football

Would a Newcastle takeover still happen if they are relegated?


Newcastle United are one of those unhappy clubs with the knack of finding themselves in the headlines when the stories have nothing to do with them. Or football.

This week, Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom group, filed a criminal complaint in a German court accusing the Saudi regime of “widespread and systematic” repression of the media, a policy that culminated in the death of Khashoggi.

As if Newcastle fans have not got enough to worry about with the threat of relegation looming ever closer.

Mike Ashley, the owner, has issued arbitration proceedings against the Premier League and is still keen to offload the club. PIF will not comment on the matter but the Saudis are understood to remain eager to complete the transaction.

Staveley’s courtroom struggles have no impact on Newcastle. The businesswoman is considering an appeal against the Barclays verdict – which would take the case into its 10th year – but whatever decision she makes will not affect her desire to become involved with the club. Neither would relegation. Sources close to the situation maintain that all parties in the consortium would still be interested even if the team are relegated to the Championship.

Saudi Arabia was involved in a four-year cold war with Qatar. In January steps began to repair the breach between the Arab states. As part of the normalisation of relations between the countries, BeIn broadcasts have begun to be shown in the desert kingdom, despite officially being under ban. If the détente continues, the objections to PIF based on the Saudi treatment of the rights holder are likely to disappear.

The controversy over the killing of Khashoggi is harder to overlook. Amnesty International called on the Premier League to review the owners’ and directors’ test, saying that Saudi Arabia’s participation in the English top flight would be ‘sportswashing’ a nation with an appalling human-rights record. Most Newcastle supporters appear happy to rationalise the involvement of a repressive regime if it makes the club more successful. Put bluntly, many hate Ashley more than the authoritarian monarchy in the Middle East.

Those close to the takeover have always believed that the political wrangling should not affect the sale. The murder of Khashoggi has not caused an interruption of economic relations between Britain and Saudi Arabia and many in football do not see why the game needs to take a stance that is not being held by the government.

The counter-argument is that sport is a community-rooted activity with wider moral and social obligations because of its history. That is unlikely to wash when there are millions at stake. Amnesty’s pleas, and the intervention of Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz, did not change opinions on Tyneside. Even the local Labour MPs castigated Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, for not waving the takeover through. Liz Twist, the member for Blaydon, wrote to Masters saying fans had “every right to be appalled by the lack of transparency” in the league’s approach to the buyout. The lack of transparency in Saudi Arabia was not a concern.

The stories of the last week add to the air of chaos around Newcastle. By the time they play again on Sunday – away to West Bromwich Albion, one of the three clubs below them in the table – they could be just one point away from the drop zone. There are no saviours arriving from the Middle East in the short term. Steve Bruce’s undermanned and injury-hit squad need to rescue themselves.

The takeover could be done very quickly. All the preparation work that takes time before a transaction was completed last year. A price renegotiation would need to take place if the unthinkable happened and Newcastle went down, but the figures are straightforward and that would not take long.

The Premier League would need to give PIF an indication that they were ready to rubber-stamp their involvement. The consortium think that this will be the eventual result but the negative publicity does not help. There is no immediate sign of a change of situation for Newcastle. The only good news they can generate is with a couple of wins on the pitch.



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