I’ll get this on the table from the start. I claim no insider knowledge of what is going on with this takeover. I don’t ’have any contacts amongst the people who really matter on the selling or buying sides. Everything I refer to within this old toffee is in the public domain and is my interpretation of where things are at right now. There are others who can offer different perspectives and are equally valid or meaningless. You can take it or leave it. I hope enough of you are bored enough out of your nuts to indulge me and even get to the end. But if you don’t, that’s fair enough because the whole thing has become tedious beyond belief.

Alternatively, the prospect of a takeover is the only light at the end of a long, dark Ashley tunnel. Not to mention providing some hope on the other side of COVID-19 and something to celebrate together. Possibly.  

I think the most intelligent opinion I’ve heard about this latest takeover episode from someone who writes about football for a living is “I don’t know”. Nobody knows if this takeover will happen and I think that will extend to those around a virtual table attempting to negotiate it.

Don’t be kidded on by anyone that wants you to think they know something important about the deal and can give you a definite sense of what is going on – they don’t. Some have bits of information and opinions they honestly hold. Others are self-aggrandising whoppers desperate for a bit of attention.

Amanda Staveley. We know Staveley attempted to lead a bid to buy Liverpool FC a number of years ago but didn’t get past the Shankly Gates such was the Anfield club’s lack of confidence in her credibility. That wasn’t helped in regards to the 2018 bid for Newcastle United in which Ashley stung her with the quote:

exhausting, frustrating and a complete waste of time”.

Others have asked searching questions of Staveley’s business interests. Previously described as having £26Bn “under management” we hear little about that now. It was it seems a spectacular embellishment. Others have questioned why the public investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government would need Staveley and allow her to retain a 10% interest in the club. That wasn’t a question made of Peter Kenyon and I do detect more than the whiff of sexism in this. Here’s a thing – maybe she is working for them? Maybe she has negotiated a 10% stake as her part of the deal? Maybe I’m talking shite.

Some question whether the Saudi Arabian government is really involved in this and rather instead of that it is Saudi individuals. Alternatively, others conveniently ignore or underplay Staveley’s role in the Man City takeover a decade ago and more ago.

I have also had it played back to me that if a Saudi, Iranian, Englishwoman and a pair of British Jewish billionaires starts like the beginning of a joke it’s because it is. That’s a funny line but doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s as if the global culture clashes between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel acts as sand in the machine of business and individual deal-making. I’d point to far more contentious areas of business than the purchase of a NE England football club. See President Trump’s very public courtship of Saudi Arabia and the background of the powerful Israeli lobby in US politics. As for the Englishwoman involvement let’s not pretend this country is sensitive to human rights abuses in Saudi given royal attendance at Saudi kings funerals, flags lowered to half-mast at Buck House, the sale of weaponry to the kingdom and the hoovering up of prime London real estate by various Sheikhs. The various religions and nationalities of the consortium are simply a curiosity and a side-note in my opinion. They are put out there to cast doubt. The selling side has an interest in managing the public mood of supporters because if this doesn’t happen it will be Ashley who carries the can. His continuing refusal to communicate with supporters exposes him to that so he’ll have to suck that up if he is the hopeless dupe in a fake-over scam we’ll be asked to swallow.

Nobody is seriously putting it out there that this takeover attempt isn’t real.

We’ve also been asked to be sceptical about the takeover because there is no media coverage of it in Saudi or the wider Middle East. It is true there has been little coverage of the takeover but that is a perspective viewed through a western-liberal-democratic lens and doesn’t apply to a culture completely different to our own.

The whole notion of this takeover requires us to remove ourselves from the paradigm of our own cultural experience and realise what is going on here. The purpose of this takeover is sports-washing. The joys of being on the Gallowgate, giving full-throated support to the boys in Black & White has largely passed the Saudi Royal family by! If this takeover proceeds it is because the Saudis see it as part of a strategy of modernisation and public relations. They want to improve their image and to do that they will do different things with different people. This is not such a great leap.

The Reuben Brothers are frequently quoted as having a significant interest in the consortium to buy United. They are oft-referred as having business interests in Newcastle. I think these extend to owning development land in and around Pilgrim Street within NE1. I don’t see that as important to be honest and don’t doubt they have much greater interests elsewhere in the UK and around the world. It’s a coincidence.

The Reuben Brothers are seriously wealthy individuals. Their fortune is almost twenty times that of Ashley and they could likely do this deal on their own. But they aren’t directly involved in the takeover and are a junior partner. It is Jamie Reuben son of David who is the one most directly linked to the deal. The 32-year-old is currently involved with QPR. That may matter or it may not. I don’t doubt Jamie will be in negotiations with his father and uncle if he is about to lash north of £34m on the Barrack Road basket-case.

Interestingly, at the time of the first Staveley bid, I am reliably informed by a significant journalist, known for his knowledge of the business of football that when approached, the Reuben Brothers denied all involvement in the Staveley or PCP bid. That appears to have completely changed and is far more substantial now, albeit it is not the two brothers directly but Jamie. Maybe that says something about the size of the deals they are involved in? I’m speculating.

There are those who claim this is potentially a PR strategy to raise Amanda Staveley’s profile. That seems an outlandish claim and there are less exhausting and expensive ways of achieving that than leading a phony bid to buy an under-performing football club in an economically disadvantaged region of northern England.

On the flipside the involvement of former United MD Chris Mort (Freshfields) acting for Staveley adds credibility to the bid but we should also remember solicitors in this space will be picking up very substantial fees for their work regardless of whether the deal is completed or not. However, I can’t believe Mort and others would be willingly prostituting themselves on an obvious ruse. Am I a bit Steve Naive in that regard?

I’ve lost count of the times less cerebral members of the football press (I know, I know) have parroted the line “no bid” yet as evidence of delays at the buyers end. Clearly some still get calls from Lee Charnley and the purpose of this is not to communicate with supporters but to influence thinking that if this goes cock-fanny up it’s the buyers to blame and not Ashley.

There’s an alternative view. Has Ashley, who we are consistently told by the media, wants to sell United, presented Staveley with his terms for a sale and said take it or leave it? Or is Ashley, as many suspect a fucking nightmare of a man to deal with, who constantly shifts the goal-posts and always looking for angles to screw the other party? Is he making unreasonable demands about sponsorship and merchandise of the type he set like a plague on Rangers FC? Are there skeletons in the SJP cupboard holding up the deal? Merchandise sales? Outstanding HMRC cases? And loads of other stuff about which we don’t have a clue.

At the time of the first Staveley interest, Ashley stated, such was his enthusiasm to sell he would talk about instalments etc. That has now disappeared off the table and I imagine dealing with him is like nailing jelly to the wall.

The media doubts placed upon whether Staveley has funding in place have been largely rowed back on. I can’t imagine both parties would contact the Premier League to submit paper-work (as was widely reported a week ago) if two things hadn’t been completed – due diligence and proof of funds. In fact it is inconceivable they wouldn’t have been for that to get to that point.

We should also note that the widely respected former Times journalist George Caulkin (now with The Athletic) has reported seeing evidence of bids from the Staveley side. Do we accept that? Or was George himself unwittingly duped?

There are others who claim to have seen bids from the BZG group whose rather eccentric communications strategy drained confidence in them last summer. I’m less convinced about that but that’s a matter of opinion. There’s less detail on what was seen, by whom etc.

It is important in all of this to pause and not accept everything we’re told as fact and to have a healthy dose of scepticism.

It is right it costs little to set up shell companies with Companies House. But why would  Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Saudi PIF, do that? Because he’s bored? For a laugh? It can neither be seen as incontrovertible evidence the takeover is going to happen or dismissed as irrelevant. It means something but the trick is understanding what – no-one can substantiate that.

We also know Saudi Arabia is establishing offices around the world, including London as it increases its global interests. Is that relevant? Is the takeover part of that more outward engagement, part of a strategy to polish its image? You pays your money and takes your choice how you interpret that.

We read yesterday that MASH has pushed back the publication of Newcastle United’s accounts for three months. That got tongues wagging.

It could mean the business is about to change hands. In a normal business you might be able to deduct that (and that is not to discount it completely) but this is normal practice for Ashley – he is erratic and that’s evidenced in his behaviour with accounting. Remember, Ashley is a maverick – he couldn’t give a fuck about convention, his public image or anything like that – he has a sociopathic fixation to the bottom line to the neglect of everything else. He has a sickness inside of him, he is a socially clumsy, inarticulate, callous, thin-skinned bully but with a genius eye for numbers.

But here we are in April 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic. It seems on the one hand frivolous to be thinking so much about a football club as people die every day but here we are, we can’t all go round in sack cloth and ashes despairing all the time.

But the economic impact upon business and all of that makes you wonder if a deal such as that can really go forward? We’ve variously heard the buyers are reviewing the amount they will pay for United – probably wise given the coverage we hear about the arse dropping out of the game – but alternatively we also read denials that is the case and such is the wealth and might of the Saudi PIF a deal such as the one to buy Newcastle United is small beer. The whole club is possibly less than the value of a Saudi yacht.

We also hear stories of Ashley’s business interests being in trouble and many of us relish that but we don’t know if that is really true and if it will put pressure on him to sell Newcastle United. It can’t be helping him to have his every shop in the country with the shutters down.

So, who knows? Not me as I’ve taken rather a lot of your time to explain. But I’m far from alone.

Keep On, Keepin’ On …

MICHAEL MARTIN