Newcastle United fans have long dreamed of ridding the club from owner Mike Ashley, but a potential £300 million (US$377 million) takeover backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund presents fans on Tyneside with a different dilemma.
Retail tycoon Ashley has been deeply unpopular in his 13 years in charge of Newcastle, during which time the club have twice been relegated from the Premier League before bouncing back into English football’s lucrative top flight.
British financier Amanda Staveley has held a long-running interest in brokering a deal for one of England’s most passionately supported clubs with attendances often above 50,000 despite years of limited success.
Ashley labelled Staveley a “waste of time” when a previous bid to take control collapsed in 2017.
However, documents filed last week to Companies House provide a framework for talks between Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners and Ashley.
According to reports, 80 percent of the deal would be funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund with Staveley providing 10 percent and the other 10 percent coming from British billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben.
The Toon Army have long voiced their dissent as Ashley has tried to cash in on the riches of Premier League television rights deals, while investing little on improving the team on the pitch.
“There was a famous banner a couple of years ago that read: ‘We don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries.’ For the last 13 years we haven’t had a club that has tried,” a spokesman for the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) told AFP.
“Under this ownership there has been no ambition, effectively no investment and no hope for a sporting entity that hasn’t been a sporting entity. It’s been there to survive and nothing more.”
The prospect of deep-pocketed owners, particularly at a time when most other clubs will be cutting back due to the economic crisis caused by coronavirus, is an alluring one for the Magpie faithful.
Indeed, a £40 million drop in Ashley’s asking price since talks began in January is believed to be linked to the falling value of football assets due to a shutdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Manchester City’s run of 11 major trophies since an Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008 transformed their fortunes is an example of the difference wealthy Middle Eastern owners can make.
Prior to 2011, City had not won a major honor since 1976. Newcastle’s barren run stretches back to 1969.
“They are looking for someone to come in with fresh investment and to get them back where they should be, which is the top end of the Premier League and maybe the Champions League,” former Newcastle manager Graeme Souness told Sky Sports.
However, selling out to Saudi investment will see Newcastle become the latest target of criticism over the state’s use of sport to distract from its human rights record.
“In recent months, Saudi Arabia has worked hard at ‘sportswashing’ its reputation – trying to use the glamour of sport as a public relations tool to improve its international image,” said an Amnesty International report in February.
A world heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz in December and the Spanish Super Cup a month later received strong criticism for taking the millions offered to participate in Saudi Arabia.
“It is something we need to be aware of,” added the NUST spokesman.
“We need to see the specific details of who is involved once it is confirmed. It is only natural there are concerns.”
Image: Newcastle United fans have long campaigned for the departure of owner Mike Ashley (AFP)