Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

Takeover talk has Newcastle fans dreaming of end to Mike Ashley's 'austerity era'

Hope that possible change of ownership can allow the Tyneside club to 'compete' again

Mike Ashley, founder and majority shareholder of sportswear retailer Sports Direct, and the unpopular Newcastle United owner. Reuters.
Mike Ashley, founder and majority shareholder of sportswear retailer Sports Direct, and the unpopular Newcastle United owner. Reuters.

For the jaded supporters of Newcastle United, the sight of Emirati national dress is being seen as a hopeful omen.

“I love him already, he’s been wearing black and white for his whole life,” joked one fan on Tyneside, as images of Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nahyan in his kandura, ghutra and agal were splashed across the British back pages.

Newcastle supporters are desperate to see the back of Mike Ashley, the British sportswear tycoon, who has owned the club for the past 12 years.

Accused of disrespecting club legends and a chronic lack of ambition and investment, Ashley’s reign has been an “austerity tenure”, according to Mark Douglas, Newcastle United editor for the city’s three local newspapers. He said the prospect of a takeover from the Dubai-based Bin Zayed Group has left fans “dreaming”.

News of UAE interest in Newcastle broke in The Sun newspaper in the early hours of Monday. However, it was the statement issued by the Bin Zayed Group that evening, in which it claimed to have agreed terms over the sale, which really sent a city more than 5,000km from its Dubai headquarters into a frenzy.

“There is excitement in Newcastle at the prospect of this takeover which appears - from the outside at least - to be different from the two failed bids by Amanda Staveley and Peter Kenyon,” said Douglas, who has seen a string of supposed bidders come and go since Ashley publicly put Newcastle on the market for a third time in 2017.

“The flurry of hype that followed the Bin Zayed Group statement that they have agreed terms with Newcastle over a takeover was because they are the first group to claim so explicitly that they’ve met Mike Ashley’s valuation.”

While some have claimed a takeover is imminent, Douglas, among others, have urged “a measure of caution”. There is little really known about Sheikh Khaled's intentions, and while the initial report in The Sun claimed a deal had been all but sealed, that now appears highly premature.

It is understood that other bidders remain interested in buying the club, while sceptics point to the Bin Zayed Group’s high-profile but ultimately fruitless bid to purchase Liverpool last year.

When The National sought further details from the conglomerate yesterday, there was a reluctance to comment.

“We don’t yet know anything about this bid and whether proof of funds has been provided yet - which is surely the key behind the takeover being brokered,” Douglas added. “We hope but maybe don’t expect just yet. Until we have more details I think it’ll be a case of wait and see.”

What is certain is that the next few days could well prove pivotal in the history of a 127-year-old club, which was one of England’s most successful up to the mid-1950s but has gone without domestic silverware ever since.

Rafael Benitez, the popular Newcastle manager, at St James' Park. Branding for owner Mike Ashley's sportswear brand, one of the issues that has angered fans, can be seen in the background. Reuters.
Rafael Benitez, the popular Newcastle manager, at St James' Park. Reuters.

The credit for mid-table Premier League finishes in the past two seasons has largely been attributed to Rafael Benitez, the 59-year-old manager who has proved a unifying figure on Tyneside.

As it stands, the Spaniard will leave Newcastle when his contract expires next month. Talks are ongoing over an extension but the manager is understood to want guarantees over transfer policy and budgets which would require major compromises from a notoriously stubborn Ashley.

“The next three days could be three of the most significant in Newcastle United’s history, it’s huge,” said Neil Mitchell, a former chair of Newcastle United Supporters Trust who has lived in the UAE for the past eight years. “That’s not an understatement, and I’ve just given myself goosebumps saying that.

“It’s a club that everybody uses the phrase ‘sleeping giant’ for. We don’t want to be a giant, Game of Thrones style, that will leap in and flatten everyone. We just want to compete. I don’t think we need astronomic investment to do that.

“We’re not getting carried away yet, but if something good does come of this, then we will get carried away.”

Given his previous role with fans’ groups, Mitchell said he had previously acted as an advisor to several parties interested in buying Newcastle. He has taken it as an encouraging sign that he had heard nothing about the Bin Zayed Group interest until news that talks had already taken place emerged this week.

“That delights me, because it means they’re further down the line than some have ever been,” the 47-year-old, who said he had received almost 1,000 Twitter notifications in little more than 24 hours from fans desperate for news, said. “The MD of the company has made a very succinct and straightforward statement. Now, we’ve just got to see how it plays out.

“If it doesn’t happen, I’m aware that other parties are interested, and there is one party in particular who are really annoyed at the minute because they thought they had exclusivity.”

Mike Ashley's tenure at Newcastle United as owner has led to many protests. Reuters
Mike Ashley's tenure at Newcastle United as owner has led to many protests. Reuters

There were suggestions yesterday that even if the Bin Zayed Group takeover is successful, it could be several more weeks before it is finalised. That timeframe could further complicate already fraught negotiations with Benitez over his future.

However, Jonathan Drape-Comyn, an author with long-running Newcastle fanzine The Mag, echoed the claim that this bid “feels different” to previous takeover sagas at Newcastle. The on-the-record statement issued by the Bin Zayed Group, he said, had convinced many supporters that the end of Ashley’s reign is closer than ever.

“We feel like under Ashley, we have lost our identity,” the 23-year-old said. “Our stadium is emblazoned with Sports Direct [Ashley’s sportswear brand] signs, for example. So it is about more than winning or losing football matches, it is about ambition and pride in our club and our city.

“Most fans, and by that I mean 99.9 per cent, do not care who it is who would take over. But it is an added bonus that itappears Sheikh Khaled is a successful businessman with significant resources.

“Everyone wants this so badly. If it does happen, people will probably shed a tear, the bars will be full, people will be taking days off work to celebrate. That is no exaggeration.”

Updated: May 28, 2019 07:44 PM

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