The day many fans have waited for.
A statement tonight, from MASH Holdings, the solely owned company of Mike Ashely that controls Newcastle United, that the club is for sale.
This was immediately followed by a Sky Sports interview from lawyer Andrew Henderson who confirmed the news and that Mike Ashely was looking for any interested parties to come forward.
The combination of statements, later confirmed on the official club website, confirmed that Mike Ashley would even entertain staged payments to ensure he could get the offer he wanted - sorry - 'to ensure the new owners could invest appropriately in the club'.
So is this the latest in the PR merry-go-round that has seen our Billionaire owner say he 'wouldn’t sell until we’d won something', or he 'is ready to sell', or he was 'here for the long term', depending on what day you catch him on!?
Reports had recently suggested that Mr Ashely had lowered his asking price from £420m to £380m for the club he bought for £134m ten years ago. There is still the matter of the £120m+ interest free loan that sits on the clubs books which you’d assume was part of the asking price.
Then there was the intriguing sighting of Amanda Stavele at the recent home match against Liverpool, with her objective of owning a Premier League seemingly common knowledge. Then the subsequent stories that she was looking at Liverpool also, amongst other clubs.
For those who watch such things closely, the appointment of Andrew Henderson to the clubs Executive team a few months back was a clear signal that this time Mike Ashley’s rumoured appetite to sell the club was more than some of the sabre rattling we’d seen from him in the past. It was a clear sign of serious intent.
What is not yet clear is the reason for the statement now in particular.
For us it has to be one of two things. Either talks with any parties to this point have proved fruitless and Mike Ashley is trying to stoke up new interest. Or, talks have been progressing well and prospective buyers are now putting the squeeze on Mr Ashley with this being an obvious tactic to introduce more competition and therefore potentially try and push up the price. Let’s hope its the latter and things are close.
Mr Henderson interestingly used the words ‘…for a diligence period to carry on…’ in his interview with Sky. For a man who was obviously feeling the heat of being on Sky Sports cameras this seemed an honest statement which adds weight to the argument that talks have indeed begun with serious suitors. His comments that all concerned on Mike Ashley’s side wanted a deal completed by Christmas could also indicate that some progress has already been made. How realistic this is would be another matter, although with the accounts clearly laid out such a deal is indeed conceivable if someone had the funds and desire to complete the other side of a the deal.
So why now.
Some clues perhaps in the accounts of MASH holdings. The consolidation of all things NUFC has been ongoing for some time now. Monies transferred, accounts shifted, companies closed and assets moved. All meaning that the books are now much cleaner than some couple of years ago. We found at least one company, owned by Mike Ashley after his purchase of NUFC, that was closed with an ‘interesting’ set of accounts in terms of where the cash had gone (through loans and closing balance). Nothing unjustifiable, just not very transparent. The money belonged to Mr Ashley so he can do what he wants with it after all.
Then there is the statement in the last MASH Holdings accounts that shows Mr Ashley used the company to facilitate a £50m overdraft facility. This appears to be a personal overdraft not one for the company given the wording in the accounts. Judge for yourself…
With his major asset, Sports Direct, hitting harder times recently perhaps Mike Ashely is looking to free up capital for his next project, whatever that might be!
Another clue that Mike Ashley was clearing the decks was his payment of almost £1/4m debt owed to the club for hospitality he and his family used during NUFC games. This was settled after the last accounting period but commentary was provided in the accounts a month ago.
The path has been cleared.
Commentary coming from NUFC tonight says that Mr Ashley will continue to invest in the club in January should a sale not be agreed. However if this is in line with his recent record, most notably in the last summer transfer window, then we all need to hope that a new owner get’s the job done quickly and January is the first opportunity for those then in control to make a statement.
This in itself will be interesting.
Think back to the sale of Manchester City. The sale was rushed through to allow the purchase of Robinho back in 2008. Whilst we are not suggesting for one moment that we will end up with ownership in that league, the type of owners who are serious about developing a club would want that opportunity to invest as soon as possible. They would move quickly now.
A more prudent new owner would likely see a February takeover as ideal, allowing them time to assess the club in more detail and plan accordingly.
Whatever happens, this time it looks like a change will happen at the very top of NUFC. Only time will tell if in the long run we will look back and wish for the days our current cockney madman was still in charge, or whether this sale was the start of something beautiful. With the long term future of Rafa being top priority for whomever it happens to be.
Oh, and the thought of those Sports Direct signs coming down...lovely!