Abu Dhabi interest in Newcastle as Ashley flies out for talks

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The Independent Online

Having put Newcastle United up for sale on Sunday afternoon, Mike Ashley is expected in Abu Dhabi within the next 24 hours to speak to possible purchasers of the Tyneside club. As he does so, supporters of Newcastle will gather this evening to discuss the formation of a new organisation, one that will continue to protest until Ashley leaves the city.

There is no guarantee that the Middle East is where the next owners of Newcastle will come from, and in dismissing stories connecting them again to Liverpool, Dubai International Capital said yesterday that they are not interested in "any other football club". Ashley's price for his 100 per cent holding is expected to be upwards of £250m and the hope of a North-east consortium surfacing remains.

Former chairman Freddy Shepherd said that he has been approached by two potential buyers from overseas recently but a connection to Shepherd would harm rather than help anyone constructing a takeover package. Shepherd's credibility with supporters is not high.

Ashley revealed last month that when he first had the opportunity to buy Sir John Hall's stakeholding in Newcastle, it was a Saturday. By the following Wednesday morning, Ashley was able to announce the completion of that purchase publicly. It shows the potential speed of deals, though Ashley did not perform the process of due diligence.

But as he has sought "partners" in ownership of the club, Ashley is understood to have let various parties see the books at Newcastle and that could help hasten a buy-out. The Indian billionaire Anil Ambani is one of those who has had contact with Ashley's representatives but his Reliance Communications company said last week that they were "no longer interested" in talking to Newcastle. Whether the events of Saturday and Sunday have altered that is unknown.

What Ashley cannot expect is that fan protest will wither due to his announcement. A section of Newcastle supporters have been galvanised by Ashley's decision to back Dennis Wise rather than Kevin Keegan and the fanzines who made it plain to Ashley last week that he was no longer welcome in the away end at matches have arranged tonight's meeting.

"The situation at Newcastle United has not altered at all with Mike Ashley telling us something we already knew – he wants to sell Newcastle United FC," began their statement yesterday. "He has not made any statement regarding the management structure and there are many of us who worry for the future of our football club while this man and his employees – Dennis Wise and Derek Llambias remain at NUFC.

"The protests and the withdrawal of monies from everything at NUFC other than ticket prices was an illustration of the anger at Ashley's stewardship of our club. Newcastle United supporters can be proud of the way they protested and it is a tribute to their discipline that Northumbria Police has praised the behaviour of the protests inside and outside St James' Park. However, the protests at the running of our club by Ashley, Wise and Llambias need to continue."

If the organisation gains mass support, Ashley will feel pressure to sell even more quickly. He is now aware that his Sunday message did not win many arguments locally and from Shepherd yesterday came a strong defence of his tenure and the financial state of the club when he left.

Asked if Newcastle could have folded but for the intervention of Ashley, as Ashley has claimed, Shepherd replied: "Absolutely ridiculous. The only reason he had to pay a large portion of the debt was the cost of the stadium. When he took over, what he didn't realise was that he had to pay off the [stadium] mortgage – if the Halls lost control, the money had to be repaid immediately. I think he had to pay around £57m. There was a clause in the contract that if the Halls ever lost control, that money had to be repaid straightaway." Had basic due diligence been performed, presumably this would have been discovered. Shepherd said that Ashley should sell the club for £230m. "He should get back what he has put in. That would prove he does love the club and is doing right by the club rather than what is right for him."

Ashley will not be impressed with this opinion, or by Shepherd's remark: "A lot of people can buy football clubs. It has now been proved, not many people can run them."

Meanwhile, a managerless squad has to prepare for Saturday's trip to West Ham. They do so minus the suspended Danny Guthrie and with fresh long-term doubts about right-back Habib Beye and centre-forward Mark Viduka. Morale is low, with players bemused not only that Keegan has gone but that they have had no satisfactory explanation why or of what the club is planning to do next. They are inclined not to speak publicly until the club clarifies the situation face-to-face.

The status of Michael Owen's contract discussions is uncertain. Owen was in part lured to Newcastle by Alan Shearer and Newcastle confirmed yesterday that Shearer is no longer the club's sporting ambassador. However, Newcastle said this was not due to Shearer's criticism of the management that saw Keegan depart. "Any suggestion that Alan was stripped of this role because of recent events is completely inaccurate," Newcastle said in a statement.

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