Finally, hopefully, could it be? Is the Newcastle United takeover coming to an end? Are we finally seeing an end to a year long saga, that has taken up most of the Newcastle fanbase’s thoughts through this time. Whether you have been on board with the projected takeover of a consortium made up of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), Amanda Staveley’s PCP Group and the Reuben Brothers, or whether you have been against or been of the belief it was all over last August when the consortium ‘walked away’. The talk of the Toon has been everything surrounding this possible end to the Mike Ashley tenure.
The irony behind this projected change in ownership has been it has allowed the club to communicate more openly with the fanbase, something that hasn’t been done since the Sports Direct owner took over the club from Sir John Hall and Freddie Shepherd. We have seen bullish statements released via the club from the owner, stating a desire to take the Premier league to task over their conduct during the Owners and Directors Test (ODT) which saw the club miss out on investment, and Ashley pocket a tidy sum of £300 million+ for a club, as we are to believe, that he has tried to sell since the day he took over.
It is a takeover that has seen Newcastle fans become self taught aficionado’s of Middle Eastern politics, piracy law, the World Trade Organisation, murder accusations, Sports Law and so much more, none of which have anything to do with football. It has seen journalist’s vilified for their coverage, then come back in from the cold and become the go-to source for anything that may effect the Takeover. We have had to defend ourselves on a national level, MP’s have come to be on first name terms with some, and have taken the fight to the halls of Westminster, and admiration for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) on social media channels. Now you can add Arbitration into the new wealth of knowledge that Newcastle fans will possess after this whole sage is over.
The amount of work put into trying to understand all the complications around this takeover has given many ‘tunnel vision’ and this is the only bid that matters. That is also true of the current owner. Never in his time with his name above the door have we seen the fight to get a deal done, that we would normally see when it comes to acquiring failing hight street brands. For the first time since he hired Kevin Keegan have Newcastle fans and Mike Ashley been on the same page.
I know some of you will be reading this thinking, “well what’s this got to do with the takeover coming to an end?” Well dear reader allow me to get to my point, in a round about way.
This past week saw yet another announcement from the club, and yes you’ve guessed it, it had nothing to do with football. The statement came regarding a recent High Court ruling, in which Mike Ashley’s super group of lawyers, Mr Nick De Marco QC, Ms Shaheed Fatima QC and Mr Tom Richards (From Ashley’s firm Denton’s) appear to have ‘lost’ a request to get projected chair of any arbitration panel removed, under the guise of bias, as well as getting the whole proceedings released for public viewing without any redactions of anonymity.
The arbitration panel as it stands consists of Lord Dyson, picked by the Premier League, Lord Neuberger, picked by the club and Mr Michael Beloff QC, appointed by Lord Dyson and Lord Neuberger as chair to the panel. The ‘complaint’ comes as Beloff QC has worked on behalf of the Premier League in the past, and has had a say in the current format the ODT takes. This request to remove Mr Beloff QC from the position of chair was rejected by the judge. Now this may seem like a loss, but it now puts attention on the position of chair and how the arbitration proceedings are conducted. It seems less a loss, and more a power move by Ashley’s crack team.
The second point will definitely feel like a loss, but by the Premier League. Ashley’s team were successful in getting most of the proceeding made public, allowing the club to release the statement last week. It also meant that the Premier League didn’t get their way, and have everything behind closed doors. Part of the details being made public allowed some of the evidence to made public. Specifically a letter sent from the League to Newcastle in June, stating it was their belief that KSA would be a director in the club. The Leagues stance is that because PIF are controlled by KSA, the state effectively would become a director, and would hold some control over the club. This is the sole reason of dispute it seems, not piracy or human rights.
However as stated in the proceedings:
“PIF expressly recognises that it will fall within the definition of “Director” under [PLL’s] Rules, even though it would not be formally appointed as a director of [NUFC]. [PLL] agrees. Having taken external legal advice, [PLL] is also provisionally minded to conclude that KSA would become a Director under the Rules as well.”
It could be argued that if PIF were willing to be named as a ‘Director’, anyone associated with the PIF board would come under the same rules of the ODT. This would therefore include Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi, and Majid Al Quasabi the media minister for KSA. It is probably not far a jump to make the assumption, that this external legal advice to the Premier League to include KSA as a Director, could then bring piracy into play.
However it would all come down to control, and the League ‘assuming’ KSA would have a say in club business:
The definition of “Control” in [Section A] includes either effective management control or beneficial ownership, or both. In particular, the relevant parts of the definition describe “Control” as “the power of a Person to exercise … direct or indirect control over the policies, affairs and/or management of a Club … and, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, Control shall be deemed to include: (a) the power (whether directly or indirectly … ) to appoint and/or remove all or such of the members of the board of directors of the Club as are able to cast a majority of the votes capable of being cast by the members of that board; and/or (b) the holding and/or possession of the beneficial interest in, and/or the ability to exercise the voting rights applicable to, Shares in the Club (whether directly, [or] indirectly …) which confer in aggregate on the holder(s) thereof 30 per cent or more of the total voting rights exercisable at general meetings of the Club”
I am by no means a legal expert, but I would assume that if PIF as a body were willing to be named as director and not just Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Bander Mogren, who were named on companies house, anyone named on the PIF board by proxy would have a say in club business. But as we have seen through continuous research and readings, that PIF were not mentioned in the WTO report around piracy. Meaning, in my view at least, that government ministers on the board of PIF can not be held accountable for piracy in the leagues eye’s unless the state was named as a director.
The ruling sets out that this separation between KSA and PIF is the sole focus of the arbitration proceedings. Essentially taking any other ‘issue’ the league may have to be ruled out. A separation that in legal terms should be easy to argue, and something that can be clearly defined to the League by both Ashley’s lawyers and the arbitration panel.
This perceived loss, brings about a question raised in Wednesday’s Chronicle. Stating that any appeal against this decision could delay the arbitration proceedings, and therefore delay any decision on a takeover. While the Chronicle are not wrong. It is my belief that no appeal will be raised until after the panel have heard the arguments from both sides. The question of bias has been raised and has been made public. Putting all attention from fans and the media firmly on Mr Beloff QC. With parts of the hearing being made public, we have been able to see a letter sent by the league to the club, which essentially contradicts most of what Richard Masters put in letters to fan groups and MP’s last summer. It also allows everyone to know what the main argument is, the fact the whole body of PIF were willing to be tested as a director, but the Premier league still wanted KSA named.
I believe, and I could be wrong, that the start of arbitration is the next step. With the panel set, just a date is to be confirmed. The length of time this takes is anyone’s guess, chances are we won’t see a final decision before the season ends, which is only really 8-10 weeks away. What is certain, is that this is a move to get the takeover pushed through, and not just compensation for Mike Ashley. I feel if it was just compensation then he would have just instructed Denton’s and not hired ‘The Messi of Sports law” in Nick De Marco, and an expert in Middle Eastern affairs and Human Rights in Shaheed Fatima QC.
The only question that will be raised from fans and media in the meantime, and this is when I bring it back to football, which league body will be doing a second ODT. Will it be a case of the EFL conducting their own ODT, or will the Premier League be able to continue theirs, that is entirely down to Steve Bruce and events on the field. But thats a discussion for another time.
What we can resolutely say is that this is the hardest Mike Ashley has fought for any Takeover. Whether this is him proving that he isn’t the ‘pantomime villain’ and is sticking to his word of only selling to someone who can take the club forward. Or whether citizens of the KSA will start seeing Sports Direct and Flannels stores pop in Riyadh, and Mike is pushing the deal to meet his own ends, we can only speculate. One thing is for certain, if this comes of it will be game changing for the club and the city, and it certainly seems like we are coming to an end of a sage that has gone hand-in-hand with lockdowns.