Experimental feature

Listen to this article



Experimental feature


It is a headline-writer’s dream: a former girlfriend of Prince Andrew is bidding for an underdog Premier League football club owned by one of the UK’s most vilified tycoons.

Whether Amanda Staveley’s attempt to take over Newcastle United Football Club will fulfil fans’ hopes of a sale by Christmas — or even by the close of the transfer window in late January — is looking less certain.

The former model-turned-financier has tabled two bids for the club. The most recent, 10 days ago, was around £250m; below the £300m-£400m sought by Mike Ashley, the club’s billionaire owner and founder of UK retailer, Sports Direct.

PCP Capital, the firm founded by Ms Staveley that made the bid, still lacks exclusivity in the auction Mr Ashley announced on Sky Sports last month. But no other bids have been forthcoming.

If successful, PCP’s deal would be the latest in a series of recent takeovers at the top of English football, after acquisitions of Southampton, West Bromwich Albion, Everton and Swansea City. Each of these has valued Premier League clubs in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Investors have been drawn by a £5.1bn domestic broadcasting deal the 20 top flight clubs have with Sky and BT that came into effect last season, as well as £3bn from overseas television contracts.

“The obvious reason [for these deals] is the growth in broadcast,” says Ben Marlow, an executive at 21st Club, a football consultancy. “The last [domestic broadcasting deal] was a watershed moment, because it made football in Premier League profitable, when previously it was a mug’s game.”

The Premier League is set to tender for the next set of UK broadcasting rights this year, with values expected to rise again.

Ms Staveley is best known for two deals, both involving Abu Dhabi royalty: she brokered the £210m sale of Manchester City Football Club to sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008. Just three months later, she arranged his £3.5bn investment in Barclays in an emergency cash call that kept the bank out of UK government control during the financial crisis.

NUFC is attractive because it has a staunch fan base, a large and well maintained stadium — building a new one can cost around £500m — and geographically, little competition from rivals.

The takeover talks bring Ms Staveley head-to-head with Mr Ashley, who has become deeply unpopular with NUFC fans during his decade-long ownership of the club.

Both hail from Yorkshire, are deemed “outsiders” by the City and have faced questions over their business styles.

Neither is afraid of a fight — with both making courtroom appearances over the past year.

Ms Staveley filed a lawsuit against Barclays for $1bn last year, alleging deceit in the 2008 cash call by offering other Qatari investors secret side-deals.

The bank denies her claim, and her civil lawsuit is now frozen until after the conclusion of a 2019 criminal trial that treads on similar ground. She is appealing against the decision to stay her civil trial.

“She is clearly a fiercely intelligent, charming woman,” concedes one City grandee. “She undoubtedly made a lot of money for herself and for Abu Dhabi from Barclays.”

Meanwhile Mr Ashley’s hard-charging style was laid bare by a £14m lawsuit filed by a former Merrill Lynch banker who worked on Sports Direct’s flotation. Mr Ashley was described as a “power-drinking, moneymaking machine” who vomited into a fireplace. He won the court battle.

NUFC has not been the sole club in Ms Staveley’s sights this year. She walked away from talks — backed by Chinese investors — for the far larger Liverpool Football Club once the price tag reached £1.5bn. LFC has always denied it was for sale.

Ms Staveley is an LFC supporter, and it is through the club that she first met Rafa Benitez, now the NUFC manager. She was involved in an unsuccessful attempt by Dubai to buy Liverpool in 2008.

Questions remain over her latest approach for NUFC, not least around the identity of investors in the PCP fund bidding for the club. While Ms Staveley has lined up investors from Dubai and Saudi Arabia, those with knowledge of the situation say much will depend on the structure of a successful bid. PCP could finance a smaller sum, or a deal via instalments, with no outside investors.

Mr Ashley’s allies, meanwhile, have expressed frustration that publication of selective details of Ms Staveley’s offer, which they regard as untenably low and riddled with conditionality, could raise unrealistic hopes among fans.

Both PCP and NUFC declined to comment.

People familiar with Ms Staveley’s offer suggest that PCP’s valuation of Newcastle takes into account an unresolved tax investigation, as well as the threat of relegation. This would bring a dramatic fall of revenues without access to the league’s broadcasting income.

Newcastle has been performing well on the pitch this season, but has twice been relegated from the Premier League during Mr Ashley’s tenure.

Mr Ashley’s financial ambitions are unlikely to be satisfied by a proposal that could see the price slashed unless Newcastle’s recent streak of decent performance continues.

Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Abu Dhabi

Staveley becomes Newcastle’s Christmas wish

A photograph of Amanda Staveley’s smiling face beams from the foot of an artificial Christmas tree surrounded by Newcastle United merchandise in a city centre memorabilia shop.

“All we want for Christmas is . . . you,” says a sign beside the image. “Howay Santa we’ve been deed good this year”, chirps another notice, in the local Geordie vernacular.

Newcastle United has not won a domestic trophy since 1955. The team last topped the football league in 1927. Its most consistent run of top-flight success was in Edwardian times.

Staveley wanted: a Christmas display in a shop selling Newcastle FC memorabilia in the north-east city

But still fervour for the club nicknamed the Toon pulses through local veins. Shop manager Dave Thorpe talks of one female customer’s determination to get her baby grandson into a black and white babygro — Newcastle’s team colours — before the boy’s mother, a Huddersfield supporter, leads the child astray. “It’s born into people,” he explains. “It’s just a way of life.”

This season, Newcastle, currently 11th in the Premiership, has 40,000 season ticket holders. Saturday’s home game against Watford is a sellout at the 52,354 seat ground.

Newcastle, unlike Liverpool or Manchester, has just one big football club, based at its city centre St James’ Park ground since 1892.

While the club’s manager Rafa Benitez is adored on Tyneside, the club’s owner Mike Ashley is deeply unpopular among most fans. A recent article in online fanzine True Faith says his legacy is that of a “vulture capitalist” who approached a great football club as nothing more than “a teat to milk dry”.

If Mr Ashley is the pantomime villain, Ms Staveley is the fairy godmother. Supporter Bill Corcoran, organiser of the NUFC Fans United group, says: “We’re hoping for the jackpot, for Amanda to turn up and say, ‘it’s OK everybody, I’ve bought the club’.”

Chris Tighe in Newcastle

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.