PIF's Inter Milan interest, Newcastle United takeover arbitration & Mike Ashley's big Premier League relegation decision – Q&A with Liam Kennedy

The threat of relegation may well be staring Newcastle United firmly in the face but takeover talk continues to dominate the mindset of owner Mike Ashley.

Wednesday, 10th March 2021, 4:45 pm

While all burns around him on Tyneside, the Sports Direct tycoon continues to drive ahead with the hope of first pushing ahead with the sale of the football club to the PCP Consortium, then likely following with a huge compensation of losses claim. He won’t be the only one, no matter the outcomes.

Fresh claims of serious Inter Milan interest from majority shareholder-in-waiting PIF have emerged to add yet more doubt and intrigue to an already more than complex situation.

So where do we stand on the takeover front, and what of the immediate future of Newcastle United Premier League status and Steve Bruce’s future? Our writer Liam Kennedy tackles the key questions.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in a virtual session in the capital Riyadh, on January 28, 2021. - Salman said today that the kingdom will sell more shares of energy giant Aramco in the coming years, following the world's biggest public listing in 2019. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP) (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in a virtual session in the capital Riyadh, on January 28, 2021. - Salman said today that the kingdom will sell more shares of energy giant Aramco in the coming years, following the world's biggest public listing in 2019. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP) (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Is PIF interest in Inter Milan genuine – and what would that mean for any NUFC deal?

Reports from the Italian media seem to suggest it is. In what form that potential investment could come is not known, with a full buyout, a percentage purchase and loan facility all being suggested in the last seven days.

What should come as no shock to fans is that PIF are looking for investments. It’s what they do.

If they think they can buy a business, or part of it, which they think represents potential value down the line for KSA, then they will do it.

However – and it is a big however at that – I’ve not heard any information to suggest they do not retain an interest in Newcastle.

As mentioned previously, they have given guarantees to PCP Capital Partners, who constructed and are heading up the bid, they will return when a path to purchase is cleared. Until that point they will remain a silent partner in this courtroom battle.

There are also other confidential financial guarantees that have been made, and remain, between the three parts of the consortium.

For now, that evidence suggests they aren’t going anywhere. But I’d suggest also that PIF won’t wait forever. I think PCP and the Reubens would remain committed to the deal, even if PIF do not. They would, however, have to seek out another majority investor.

Was last week’s arbitration announcement a good or a bad thing for the deal?

For me, this was a case of taking two punches, one you knew was coming, to land a shot of your own, the one you really wanted. It’s all a legal game of chess.

It’s understood revealing detail of the case in the public domain was always the hope of the legal heads in this process.

The fears of a slanted panel have always been there. But with names and detail out in the public domain the feeling is that brings accountability to a hearing that would previously have been held behind-closed-doors.

It still will be, of course, and I don’t think the NUFC legals ever thought they’d get the hearing turned into a public one. I think they did want a chair change, though.

But now names are out, and faces put to them, it adds pressure. Pressure to be whiter than white in their decision-making, which is something the club claim the Premier League have not. I want to throw a disclaimer in here mind, I’d imagine top QCs, including the hearing chair United attempted to remove, would have been neutral and unbiased anyway.

Detail of the arbitration and the ‘prelim rejection’ letter, exchanged between the Premier League and Newcastle United, now being in the public domain, due to the win in getting the High Court judgement released, has also drilled down on possible rejection reasoning.

It was deemed by the judge the only issue, paraphrasing here, raised by the PL was they thought the KSA state should be named as a director. The club refuted that.

This is the battleground the arbitration will be fought on. Not on piracy, human rights, allegations of MBS-sanctioned assassination squads, top six fears.

On whether KSA should be a director or not, and whether they can exert control over NUFC through their links to PIF, as per the strict wording of the PL handbook.

That info going public shuts off a lot of potential fail arguments – and I am sure this was something the club were keen to achieve.

Does relegation kill the deal – or will hopes live on?

PCP Capital Partners still want to buy Newcastle, even if the club drop out of the division. The whole thing becomes a lot more complicated, of course, but they want to see this one out.

The Reubens, too, are on that boat.

PIF is up for debate, but it has not been ruled out that they would press ahead with a deal, even though, to me, it goes against one of their key aims for buying the club. They want to be part of ‘Brand Premier League’, for obvious reasons.

The elephant in the room on this one is Ashley.

Would he accept a Championship price for Newcastle United? I'd have to say it’s unlikely.

Why would he drop at least £100m off his asking price when, like seasons before, he can interest free loan £30m (ish) for a season to see if the club bounce straight back? The logic is flawed, but all of Ashley’s Newcastle ones are.

If United did get back to the PL in a season he’d be back valuing the club over £300m. He’s held on for nearly 14 years, what’s another 12 months?

The only major question mark with my theory, and this is a theory by the way, is why would he spend north of £5m, which is a fair estimate of costs to date, on QCs to fight, and keep fighting, when United are teetering on the brink of the bottom three?

Do you believe Newcastle United will be relegated?

Friday night will be the biggest indicator at the direction United are heading.

They could not ask for a better platform, all things, including injury adversity, considered.

They play a mid-table team, at home, who’ve won once in five and get to strike first, ahead of their relegation rivals, who play later in the weekend.

This is a massive opportunity. Don’t take it and I’d think it looks like they’re accelerating towards the second tier. Win and it lays down a marker to other drop battlers. Draw and it’s a nervous wait again.

Whatever happens, United’s run of two wins in 18 is relegation form. They need to arrest the decline – and fast.

Is Steve Bruce safe in his job or is he close to the chop?

For now, he’s safe.

That won’t make sense to a lot of people reading this but what does make sense about Ashley, Justin Barnes and Lee Charnley’s decision-making on Tyneside?Lose on Friday and drop into the bottom three and it could sharpen minds among the aforementioned trio but I wouldn’t bank on it.

Some say it is too late to change – it isn’t.

Every game is winnable between now and the end of the season, not just a select few. Fulham have proven that at Liverpool.

But mindsets have to change. And so too, probably, does the manager.

A message from the Football Clubs Editor

Our aim is to provide you with the best, most up-to-date and most informative Newcastle United coverage 365 days a year.

This depth of coverage costs, so to help us maintain the high-quality reporting that you are used to, please consider taking out a subscription; sign up here.

Your support is much appreciated. Richard Mennear, Football Clubs Editor