Trio of Newcastle signings were on Saudi-led consortium’s shopping list
Premier League in war of words with club’s owner Mike Ashley over stalled takeover talks
Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley. The Premier League has insisted it has not rejected the Saudi Arabia-backed bid for the club. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Wire
The three players signed by Newcastle for a total approaching £40 million in recent days featured on the shopping list drawn up by the Saudi Arabian-led consortium which retains hope, albeit slender, of buying the club from Mike Ashley.
It is understood Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser, the striker and winger acquired from Bournemouth, and Jamal Lewis, the left-back bought from Norwich, were identified as transfer targets by advisers to the prospective new owners last spring when the £300 million takeover appeared to be a formality.
Given that Wilson is 28, Fraser 26 and all three are British, their arrivals marked a departure from the general transfer policy followed under Ashley, whereby new players have tended to be aged under 25 and often from overseas.
With Steve Bruce, Newcastle’s manager, an enthusiastic advocate of signing a trio he had long coveted, plans to recruit them were activated as discreet behind-the-scenes talks involving a consortium comprising Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), Reuben Brothers and Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners continued.
Although the consortium announced it was withdrawing from the process in July, Ashley almost immediately attempted to revive the buyout, and private negotiations swiftly resumed. For a while there was optimism the takeover would finally be approved but, with the Premier League still not satisfied by new documents supplied by the consortium and high-level intermediaries struggling to broker a solution, the talks foundered this week.
On Wednesday Ashley instructed Newcastle to release a perhaps deliberately provocative statement claiming the Premier League and in particular Richard Masters, its chief executive, had not “acted appropriately” in turning down the deal. Less than 24 hours later the league hit back, insisting the retail tycoon was being economical with the truth and the buyout could, theoretically at least, be revived.
In a statement it said: “The Premier League was disappointed and surprised by the Newcastle United statement. The club’s assertion that the Premier League has rejected the takeover is incorrect. The Premier League board has, on a number of occasions, given its opinion about which entities it believes would have control over the club should the consortium proceed with the acquisition. That opinion is based on legal advice.
“This means the potential takeover could proceed to the next stage should the relevant entities provide all appropriate information. They would then be subject to a suitability assessment by the board. As an alternative, the board has repeatedly offered independent arbitration as a way forward since June. It is also incorrect to suggest these decisions were taken by any individual; they were agreed unanimously by all Premier League board members.”
Sources close to the deal confirmed the takeover had not technically been rejected but Ashley – apparently considering taking legal action – is believed to have felt it had effectively been blocked in a manner which prevented Newcastle from mounting an appeal. Unless the Premier League formally vetoes a takeover, the appeal process cannot be initiated.
Although in one sense the league’s response escalated an extraordinary war of words with one of its stakeholders, and emphasised its unhappiness at what is perceived as a personal attack on Masters, its statement arguably also contained a concealed olive branch.
Given that PIF planned to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in the wider north-east economy, the UK government is understood to have hoped the consortium would replace Ashley on Tyneside but the Premier League remains unconvinced PIF – destined for an 80 per cent controlling stake – is autonomous of the Saudi government.
Much hinges on proving the existence of a legal separation between PIF and the kingdom’s government in a contentious bid beset by human rights controversies and problems surrounding broadcast piracy experienced by Qatar, whose beIN Sports has a £500 million overseas rights contract with the Premier League.
If PIF’s apparent reluctance to compromise adds further complication, it retains a strong interest in buying Newcastle – and Ashley remains anxious to sell.