Moat puts jokes on hold to end St James' farce

The local boy-made-good in the lead to buy Newcastle United secured his fortune selling novelty toys, but, writes Sam Wallace, is deadly serious about rescuing the ailing club
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The Independent Football

He made his money with a company selling novelty toys like Big Mouth Billy Bass, the singing fish that was the craze of Christmas 2000 and was even given as a present to the Queen. But crass as that sounds, Newcastle businessman Barry Moat will be preferable to Newcastle United fans than the current owner Mike Ashley and the shambles over which he currently presides.

Moat, 42, has finally been revealed as the man in the lead to take over Newcastle this summer and install Alan Shearer as manager if he can negotiate a deal worth £80m to £100m with Ashley. For a man who was understood to have been desperate to keep negotiations a secret, Moat has in the past been a shameless self-publicist in the North-east, even writing first-person pieces in the local Journal newspaper about his exploits in the world of business.

Compared to Ashley, whose Sports Direct company floated for around £1bn in 2007, Moat is strictly small-time. He made his name as chief executive of Premier Direct, a company who pioneered "workplace selling" of novelty toys – "Choke the Chicken" was another big seller – in which Moat built up a personal stake of around 25 per cent.

It will not just be his money that buys Newcastle should the deal be successful, although Moat will undoubtedly enjoy being the public face. He plays golf with the former Olympic triple jump gold medallist Jonathan Edwards, drives a Range Rover with the registration "NU 1" and was on the organising committee for Shearer's testimonial in 2006.

A former estate agent who was born in Tynemouth, Moat is thought to have investment from American backers and is sufficiently far advanced in his dealings that if he decides to go ahead no competing consortium will be able to act in time to head him off. He was linked to a possible Newcastle takeover five years ago shortly before he left Premier Direct. Sources yesterday stressed that a Moat-led takeover is not a done deal, although he leads the field by some distance.

Moat has had an interesting business career up to now. He was appointed chief executive of Premier Direct at the tender age of 26 in 1993 and four years later led a management buyout with capital venture group 3i. The company was then floated on the AIM in 1997.

When Moat eventually stepped down as chief executive in November 2005 he sold a 19 per cent stake in the company at 620p a share, 12 times what he paid for them. By April 2006 the company had issued a profit warning and in June 2008, with shares worth 16p when trading was suspended, it went into administration with the loss of 101 jobs. There is no suggestion that Moat did anything wrong.

Moat has kept a decidedly lower-profile since then but has come to epitomise the local boy made good with an eye for getting out of a company while the price is still high. Presumably he has judged the current climate as the right time to buy into Newcastle United – where he has an executive box at St James' Park – and should his bid be successful he would acquire the club for less than half what Ashley has sunk into it. The current owner is believed to have spent in excess of £250m acquiring and investing in Newcastle.

Moat has already made himself popular with Newcastle fans by investing in its academy. That a club would need outside investors to help pay for the development of its young footballers tells you everything about the skewed priorities of Newcastle in recent years. As Moat may well be about to find out, it is a lot easier being the local celebrity businessman who supports the club than actually owning the thing.