Paralysis grips Newcastle as failed takeover leaves Mike Ashley and supporters in unhappy marriage

There is a willing buyer and an enthusiastic seller, but until the Premier League is satisfied – or forced to change its stance by legal action – the Saudi takeover cannot be concluded

Owner Mike Ashley watches Newcastle's defeat by Brighton in the stands at St James' Park
Owner Mike Ashley watches Newcastle's defeat by Brighton in the stands at St James' Park

It was not supposed to be like this for Newcastle United. In May and June, even though the country was locked down and in chaos, there was a cause for optimism on Tyneside. A takeover was in the offing at St James’ Park. Mike Ashley, the reviled owner, was heading towards the door.

As autumn’s chill deepens, there is little to look forward to in the north east. The sale of the club fell apart with the Premier League and the Saudi Arabian-funded, Amanda Staveley-led consortium that includes the Reuben brothers reaching an impasse over the owners’ and directors’ test. There are no other buyers on the horizon. A grim winter lies ahead for the supporters and Ashley. There is little to be positive about as coronavirus once again tightens its grip on the region.

The transfer window shuts on Monday, In early summer, fans imagined that the prospective new owners were ready to go on a spending spree. The desert nation’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which supplied 80 per cent of the £300 million asking price, is estimated to have about £390 billion in assets. Although the Saudis viewed the potential acquisition of Newcastle as a business deal rather than a vanity buy, the new regime would have been looking to bring in bigger names than Callum Wilson and Jamal Lewis, bought for a total of £35 million from Bournemouth and Norwich City respectively. Both players represent good value but Geordies expected more exotic and glamorous recruits.

Gallowgate dreamers imagined a window more like Everton’s, with the sort of recruitment that opens up tantalising possibilities and delivers positive results. The disappointment hurts as much as anything. The promise of better times has been withdrawn.

For now, Ashely and the supporters are stuck with each other. It is a situation neither side wants. The SportsDirect tycoon is eager to get out. His problem is that there are lots of people across the world who want to own football clubs but very few who have the finances to turn desire into reality. PIF put money on the table and the 56-year-old was a Premier League rubberstamping away from banking the Saudi cash. He cannot afford to let the transaction die. Who knows when the next realistic investor will come along, especially in this Covid-19 ravaged economy.

Newcastle have taken three points from their first three games

The Premier League still requires further evidence that PIF is autonomous from the Saudi government. Both Ashely and the consortium believe enough proof of this has been provided. The 56-year-old has engaged two senior lawyers to act for him in the dispute with the ruling body. This signals that Ashley is not prepared to let the issue slide. The stalemate continues. It is unlikely to have a speedy ending.

“You know when the lawyers get involved that there’s no quick resolution,” a source close to the Staveley camp said. “If there is a solution, it’s a little way off.” Asked whether a solution exists, the individual concerned considered the question for a prolonged period and then answered in the affirmative although no details were provided about how the logjam might be bypassed.

The PIF-backed group withdrew from the sale process in July but have continued to maintain that the interest in completing the transaction remains strong. The Saudi investment fund’s representatives are notoriously inscrutable but contacts within the consortium claim that PIF are “determined” to pursue the purchase.

This is an unusual scenario with a willing buyer and an enthusiastic seller. Richard Masters, the chief executive of the Premier League, is in the middle. Until the ruling body is satisfied – or forced to change its stance by legal action – the deal will not be concluded.

Newcastle are in a state of paralysis. Fans can no longer direct their anger at Ashley. The owner has done everything they desired of him. Their mutual ire has turned in the direction of Masters and the league. On the pitch the team are in a holding pattern. Steve Bruce’s side look to be a cut above the relegation candidates but it is hard to see them cracking the top 10.  

Reality feels as cold and dark as winter nights on the banks of the Tyne but the takeover may have a twist or two yet. Newcastle’s new age is still some way off, though. The frustration is palpable because for once, Ashley and the fans want the same thing. Both are desperate to move on.

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