The revelation that Keith Harris, the man who was commissioned to sell Newcastle United last September, visited the club's training ground last week appears to signal strongly that owner Mike Ashley is contemplating a sale of the relegated club.
Ashley is in the process of laying off staff in a morale-crushing exercise at St James' Park, and the gloom surrounding Newcastle will only be partially offset by the anticipated appointment of Alan Shearer as full-time manager. Shearer should be confirmed in his post within the next few days but presumably budget agreements reached between Shearer and Ashley need to be guaranteed in the event of a takeover. If not, Shearer's situation is fragile.
It had been thought that Championship status would mean such a reduction in Newcastle's value that Ashley would be forced to stay on at St James', but there is fresh uncertainty after the presence of Harris in the region, even though Harris denied there was any club significance in his trip.
When searching for a buyer last autumn, Harris uncovered interest from South Africa, the United States and the Middle East. But the estimated price tag then of £180m put off prospective purchasers. It is not known what value Ashley places on Newcastle today.
Ashley first bought into Newcastle in May 2007 and completed a full purchase two months later. The initial cost was £134m for the shareholdings of Sir John Hall and family and Freddy Shepherd but a failure to perform the necessary due diligence meant that Ashley missed a black hole of £57m – a compulsory payment on the stadium in the event of a takeover – and then encountered further debt.
The figure Ashley uses to cover how much he has put into Newcastle in total is £250m. Achieving a sale in that region in this economic climate, and with the club no longer part of the Premier League, seems unrealistic, but there is an increasing sense that Ashley has personal as well as financial considerations.
Ashley has admitted to mistakes in how he has run the club even before this chaotic season but the fan revolt caused by the acrimonious departure of Kevin Keegan meant that Ashley put the club on the market and stayed away from games. There has been a gradual return to matches but Ashley's enjoyment of a club he bought "because I love football" cannot have been great.
Ashley did not attend Friday night's 40th anniversary dinner at St James' for the Fairs' Cup team captained by Bobby Moncur – Shearer did go – and in recent days it has been said that Ashley's long-time friend, advisor and business partner Paul Kemsley has been active on club matters. It could be interpreted that the company is being pared down for a sale and redundancies began on Friday. During Ashley's tenure the club have outsourced some of their catering and other departments so the number of job losses is difficult to ascertain.
In the meantime, Shearer is on hold. His eight-game contract ended after last Sunday's dispiriting defeat at Aston Villa and he said after that match that with every day's delay in Ashley making a managerial decision, "another room burns".
But a week has now elapsed and Shearer is turning up at the training ground without a contract, unable to initiate any pre-season itinerary or plans for next season.
"It was a quiet dressing room at Villa Park," Shearer told the Evening Chronicle yesterday. "I said one or two things but what can we do now? It's happened and we have to face the challenge head on and see where we go."
Sunderland stand-off: Mancini waiting in the wings if Bruce deal collapses
Sunderland and Wigan Athletic remain in a stand-off concerning Steve Bruce. Sunderland still wish to take the Wigan manager to Wearside and permission has been granted for Bruce to speak to the North-east club, but the issue of compensation is yet to be resolved and unless there is some compromise by both parties, the situation could drag on for another week before there is a breakthrough. However, any further delay and it would be no surprise if Sunderland turned their attentions elsewhere.
In the last 48 hours, the name of Roberto Mancini has tumbled in the bookmakers' odds. But while there is some admiration for the former Inter Milan coach in the boardroom at the Stadium of Light, it is understood no approach is planned for the 44-year-old, who spoke on Friday of his desire to work outside Italy.
It would require Sunderland's pursuit of Bruce to collapse for Mancini to become a contender and while there is no progress in talks, Bruce remains the preferred option.
It is only seven days since Ricky Sbragia decided to stand down in the wake of the club's nail-biting survival in the Premier League. In that time though, American billionaire Ellis Short has pushed through his full buy-out of the club and having ploughed £35m of his own money into Roy Keane's transfer policy last August, Short would be expected to be equally generous to Bruce.
Short is a reluctant public figure but attended the last game of the season against Chelsea and sat next to chairman Niall Quinn. Short then gave his first ever interview, to the club's website. He has made the top 10 a target next season and is hugely enthused by Sunderland's potential.
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