Well, that has come earlier than expected and it may be a first. Newcastle United is taking legal action against the Premier League for what it claims is the decision not to pass the Owners & Directors Test in respect of the Saudi element of the Staveley-Reubens-PIF consortium. Further and of interest is the statement made by Blackwoods, (who will be acting for United):

“Shaheed Fatima QC and Nick De Marco QC are acting for Newcastle United FC and Mike Ashley (instructed by Dentons) in a dispute with the Premier League about its rejection of a takeover bid made by PCP Capital Partners, the Reuben Brothers and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF) based on its Owners and Directors test.”

You’ll have clocked that Blackwoods are using similar language to that provided by United in their statement last week about the Owners & Directors Test having been failed. The PL has denied that but as their offer of arbitration won’t be accepted and new information won’t be provided with the deal on the table with the PL but no formal decision being made then de-facto a refusal to pass the test and allow the club to pass into new ownership is in reality, in effect failing it. Whether that holds up in law I don’t know but Ashley thinks so and so has instructed one of the country’s foremost legal teams with a history of taking on sports’ governing bodies to challenge the PL’s action or inaction or obstruction.

In my memory this is a first – I don’t recall a PL club taking legal action against the league they play in and are a component part.  

The media are carrying briefings from Ashley’s side that this isn’t being done for financial purposes (ahem) but for him to demonstrate in a court of law the conduct of the Premier League throughout the takeover saga. It is interesting, United named Richard Masters specifically last week as having acted inappropriately. I speculate but Ashley may scent blood. Ashley is known as being litigious but in the many court actions he is involved with, he does tend to win. Strangely enough, this is one action we want him to come out on top – and you didn’t think 2020 could get any weirder?

You also heard the news last week that Bill Bush of the Premier League is leaving his post after 15 years. Bush has been with the PL since 2005 and is widely described as the PL’s No.2 behind Masters (previously Scudamore). His previous career was in government with what is now DCMS.

Bush is the PL’s Executive Director with expertise in policy, communications, media, culture and sport. He worked as Senior Advisor to Tony Blair as PM from 1999-2001 and to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2001-2005). He was Head of Research for BBC News until 1999.

Bush joined the PL as Director of Policy. In his role, his responsibilities include intellectual property, public policy and relations with government. It is doubtless that Bush has played a central figure in the PL’s handling of the planned takeover of United. Bush’s name has been consistently raised with the fanzine as someone briefing against the takeover with various journalists for the last six months by well-placed sources. They could be completely unfounded I might add.

It has been put to us that the PL, set against the United takeover has pursued a strategy of delay and being difficult as a means to obstruct the takeover and prevent it. Three working days between the United statement last week calling out the PL and the instruction of Blackwoods, Bush has made it known he is leaving his post.

Now coincidence does not mean cause of course but this might mean something. It might mean something that lawyers representing the Qatari beIN TV channel are making public statements denying they have sought to interfere in the Newcastle United takeover. It will be instructive if those acting for beIN would make those same statements in a court of law because they are palpably absurd.

If Ashley is taken at his word (and I admit to finding that difficult) the objective of getting detail of the PL’s behaviour into the public domain via a court action suggests he knows he can inflict significant damage upon them. Although he denies it I don’t doubt that damages might run into the tens of millions and that money would come from the PL’s clubs – that is something Masters, Hoffman & Co might have to sell to clubs because it is they who will be hurt on their bottom lines. Good luck with that as TV money is taking a COVID-19 hit and games are being played with no matchday revenue coming in. The PL is not the gravy train it was in February this year and it is less resilient to facing an action which might possibly inflict possibly hundreds of millions in damages upon it – though it is the clubs who will suffer.

Let us remind ourselves what the PL is asking from the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund – they are essentially asking Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to submit to the Owners & Directors Test because he is head of the KSA state and the PIF is a state owned investment vehicle. This is unconscionable for the Saudis and I understand their position completely. That to my eye is absolute nonsense and will be unique in all of the worldwide investments PIF is involved in. Let us remember the vital ingredients of this soup – buyers and sellers are agreed on price, due diligence has been completed, proof of funds have been accepted (that has never been an issue), the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, representing 15,000 paid members has been emphatically behind the takeover and a cross party section of dozens of MPs together with the City Council want this to happen. The vast majority of Newcastle United supporters want this to happen. The government is also keen for the takeover and associated investment to happen.

In the face of contrary legal counsel from the purchasers’ side, the PL is stubbornly requiring the head of state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to submit himself to the Owners & Directors Test – though it is impossible to imagine him playing any role in the management of Newcastle United – others are named to act as directors.    

Ashley’s move to instruct Blackwoods will reset the dynamics of this takeover. So far, it is Ashley who has had everything to lose – he wants out of United – his businesses are taking a hiding on the high street and United’s value is at its peak under his ownership. He has his sights locked on £300m+. He also knows thousands of fans are draining away from the stands (regardless of COVID-19) by declining to renew STs. But for the PL they can afford to be insouciant with nothing to lose. That may have just changed.

It may also change again were Staveley via PCP and the Reuben Bros also initiate separate actions. We’ll watch that one carefully.

I’ll also be watching where Chi Onwurah’s petition goes. It is my hope Richard Masters, the PL’s Chief Executive is placed before a DCMS Select Committee and invited to provide, on oath, details of the takeover.

Some may regard the takeover as dead in the water … I am broadly in agreement with that … but I want to understand why the Premier League, against what appears to be all logic and consensus has put up a barrier, which I believe they knew, the Saudis would walk back from. That seems a deliberate strategy and you might ask why? I’d hope in formulating that explanation to yourself you’d consider the words, Qatar, beIN …

Where it leads for the club might be a smaller part of what this all means for a Premier League now under a very real and hard pressure.

Good luck to Mike Ashley … you read that here first.

Keep On, Keepin’ On …

MICHAEL MARTIN