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The girl from Doncaster who became the toast of Abu Dhabi

The daring takeover of Manchester City was masterminded by a financier who once turned down a marriage proposal from Prince Andrew. Cahal Milmo reports

Wednesday 03 September 2008 00:00 BST

When as an ambitious 22-year-old modern languages graduate, Amanda Staveley rose at 4am every day to cook and strip the meat from dozens of chickens, she had little idea that her pre-dawn catering activities would open the door to the glittering world of high finance and the billions of dollars at the disposal of the Arabian Gulf's ruling sheikhs.

After persuading a bank manager to lend her £180,000 to set up a restaurant in rural Cambridgeshire, Ms Staveley opened her Stocks eatery close to the British horseracing hub of Newmarket. It became popular among leading members of area's equestrian elite.

The patrons of the restaurant, where the proprietor would muck in while also dabbling in her alternative career of dealing in shares worth thousands of pounds, included senior staff from the Godolphin stables owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the most powerful racehorse owner on the planet.

It was the beginning of an association between Ms Staveley, now 35 and a multimillionaire businesswoman, and the Middle East's wealthiest figures that reached a spectacular culmination yesterday with the news that English club football had gained a proprietor to outshine the riches of even Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich in Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan.

The new owner of Manchester City FC, who is the brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, the biggest of the United Arab Emirates, and has access to an estimated fortune of £550bn to fund foreign acquisitions, and his advisers spent two weeks negotiating with the Yorkshirewoman before tying up a deal that was heralded with a £32.6m statement of intent in the shape of City's acquisition of the Brazilian striker Robinho for a British record fee.

It was evidence of the growing status of Ms Staveley – whose life has waxed and waned from turning down a proposal from Prince Andrew to becoming a non-executive director of a company marketing a cream similar to Viagra – in the testosterone-fuelled world of the Premiership, that she acted as the lynchpin in a sale that has the potential to transform European football.

Although she was acting for City and its previous owner, the former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, it is understood that Ms Staveley's credentials among Middle Eastern royalty were key to the sale being completed. It is perhaps no coincidence that the sport-mad Sheikh Mansour is chairman of the Emirates Racing Authority.

A source familiar with the deal told The Independent: "Amanda is known and trusted by her contacts in the Gulf like almost no other non-Arab. She has spent a decade building that relationship. She tells things as they are and has a clarity of purpose that they appreciate. When the call came from Sheikh Mansour's representatives it would have been in no small part due to the fact that they knew they were dealing with Amanda."

It has not always been such smooth sailing for Ms Staveley, whose fashion model mother was an international show jumper and who was herself a promising athlete as a teenager while being brought up by her grandparents near Doncaster. Several of the Cambridge University graduate's early business ventures after expanding beyond Stocks fared badly, despite her claimed first million by the time she was 24.

She suffered a significant setback when an IT services company, EuroTelecom, collapsed after taking a share in Q.Ton, the conference centre and restaurant business she set up in Cambridge. Corporate investigators were brought in to carry out an inquiry into share dealings, although no claims of wrongdoing were levelled at Ms Staveley.

It was while showing off Q.Ton that Ms Staveley met Prince Andrew in 2003. A brief relationship ensued, reportedly resulting in the Duke of York proposing marriage. Ms Staveley has never denied there was a proposal but refuses to discuss the romance.

Instead, she set about rebuilding her career away from the gossip columns.

As senior director of PCP Capital Partners, a private equity company based in London's Mayfair, Ms Staveley has become a familiar face among the power brokers of football in the North-west. Careful observers would have spotted her in the directors' box at City's stadium on 24 August alongside a key aide to Dr Sulaiman al-Fahim, the billionaire frontman of Abu Dhabi United Group, the holding company carrying out this week's £210m take-over.

A few miles down the M62 at Liverpool FC's Anfield stadium, Ms Staveley has also been at the heart of the fraught negotiations between Sheikh Maktoum and his Dubai International Capital (DIC) investment vehicle, and the American owners of the club, to buy a minority 49 per cent stake.

The deal, which would have involved Ms Staveley becoming a Liverpool director, broke down earlier this year but could enter a new phase in coming weeks after Tom Hicks and George Gillett Junior announced last week that the credit crunch had forced them to postpone the construction of a new stadium, considered vital to the future financial viability of the club.

To survive in such a caustic environment, many would assume the no-nonsense privately-educated daughter of a wealthy landowner had assumed the persona of a flinty power-broker at ease only in the most exalted company to survive. In reality, she is as at home talking shop with the Merseyside faithful as discussing complex private equity deals with plutocrats.

In a sign of her ability to give as good as she gets, Ms Staveley, who was accused by Mr Hicks of leaking a confidential letter while acting for DIC (a claim which was strongly denied), yesterday made a pointed reference to her dealings with Liverpool's owners. "The investment partnership has been entered to ensure the long-term future of Manchester City. Dr Thaksin wanted to be a responsible owner and didn't want a repeat of the shenanigans at Liverpool."

It is unlikely that this is the last English football has heard of Amanda Staveley. Those thinking about seeking to stymie any future deal that could bring more Middle Eastern ownership to the Premiership should consult the report resulting from a four-day psychometric testing session which she presents to potential investors to display her leadership qualities.

It reads: "A woman of action, Amanda will do everything in her power to dismantle obstacles to goal attainment. Wasted opportunity is anathema to her and she will fight those who fail to grasp opportunity when it knocks."

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