At least two Premier League clubs were implacably opposed to the failed Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle United. The top ten remain “dead against” the deal. They see the potential influence of the Saudi Arabian government as a dangerous development in English football and any influx of oil money as a potential threat to the integrity of competition.
On Monday night hopes rose on Tyneside that the stalled buyout could be resuscitated. The consortium comprised of the desert Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers withdrew their £300million offer for St James’ Park on Thursday but a statement by Arena Racing, which is owned by the Reubens, appeared to hint at reviving the bid.
Martin Cruddace, the CEO of the company that owns Gosforth Park and Newcastle racecourse, said: “We would welcome any resurrection of talks and progress with the Premier League and are aware that the Reuben brothers remain totally supportive of the deal should there be a way forward.”
The Staveley-led group submitted paperwork for the Premier League’s owners and directors test in April but had still not received an answer last week, which caused the buyout to fall apart. The communique that appeared to end PIF’s interest in the club cited concerns about the economy and the impact of Covid-19 but sources close to the deal accept that the reason the buyout stalled was the problems between the Saudis and Qatar-based beIn Sport, the Premier League’s rights holder in the Gulf.
BeIn has had its broadcasts hijacked by Riyadh-based pirates and last month the Qatari company was refused a licence to operate in Saudi Arabia. The two countries are involved in a cold war and the Saudis are leading a group of nations in a boycott of their neighbour.
BeIn has leant heavily on the Premier League to reject the possibility of an arm of the Saudi government owning a club in the division. The consortium are furious about what they see as the ruling body’s delaying tactics and its refusal to reach a verdict over the fit and proper test. They believe that the Premier League prevaricated until the point where it became untenable for the sale to proceed. That anger has been reflected on Tyneside and a petition calling for an independent investigation into the process has been signed by more than 60,000 people.
The objections go beyond the Premier League, though. Two influential clubs, understood to be Liverpool and Tottenham, are keen to keep PIF out of the English game. There is disquiet about a state-owned entity running a top-flight team.
Those involved in the attempt to buy Newcastle shoot down such notions, claiming that there are clear delineations of authority. Staveley – who, along with the Reubens expected to take a 10 per cent share of the ownership with 80 per cent going to the Saudi fund – was planning to be the face of the club and the person responsible for day-to-day operations. PIF, they say, is an autonomous business that would have assumed a hands-off role at St James’ Park and the Saudi regime would have had no influence on how the team operated.
They also refute the idea that Newcastle would have been the beneficiary of a Manchester City-style spending spree. PIF’s involvement in the Premier League was intended to be part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan of diversifying the kingdom’s financial interests. The fund has spent more than £6billion on overseas investment since the pandemic began.
What looked like a clear break in relations last week has begun to take on a different appearance. Arena Racing’s intervention comes after Lee Charnley, Newcastle’s managing director, said that Mike Ashley was “100 per cent committed to the deal.” Ashley is generally despised on Tyneside but he is very eager to sell the club and, for once, owner and supporters want the same thing. It seems increasingly clear that Staveley, the Reubens and PIF have not gone away. They are taking a different approach to pressurising the Premier League.
Such a strategy has dangerous implications. The concerns at league headquarters in west London present a difficult hurdle but the resistance from individual – and influential – clubs to a Saudi presence complicates matters again.
The Newcastle saga looks set to run on for some time. There is only one thing all sides can agree on: this is not a fit and proper situation for any club.