As recently as last weekend all of the noises coming from every corner of the media suggested the takeover of Newcastle United was about to be completed. Although the current COVID-19 lockdown might have made matters awkward for those conducting the PL’s Owners & Directors Test, it’s preposterous to believe there is much foot-leather expended or bus journeys completed in order to get the checks done and dusted. The work is a legal and administrative one and thus will largely be completed by lawyers and others at the Premier League working virtually as many others do observing UK government and public health guidance.

Then on Monday, completely out of left-field comes a report in The Guardian from Sean Ingle disclosing that new legal documents had been presented to the Premier League. The article – click here – is dated at 18:53, 11/May/2020 –

I’m sceptical about coincidences. You’d have to be a special kind of stupid not to believe these documents hadn’t turned up at the Premier League on Monday ahead of a week when various well-connected journalists were briefing confirmation of the sale of Newcastle United was only days away.

This happened for a reason and it is clearly to either delay or derail the sale of Newcastle United. The obvious people to point the finger at is the Qatari government as this would be part of a piece with various actors on their behalf making allegations against the Saudi Arabian state of facilitating the piracy of TV rights, mainly Be-IN owned by the Qatari government. However, even more intriguingly other news-lines have indicated the documents are said not to come from the Qataris but from another source. But no-one is letting on who from and why now?

What we can definitely conclude however are forces conspiring against this takeover and we can all speculate to our hearts content about that. My guide in these matters is always to follow the money and join the dots.

On Monday, earlier in the day 10:30, Darren Wells of The Mirror published a piece claiming ten PL clubs were against the takeover – click here – 

Again, the timing of this is curious – way ahead of Ingle’s piece in The Guardian and after a weekend of almost widespread speculation, the takeover’s completion was imminent. How would Wells know, so apparently randomly that ten (very specific that) PL clubs were against the takeover. It’s almost as if, heaven forfend, someone very close to the Owners & Directors test inside the Premier League had been leaking information to the press about what was happening. How else could a largely low-profile football writer be privy to such specific information? Likewise, you have to wonder who tipped off Ingle about the new legal documents being with the Premier League at what appears to be the eleventh hour in the timeline of the Owners & Directors Test.

Someone in the Premier League? Persons unknown?

But here’s a thing – PL clubs don’t vote on who gets to takeover clubs per se. That is outside of the rules but their position in the Owners & Directors Test is a curious one and I’ll ask you to ask when or why they might be consulted? When the PL can’t make its mind up whether potential owners of one of its constituent clubs and wishes to place the evidence before it in a vote? Is the leaking of this story an outlier for that forthcoming choreographed scenario? Why have they either been asked their opinion on the takeover of a separate business? Or why has it been disclosed to the media?

And then you start speculating, admittedly rather fruitlessly without much else to go on about who is linked with who – where the dots are joined and all of that.

Anyway! Let’s go back to the press. It’s apparently another one of those complete coincidences, that the press are all over an open letter – apparently (cough) written by Hatice Cengiz, the fiance of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Ms Cengiz’s media profile has increased exponentially since it became likely the takeover was going through and coincidentally roughly around the same time as The Guardian was doing the big reveal about new legal documents being submitted (by whom we don’t know) and The Mirror was telling us all about ten PL clubs being against the new Newcastle United owners. All a complete coincidence I’m sure.

Now, it is a delicate choice of words to be deployed when responding to anyone who has lost a loved one and particularly in such brutal circumstances as Ms Cengiz’s fiancé, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But although I’m likely on a hiding to nowt here goes. Any decent person would have to be extremely cold-hearted not to have every piece of compassion for Ms Cengiz, whose grief we can only imagine. But she is being used in a callous PR game to generate bad publicity for buyers of Newcastle United to suit an agenda which I’d guess is all about money. I make no accusation of any kind against Ms Cengiz. Those who have led her to draft this letter to Newcastle United supporters, calling upon us to oppose the takeover will know this is ridiculous and stupid.

They will know that the person Ms Cengiz should petition is Mike Ashley, not the supporters of Newcastle United, whose views we all know matter not one jot to him.   Those journalists or professional PR men who have worked Ms Cengiz … or rather worked to exploit her grief will know that. This is all about creating headlines to build a mood of opposition against the takeover. It is planned and it is deliberate. Ashley owns a business in Newcastle United and is legally entitled to sell it as he chooses. The media know this but there is a connivance to do something deliberately ignoring that.

I am no apologist for human rights abuses anywhere in the world. Some of what I have read about Saudi treatment of their own people and the atrocities in the Yemen is truly horrific. But buying Newcastle United as I’m fond of repeating is likely to be the least damaging business transaction the Saudis will ever conduct.  The same may not be said about the sales of £Bns worth of deadly weaponry from the British defence industry with the full knowledge and approval of successive British governments of both stripe.

An industry incidentally which employs hundreds in well-paid and skilled jobs in the NE of England.

We should also note the no expense spared state visits put on for visiting Saudi dignitaries. No-one gets better treatment from the British Royal family and UK government than one of his country’s key allies, Saudi Arabia. We may not like it but this country has strategic links with the Saudis that covers the sharing of vital intelligence related to counter terrorism, energy and other economic links. In those sunlit uplands of our (cough) post-Brexit future (and one severely damaged by the economic shock of COVID-19) a country, a trading partner, an ally such as Saudi Arabia just got a whole lot more important.   

So, again, who is behind what appears to be a synchronised effort to derail or delay the Newcastle United takeover?

Charges of TV rights abuses are serious and should be investigated thoroughly. It would appear up until last weekend they had been and as we’ve heard throughout the process there had been “no red flags”. But then bang on Monday evening something is presented in what appears to be deliberately timed to have maximum impact. Why you have to ask has someone sat on those documents until then?

The suspects I would suggest are in Qatar whose interests are projected into the media by no lower an example of morality than Richard Keys.

It is impossible not to laugh darkly at the Qataris painting themselves as the defenders of decency not to mention law and order. These paragons will host the World Cup in 2022 and will be a tournament largely disfigured by convincing allegations of FIFA corruption and the abuse of workers employed to build the stadiums and infrastructure required for what is a bizarre proposition of football played in de-facto ovens.

But of course Qatar owns the rights to beam football around the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) regions through BE-IN. I am sure the process to acquire those TV rights was conducted with all due regard to the highest standards of probity and executives at the Premier League would be happy with the harshest light of forensic audit thrown onto how the process was followed and their conduct within that.

I would suggest were the worst come to the worst and the takeover kyboshed, analysis of those deals and the linkages between the actors within them might come under significant Saudi-inspired scrutiny. I’d hope it would.

Anyone who imagines the Saudis would walk away with a shrug of the shoulders having had their national pride insulted could be in for a rude awakening. I can imagine there are several firms of top lawyers rubbing their hands. The costs of litigation to be visited upon the PL could be ruinous because I’m certain, with Mike Ashley handcuffed to this deal via various contracts also known for his litigious nature and hardly casually philosophical about losing out on £300m just as the financial arse is about to drop out of football.

Outside of all of that of course is the threat of a significant diplomatic fall-out between the UK and Saudi Arabia wherein the sale of all manner of deadly weaponry is deemed perfectly fine (despite what is known about its use in the Yemen) but the purchase of a football club with potential significant investment in a hard-pressed region of the UK beyond the pale because of a dispute over TV rights. The UK government has let it be known it will play no part in the deal. I doubt however that the Saudis would be allowed to feel so aggrieved by the UK, particularly with the economy heading for stormy waters and a desire to get orders in the book at UK PLC that the government would sit idly by. Then again, it’s a Boris Johnson administration so all bets are off quite honestly.  

But what do I know? This could all be redundant within a few days and we’ll be celebrating that new era we’ve all been dreaming about. But if it isn’t, it won’t be something that will be likely to go away quietly. And nor should it.

Keep On, Keepin’ On …   

MICHAEL MARTIN