As the intriguing battle over ownership of the English Premier League club Newcastle United enters a crucial phase, supporters are hoping for massive investment to re-awaken one of football’s sleeping giants – and boost their region’s economy.
The present owner, Mike Ashley, a retail billionaire deeply unpopular among fans, has been considering a deal with the Dubai-based British financier Amanda Staveley, who includes Gulf and Chinese interests as potential investors in the deal.
Mr Ashley wants a sale by Christmas but rejected an initial bid of £350 million, in instalments over three years, because it contained clauses linked to the possibility of the club’s relegation and the outcome of a tax investigation that would have affected the valuation of the club. A second offer, a one-time payment of under £300 million, has been made by PCP Capital Partners and negotiations are delicately poised.
But a positive conclusion cannot come soon enough for fans who support the club in huge numbers but have known little success in recent times.
Newcastle lie in mid-table in the Premier League but recent results have been poor. Another big home crowd – more than 52,000 – turned out on Saturday only to witness a dismal 3-0 defeat to Watford and the club could only draw at West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday night, , ahead of a tough visit to the champions Chelsea tomorrow.
Football passions run high in the north-east of England. The rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland, 20 kilometres apart, ranges from good-natured banter to downright hatred and is arguably Britain’s most intense after the Celtic-Rangers divide in Scotland.
But neither club has won a major trophy in decades. Unless form improves, Newcastle, who were last English champions in 1927, risk joining Sunderland in the second tier, where the region's third big club, Middlesbrough are in seventh position but struggling to justify pre-season optimism. Losing top-flight status has a devastating effect on clubs' income, including from television rights.
If football is hardly booming, the north east is also accustomed to economic gloom which some observers feel may worsen with Brexit, which was backed overwhelmingly by almost all areas in the region, the irony being that Newcastle voted to remain. Business leaders have expressed concern about the potential impact of leaving the European Union given the important of exports and Nissan has a plant in Sunderland which could be affected. Yet no one doubts the likely benefits of at least one of the clubs again becoming a power in the sport.
“Having a successful team would be fantastic for the city,” Chi Onwurah, the Labour opposition’s member of parliament for Newcastle Central, told The National. “The city feels up when the club is doing well. There is an undeniable link between football success and economic prosperity.”
By common consent, Mr Ashley is not the man to deliver. He angered supporters by temporarily renaming the historic St James’ Park stadium after his Sports Direct group and making a controversial payday loans firm, Wonga, Newcastle’s main commercial sponsors.
For Ms Onwurah, whose parents were a Nigerian dentist and a Tyneside shipyard worker’s daughter, almost any new owner would be preferable to one “rightly or wrong distrusted and disliked by a vast majority of fans”.
Analyst are divided on whether a deal with Ms Staveley’s firm, PCP Capital Partners, will go through. There have been reports of a rival bid.
But Ms Staveley, 44, who modelled to help make ends meet as a student and once dated Prince Andrew, second son of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, is a well-connected businesswoman who played a role in the purchase of Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) in 2008.
“We seem to be in the eye of the storm of the process,” said Neil Mitchell, Dubai-based but a lifelong member of the Toon Army, as Newcastle supporters are known. ”We know a bid has been placed … we are told it is at the take it or leave it stage.“
Dr Mitchell, who was previously involved in a fans’ takeover attempt, added: “This is effectively now a high stakes poker hand. Who will blink first?”
Ms Staveley knows Newcastle’s Spanish manager Rafa Benitez from when he was in charge of Liverpool, the club she supports. She is believed to share his assessment that money must be spent on top players if Newcastle are to compete for a place in the lucrative Champions League; he has complained of being unable to match even such smaller clubs as Burnley and Huddersfield in the transfer market.
Only the most optimistic of supporters would expect a transformation of their club’s fortunes on the scale of Manchester City, comfortably leaders of the Premier League. But they are aware of the difference Abu Dhabi investment made in the northwestern city.
“From the outset of our relationship, [ADUG] has made commitments not only to develop a successful business but also to invest in the regeneration of the city,” said Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester’s city council. He cited an “exemplary” partnership with significant investment in community facilities, housing and the Etihad Campus area surrounding the stadium.
One northeastern business leader, John Hays, managing director of Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent, and formerly vice chairman of Sunderland football club, said anecdotal evidence suggested workers’ productivity levels rose and fell according to how well their team was playing.
“Football clubs are not huge businesses if you look at their size, turnover and employee numbers,” he said. “It is the feel-good factor that makes the difference. If Rafa has money to spend and leads the club towards the top of the league and into the Champions League, there would undoubtedly be a boost to the local economy.”
Mr Hays’s wife, Irene Lucas, is chief executive of Sunderland city council. “There are so many good things happening here,” he said. “The glaring exception is the football club and its poor results reflect on perceptions of the city.”
Dr Mitchell, medical director of the Dubai Dentist clinic, agrees. He says the status of Newcastle United is often the “barometer of the mood in the town” and that a good takeover deal would inevitably lift spirits.
”A transformation on the scale of Manchester City? Well we wouldn't expect that,” he added. “I think there is a lot of lazy misconception about what Newcastle United supporters ‘want’ or ‘demand’.”
But 10 “difficult years” under Mr Ashley, including two of only five relegations in the club’s history, had created an uneasy relationship with supporters and an “understaffed and underfunded ghost ship of a football club”, he said. “We just want a team that gives its best and represents us the way we would if we were lucky enough to wear the famous black and white stripes.”
Talk of Newcastle United being at the hub of a “Geordie Nation” as “everyone’s second favourite team”, originating in the 1990s when they challenged for the Premier League title, has become a source of more embarrassment than pride in leaner times.
But for Bill Corcoran, a prominent figure in supporters’ groups, the takeover must take account of a factor more important than football success.
“Whether new owners are backed by money from the Gulf, India, China or anywhere else, it is vital they retain the soul of Newcastle United and the community of all races and all religions that it’s part of.”