Mike Ashley is negotiating the £350m sale of Newcastle to Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates but there remains a considerable distance to be covered.
Although Newcastle have privately confirmed talks are continuing, several hurdles must be overcome before any change of ownership takes place.
There are also several caveats. Despite living in Dubai, Sheikh Khaled is a member of the royal family in neighbouring Abu Dhabi and a cousin of the Manchester City owner, Sheikh Mansour.
With the purchase of European clubs by Gulf royals invariably provoked by a desire to exert soft geopolitical power, it has been regarded as unlikely that members of the same ruling family would buy rival clubs.
Sheikh Mansour’s acquisition of City was conducted in utmost secrecy and came as a huge surprise. As a rule of thumb, football takeovers that do happen tend to be conducted in a clandestine manner, so the leaking of Newcastle’s negotiations rings alarm bells.
Any new owner would have to pass the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test. Negotiations are not believed to have reached that stage but on Monday the Premier League repeated Newcastle’s public “no comment” stance.
It was reported last year that Sheikh Khaled was interested in buying Liverpool but that the owners did not consider the offer.
His discussions with Newcastle and the club’s possible switch to Middle Eastern control perhaps explains the apparent impasse over Rafael Benítez’s contract extension. The manager’s deal runs out on 30 June and he has been in negotiations with Ashley and his representatives for the past 10 days.
Sheikh Khaled – the founder of the Bin Zayed Group, a collection of national and international businesses operating in assorted fields including construction and energy – is thought to be keen to retain Benítez. He would hope to be in charge in time to furnish the manager with a sizeable summer transfer budget.
Midhat Kidwai, managing director of the Bin Zayed Group, issued a statement which read: “We can confirm the representatives of his Highness Sheikh Khaled Bin Zayed Al Nahyan are in discussions with Mike Ashley and his team about the proposed acquisition of Newcastle United Football Club.”
Newcastle have been up for sale – overtly or tacitly – for much of Ashley’s 12-year ownership but recently mooted takeovers on the part of first Amanda Staveley and then Peter Kenyon evaporated after entering the due diligence stage.
Ashley has long conceded he cannot afford to fulfil Benítez’s ultimate aim of taking Newcastle into Champions League contention but, despite considerable interest in the club, the billionaire retailer has been surprised by the lack of credible buyers.
Regardless of some enduringly nagging doubts, Sheikh Khaled seems to be being taken much more seriously than most. The 61-year-old is the president of the UAE sailing and rowing federation but the Boston University business studies graduate is said to have always been a fan of English football and to have long harboured ambitions to buy a club.