’s the sort of thing we would want to do elsewhere.”
Where have Arab states invested before and how has it been viewed?
By investing in sport and potentially a specific team, Saudi Arabia is following a well-trodden path laid down by fellow Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi owners and Paris St-Germain’s Qatari backers have certainly brought success to their teams and no end of joy for their fans.
But with vast oil and, therefore, wealth reserves, some have accused the teams of unfairness, with former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger going so far as to label it “financial doping”.
European governing body Uefa has tried to curb spending by applying financial fair play rules and in some senses that has succeeded. It is hard to see a return to 2017 when PSG paid £200m for Brazilian forward Neymar, which may be a relief for rival clubs and leagues who want to remain competitive.
Most Newcastle fans would probably settle for a chance to compete at the top of the Premier League rather than a volatile period of spending which might not be sustainable.
How have Newcastle fans reacted to Mike Ashley possibly leaving and the potential new owner’s background?
For many fans, the short answer to this is cautious joy.
It says something about Newcastle fans’ resentment towards Ashley that the human rights record of Saudi Arabia barely registered when news of the potential deal first broke in January.
Tomlinson admits there are concerns but adds: “It is a billionaire’s playground at that level and that is nothing we can bear any degree of responsibility for in terms of ownership.
“In an ideal world from my perspective, Newcastle United would be owned by the people, by the fans of the city as a community asset.
“We’ve seen reports like this before but it seems like we are further down the line this time in terms of ending that 13-year tenure of Mike Ashley which everyone wants to see the end of.”
For the majority, anyone but Ashley is an improvement. Many believe he has ruined the club with his lack of investment, although he can point to record signings in two of the last three transfer windows.
For the most part, Ashley has run the club within its means. But it is the manner of his ownership which sticks in the throat for most fans. They feel he does not care, rarely attends games, and uses the stadium as an advertising hoarding for his Sports Direct business.
Ashley’s stock is so low that placing non-playing staff on furlough and charging for next campaign’s season tickets amid the coronavirus pandemic were merely met with a shrug. Protests have not worked and news of an alternative, any alternative, has been met with excitement.
They are wary, though, because they have been down this path before only to end up disappointed.
How much does Mike Ashley stand to make from this deal?
There is a consistent theme from anyone who has had dealings with billionaire Ashley: he is a tricky negotiator and trying to predict what happens next is almost impossible.
The Londoner put the club up for sale in 2017, and has in theory been trying to find a buyer since, but it seems the terms, or more likely the price, has not been right.
Having bought the club for £134m in 2007, he stands to gain from the £300m deal although he will argue he has spent considerably more than the difference in the intervening years. Some sources suggest that Newcastle United has been a vehicle to promote his other businesses and that has no doubt provided value.
Last January, it was understood that Staveley’s group were willing to pay £340m for Newcastle, but with clubs set to face a period of huge uncertainty because of the suspension of the season, now might be a good time for Ashley to cash in.