Mike Ashley is understood to be ready to tell potential Newcastle United suitors that any nine-figure offer for the club this summer should “start with a four”.
When the news filtered out through Ashley’s preferred publicity channel Sky Sports that he would not countenance a sale on the cheap this close season, it felt significant – just as it did when the same channel put out a bulletin 12 months ago claiming that the owner was ready to sell up.
It was the first shot in what will almost certainly be renewed takeover hostilities this close season and the first sign of Ashley’s bullishness after a campaign where he may feel that his approach has been vindicated.
The Newcastle owner had said back in the early winter of 2017 that he would be prepared to structure a deal to help any buying partner. He had also said he would step aside if he felt there was someone who could take United to the next level – something he freely admits he is unable and unwilling to do.
But Monday’s bulletin – understood to have come directly from the Ashley camp – blows aside that conceit. With Premier League football assured for another year at St James’ Park and at least three more years of decent TV revenue to come after Sky and BT’s agreement with the Premier League, Ashley no longer appears to be quite the motivated seller that he was painted as in October.
According to those familiar with the selling side, Ashley has always sought to create the conditions for an auction for Newcastle. He wanted rival parties bidding for the club but his initial valuation and the uncertainty surrounding Newcastle’s divisional status, the upcoming TV deal and Rafa Benitez meant that only one party made any significant overtures.
Now that two of those factors have been removed, Ashley is willing to name a price – £400million – that would be a minimum to get him to sell up and finally walk away from a club that is being held back by his reductive vision of what it can achieve.
No doubt he reasons that there will be people or groups out there considering a bid who have yet to emerge. The Premier League’s global appeal means he has long hoped for interest from the Middle East to emerge in Newcastle – a not entirely unrealistic prospect.
But at £400million, the chances of him finding a buyer are slim. For a start, United have been on the market at a price below that for over a year with no takers and very little realistic interest. Indeed the last two clubs to be sold in the Premier League were West Brom – for £175million – and Southampton, who transferred an 80% stake for £210million a couple of years ago.
Let that sink in for a minute. Ashley is asking for more than double the amount that Saints, with their productive Academy and – until recently – track record of Premier League football, went for. While there is clearly huge potential at Newcastle, the infrastructure at United will require significant investment that was perhaps not required on the South Coast. An Academy and training ground that aren’t fit for purpose require a total overhaul that will not be cheap.
Perhaps PCP Capital Partners, who insist their interest is ongoing, will be prepared to pay a premium for the club. But there was little sign during a tortuously drawn-out winter that they would pay above what their extensive due diligence suggested was the club’s true worth.
So it leaves us wondering whether there really is a takeover story to write this summer. For while Ashley insists he still wants to sell and Amanda Staveley’s group that they want to buy, nothing has happened recently to suggest we’re close to a change of ownership. Instead it feels like the takeover would be a convenient distraction from the big issues the club need to solve: getting Benitez to commit to the long-term and funding a desperately required squad upgrade this summer.
To many, the takeover saga of last summer was an easy excuse for the way the club acted in the close season. With uncertainty over ownership, Ashley clearly didn’t want to commit the club’s capital to financing a squad overhaul so Benitez got “every penny” that the club generated – which wasn’t much.
This summer the same obfuscation cannot be allowed. We should proceed on the basis that Ashley is the owner, that his people – Lee Charnley, Keith Bishop and Justin Barnes – are the ones on the ground that Benitez is dealing with. Talk of possible takeover-funded warchests are not helpful; they allow Ashley to wriggle away from the responsibility of moving the club forward.
What we need now is some dynamism from the club’s power brokers. Quick movement on answering Benitez’s concerns about budget and the club’s desire to compete is needed – a summit between owner and manager should be arranged long before the final game of the season.
And then the club can move on to making concrete preparations for pre-season, with a swift announcement on where they will be in the close season preferable. Marry that to quick progress on recruitment – in and out – and we might just have the sort of perfect summer than will make takeover talk and worries about Benitez’s future irrelevant.
Remember Newcastle have a reduced window to make changes this summer, with the transfer deadline brought forward and a World Cup looming in Russia. Time is of the essence and takeover talk – if that is all it is – is unwelcome.