Neil Humphreys: It's going from bad to worse for Newcastle United
Magpies risk swopping Sports Direct owner for sportswashing under Saudi Arabia-backed group
As always, Mike Ashley's timing is awful. Only the Newcastle United owner would seek to flog his club in a pandemic.
While other English Premier League clubs convene emergency meetings in a desperate bid to pay staff, Ashley cashes in.
Theories vary on why he seems so eager to sever ties after 13 years of ownership at a time when the omnipresent threat of Covid-19 makes it impossible to even hold a physical meeting with prospective owners.
Maybe he hopes to sneak the deal through while everyone else focuses on more mundane issues, such as social distancing and staying alive.
Or perhaps he's seen all those zeroes falling away from future transfers and possible club sales and he's quitting while he's behind.
Ashley hasn't been ahead for some time, certainly not during the early stages of Covid-19, when he exposed his Sports Direct staff to possible infection by not closing stores and then snatched government hand-outs to pay Newcastle staff.
So long-suffering Magpies fans are rejoicing at the news that Ashley may finally be on his way, ending the most difficult relationship on Tyneside since Alan Shearer partnered Michael Owen up front.
St James' Park, the unique football cathedral in the heart of a post-industrial city, can spread optimism among its devoted flock once more. For decades, they built ships on the Tyne and superstars on the turf.
The shipbuilding stopped years ago. The football was heading the same way. Ashley saw a cash machine. Newcastle saw the soul of their city ebbing away. Only a takeover could save them.
But frying pans and fires leap to mind. The reported cavalry come with more caveats than blots on Saudi Arabia's human rights record.
From the owner of Sports Direct to oligarchs interested in sportswashing, Newcastle supporters are caught in a bind, surely.
A consortium has proposed a takeover deal of about £300 million (S$533.9m). British financier Amanda Staveley has put a group together and her capital firm will take a 10 per cent stake.
The UK-based Reuben brothers will assume a 10 per cent stake through their property empire. The remaining 80 per cent will come from Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund.
Perhaps that last sentence should be read really quickly, under one's breath and maybe even squeezed in between the latest horrific stories on Covid-19, before there's a chance for a cartoonish double take.
Yes, the proud working-class community that loathed a cold, ruthless capitalist may welcome Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia instead.
Among the greatest hits on his Amnesty International report card, the Crown Prince is reportedly the architect of the war in Yemen, which has triggered a famine and humanitarian crisis.
Mass executions of imprisoned civilians are not uncommon either, with the odd body left in the street to really drive home the public message that regime dissidents will not be tolerated, including Jamal Khashoggi.
In 2018, the prominent critic of the Crown Prince walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never walked out again.
The Crown Prince continues to deny any involvement in the murder, but he does oversee his country's Public Investment Fund and would, in effect, become Newcastle's owner should the deal go through.
The EPL's fit-and-proper-person test should make for interesting reading.
Reports of repression, torture and execution rather put Ashley's cheapskate attitude towards blue-collar workers into perspective.
Like Manchester City, there must be a concern that Newcastle will be used as an instrument of foreign policy, a global vehicle to drive through well-spun public relations messages about community engagement and charitable organisations.
Under Ashley, the Magpies had to swallow their pride. Under the new owners, they might be forced to swallow their conscience. Is monetary gain worth a loss of one's morality?
It seems to be. Newcastle fans are already clamouring for a Saudi takeover, excited at the prospect of such a vast cash injection, the same fans that presumably demanded Ashley's removal for not being a Geordie.
Like Ashley, the Saudis are not Newcastle fans either, but are they even football fans? The Crown Prince has made a concerted effort to diversify the economy and improve the oil-rich nation's reputation through huge investments in the entertainment and sporting industries.
The Saudis intend to cynically use a cherished football institution to give their autocratic regime a spring-cleaning. Despite their vast wealth, they actually need the association with Newcastle United Football Club.
The Magpies must decide if they need to be associated with Saudi Arabia.
Every trophy in football comes with a price tag. But this may not be a price worth paying.
Takeover deal for Newcastle United edges closer
A possible takeover of English Premiership club Newcastle United by a group fronted by British financier Amanda Staveley with Saudi Arabian backing appeared to be moving closer to completion on Tuesday.
A 31-page charge agreement filed with Companies House and signed by Staveley for PCP Capital Partners and a lawyer for St James Holdings Ltd indicated a framework for a deal was being put in place.
There was no mention in it, however, of the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) which had been reported as the prospective majority shareholder.
Media reports stated the group will take an 80 per cent shareholding should the deal go through.
British billionaire Mike Ashley, who made his fortune from sportswear retailer Sports Direct, has owned the club since 2007.
Sky Sports television said the asking price was understood to have dropped to around £300 million (S$533.9m) from a previous £340 million, with Ashley willing to structure payments.
The reduction would reflect the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that has halted most sporting events worldwide.
Newcastle are one of three EPL clubs to have placed staff on furlough. The north-east side has been on the market for several years and talks with Staveley's PCP have been going on behind the scenes for some time.
The Magpies had no comment on the reports, with the Newcastle Chronicle reporting that Ashley was currently in Miami. Staveley could not be immediately contacted.
Sky reported that the Saudis would hold 80 per cent of the shares, while Staveley would take 10 per cent and play a key role in running the club. The other 10 per cent would be held by billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben.
Three years ago, PCP made a reported offer of £250 million, but talks broke down.
Last year, Newcastle were said to be close to being bought by Abu Dhabi billionaire Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nehayan, but that deal did not go ahead either. - REUTERS