Newcastle’s Saudi-backed takeover saga approaches bitter legal climax

Mike Ashley’s anti-competition suit will begin next month while the long-awaited Premier League arbitration is scheduled to take place in July

Tony Evans@tonyevans92a
Thursday 20 May 2021 10:25
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Newcastle owner Mike Ashley
Newcastle owner Mike Ashley

The Newcastle United takeover saga is nearing its climax after more than a year of uncertainty at St James’ Park. Mike Ashley’s anti-competition suit will begin next month and the long-awaited Premier League arbitration is scheduled to take place in July.

The Newcastle owner is taking legal action against the league after it refused to sanction the £300 million buyout of the club by a consortium backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). The case is due to come before the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) and it emerged this week that the Premier League asked for a delay in proceedings.

On Tuesday the president of CAT postponed the start of the hearing until 11 June – four days fewer than the league requested. The Hon Mr Justice Roth also revealed that the separate arbitration action is set to take place in July, although the Premier League asked for more time to prepare in this case, too.

The claim before CAT concerns restrictions on potential new owners by the league and its member clubs. Ashley – and those connected with the Amanda Staveley-led Saudi takeover – believes that a number of top-flight teams encouraged blocking the sale because they fear Newcastle emerging as a significant power in English football.

CAT hearings are conducted in the open. The case will likely last beyond July but evidence will be in the public domain.

The arbitration will be held in private. Most Premier League cases are carried out behind closed doors. Ashley challenged the appointment of Michael Beloff QC as chairman of the panel but the objection was overruled.

Newcastle contend that the league has never rejected the Saudi-backed bid and merely stalled in giving a decision under the owners’ and directors’ test. The Premier League is concerned that PIF’s involvement means that Newcastle would be operated as a state-owned entity. Staveley contends that the day-to-day running of the club would be independent of PIF. The investment fund proposed to put up 80 per cent of the cost of buying Newcastle, with Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners company and the billionaire Reuben brothers contributing 10 per cent each.

One of the big issues surrounding Riyadh’s involvement in English football was the hacking of BeIn Sport, the Premier League’s broadcast partner in the Gulf, by Saudi pirate television stations. The Qatari-based BeIn believed that the hijacking of their channels could not have been achieved without state backing. Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed a three year blockade on Qatar that ended in December. Relations between the neighbouring nations have been restored but continue to be delicate. The disruption of BeIn’s signals have ended.

PIF’s appetite to invest in Newcastle remains strong. Despite withdrawing their offer last summer, those around the consortium have always insisted that the deal would eventually get done. They are confident the arbitration process will conclude with the takeover getting the green light.

Supporters are as desperate to see the back of Ashley as the businessman is eager to get rid of the club. Amnesty International have flagged up Saudi Arabia’s questionable human-rights record. Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist murdered after entering the Kingdom’s consulate in Turkey three years ago, pleaded with fans to reject Saudi ownership. Any ethical concerns appear to have little impact on Tyneside and even local Labour MPs have called for the Premier League to endorse the takeover.

The botched breakaway by the Big Six and the attempt to form a Super League has put a sharper focus on football governance and there have been calls for independent regulation of the game. The Premier League will resist any attempt to impose outside control but losing either the CAT case or the arbitration would add to the impression that the sport’s ruling bodies have no clear sense of purpose.

The success of Manchester City, who are backed by the Abu Dhabi royal family, has generated a belief that a Saudi takeover would have a similar impact at Newcastle. Sources close to the bid have always played that down. If PIF eventually get their target, the club would be expected to fund itself. There are no plans to inject huge amounts of cash to fund a splurge in the transfer market.

Newcastle’s future should be much clearer by the start of next season. For better or worse, the end of uncertainty cannot come quickly enough for Ashley and the supporters.

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