Mystery bidders line up for Newcastle

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A mystery bidder, one who probably does not bleed black and white but can read a balance sheet written in it and knows the value of the Barcode Army (as the replica shirt-wearing fans are known) has approached Sir John Hall, the club's life president, about selling his stake in the club. Speculation as to the identity of the buyer ranges from a "cash-rich British entrepreneur" who wants Keegan to return to the club, to a consortium involving Ray Ranson ­ the former Newcastle player who played under Keegan ­ which has been trying to take over Aston Villa, to a "Malaysian connection".

The existence of a potential buyer was revealed yesterday in a statement to the stock market by Sir John, whose company, Wynyard Hall, owns a 28.5 per cent stake in the club. The announcement followed an 18 per cent rise in the club's share price, taking it to its highest level for more than four years, 59.5p. The club is nowvalued at £75.6m, up from £65m yesterday, but well down from the £193m the club was valued at when launched on the stock market in April 1997.

With the exception of Manchester United, football clubs have all dropped in the market since the rush to float which followed the early years of the Premiership boom. Investors soon realised that in such a capricious industry as football, where the chief assets were liable to get injured, lose form or have grasping agents, the only people who got rich were the ones doing the floating.

This certainly applied to Sir John. He took control in 1992 at a total estimated cost of £3m. This 57 per cent stake was translated into a holding worth £102m after flotation. That value has fluctuated but Sir John soon realised some of its value. In late 1998, he sold 9.8 per cent to ntl, the cable company, for £16m. This was to be the prelude to ntl taking over the club but then Sky's bid for Manchester United failed and ntl lost interest.

That Sir John was prepared to sell indicated that his dream of making the club the heartbeat of the "Geordie Nation" had faded.

Sir John did rescue Newcastle from probable bankruptcy. They owed £6m when he arrived and were heading for the Third Division when he persuaded Keegan to forsake the golf courses of Spain and kick-start the revolution. A joyous roller-coaster ride followed which should have culminated with the Premiership title in 1996. It did not, as Newcastle's form collapsed and, soon after, Keegan walked out. Sir John's son, Douglas, was then infamously exposed in a tabloid sting in Marbella along with fellow director Freddy Shepherd, who had succeeded Sir John as chairman. The pair, who had boasted of ripping off fans and called Newcastle women "dogs", briefly resigned from the board but the club's allure to neutrals had gone. However, though the club has continued to attract bad publicity and the team seem determined not to win anything, the fans remain largely loyal. That is the attraction for a buyer, although the Malaysians, it is said, also wish to develop existing plans for a casino and leisure complex at St James' Park.

Any takeover deal will probably need the blessing of Shepherd, the current chairman, who owns 27 per cent of the club. Though he is forever bullish, he may be wearying of the constant failure and criticism and may be prepared to sell. Sir John may feel likewise.

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