Newcastle's takeover died over failure to answer one easy question

MARTIN SAMUEL: Ali al-Faraj’s reign at Portsmouth left the Premier League with scars over transparency of ownership… it was the Saudi-consortium’s failure to answer one easy question that saw their £300m Newcastle deal die

  • Newcastle’s takeover failed because it wasn’t clear who would be in charge
  • Ali al-Faraj’ stint at Portsmouth made the Premier League more stringent
  • Richard Masters is taking the heat, but it collapsed due to lack of transparency

Ali al-Faraj scuppered the deal to buy Newcastle. Well, not him personally. Maybe not him at all. That’s the point. Nobody quite knew. Al-Faraj, a Saudi Arabian, owned Portsmouth for roughly four months between October 2009 and February 2010, or maybe he didn’t. Either way, the Premier League determined: never again.

Not never again for Saudi Arabians. Never again without transparency.

The Premier League struggled to get to the bottom of Portsmouth’s ownership structure, as the club slipped further towards financial collapse. That is why the owners and directors test became more stringent. 

Newcastle’s Saudi Arabia bid collapsed as it was unclear who would be the actual owner

It is not, as some seem to think, an assessment of whether Amnesty International think you are a nice bloke. It is whether you have the money, short-term, to run a football club — no governing body can seek to guarantee long-term fiscal buoyancy — and whether the listed owners are personally accountable.

Portsmouth left scars that haven’t quite healed. Every time the Premier League are accused of poor governance, Portsmouth is the club that is cited.

And the Newcastle takeover did not stall because the Premier League thought the buyers were scoundrels. It was satisfied about the money. It had no issues with personnel. But there were compliance issues that raked up some old ground.

Who, exactly, is in charge of this football club? Can you put it down on this piece of paper? Are we satisfied with this answer?

Potential reputational damage, broadcast piracy, these subjects were swirling in the background and no doubt became part of a wider discussion, too. Yet the bottom line was less complicated. The consortium felt they had answered all the questions over club ownership structure, the Premier League disagreed.

They suggested arbitration, the consortium declined. And then they pulled out.

Al-Faraj bought 90 per cent of Portsmouth from Dr Sulaiman al-Fahim, who had owned it for a mighty 42 days, with money it now transpires was stolen from his wife.

In 2018, Al-Fahim was sentenced to five years imprisonment, in his absence, for forgery, using forged documents and aiding and abetting. 

Ali al-Faraj’s fateful Portsmouth takeover left Premier League scars over transparency

Enter Al-Faraj, whose reign was slightly longer but no less troubled. Players went unpaid, Avram Grant was appointed manager and the new owner never set foot inside the club.

Huge loans were taken out and secured against Fratton Park, future television revenue and Al-Faraj’s stake. When repayments were not made, the club became the property of the loan supplier Balram Chainrai. We’ll have to move on from what happened next to Portsmouth, because there really isn’t the room.

What can be said is Al-Faraj’s stewardship of the club was shrouded in such mystery he became known as Al Mirage within Premier League headquarters. Dr Hafez al-Medlej, chairman of the Saudi Professional League Commission, claimed never to have heard of him. For three days after the takeover, no picture appeared in a Saudi newspaper. When an interview was finally published, Portsmouth claimed it had been invented. The newspaper responded Al-Faraj had authorised his brother, Ahmed, to speak on his behalf.

Years later, puzzles remain. Was it his money? Did he have any money? Was he a front? The same questions that continue to rage around clubs such as Bury and Charlton were raised over Portsmouth more than a decade ago.

Different ones are being asked of Newcastle now. A petition of 108,000 names, and rising, demands explanations from the Premier League over delays that contributed to the withdrawal.

At first, the reason behind the collapse seems quite clear: piracy. Saudi Arabia wished to be a member of a club, while at the same time looting its assets.

Manchester City’s takeover went through because it satisfied all the ownership criteria 

At the front, they would be steering the project at Newcastle, shaking hands with their fellow Premier League shareholders. At the back, they would be waging a war against beIn Sports, owned by Qatar, and official rights holders for the Middle East and North Africa. They would be pirating feeds and broadcasting illegally. How could the Premier League welcome an owner with those connections? 

And it is true after considering the Newcastle deal, the Premier League regarded the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund — which was 80 per cent of the consortium — as part of the Saudi state.

It was not a leftfield or controversial conclusion, because everybody else did, too. Yet it was important given that the World Trade Organisation ruled the pirate broadcaster beoutQ was ‘operated by individuals or entities subject to the criminal jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia’ and the Saudi state had breached intellectual property rights by failing to tackle piracy. Saudi Arabia had also repeatedly blocked the League taking legal action against the pirate broadcaster illegally streaming matches.

The Premier League supplied evidence to the WTO directly detailing Saudi piracy and chief executive Richard Masters named Saudi Arabia to Parliament when discussing the protection of sports rights. So how could a Saudi-owned club be welcomed to the Premier League’s table?

Yet that isn’t the whole picture. In many ways, it would be advantageous for the Premier League to be in business with Saudi Arabia. If the piracy issue remained, they could go through the front door and apply pressure. Equally, if it was not dealt with and beIn Sports pulled out or demanded rights money back, this would directly impact on Newcastle’s finances. The Saudis would have skin in the game.

Richard Masters is taking the heat but Toon takeover died over failure to answer one question

And once inside, the old adage about tents and the direction of micturition would apply. 

Except when the Premier League sought to engage their newest owners, it got complex. It is, apparently, very plain who owns and runs Manchester City. Rival clubs do not like sovereign wealth clubs because they are financially strong and hard to beat. Yet City’s structure satisfied all ownership criteria. Newcastle’s did not.

And the consortium must have been aware of this because that was the reason the takeover dragged on for months: the legal conversations, the clarifications, the call and response.

So when the buyers revert to a default position of whipping up Newcastle’s support through the media, when it demands answers of the Premier League — why so coy? It was even suggested this week that Mike Ashley would sue the League for the takeover’s collapse. Why would he do that when, in all likelihood, he will have to work with these people for the foreseeable future?

One imagines he knows why the deal floundered, and the consortium will, too. They will certainly know what the Premier League was asking, and the possible ways forward from there. Yet they let Masters take the heat and play dumb around the petitioners.

It’s a very simple question: who owns Newcastle? Nobody should need months to answer that.

Kia’s left playing catch-up

Kia Joorabchian has defended his recruitment work at Arsenal while rubbishing the record of former chief scout Sven Mislintat. Joorabchian plays down his influence at the club but his clients have been prevalent among recent signings, including David Luiz and Cedric Soares. 

Willian is also his. And, no, Mislintat was far from faultless. He did, however, help land Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the only world-class player on the books.

If the departing head of recruitment, Francis Cagigao, can live off spotting Cesc Fabregas 17 years ago, there is mileage for Mislintat in Aubameyang yet.

Joorabchian’s men need a big season to compare.

Kia Joorabchian will do well to remember Sven Mislintat signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Wiegman delivers half the profile to be Lionesses boss

England women’s football team should be managed by a woman. Whether it should be managed by a Dutch woman is another matter.

The team benefit from significant investment and, for that money, this country should have a coaching system strong enough to produce a native, female candidate. Still, at least Sarina Wiegman delivers half the profile and has won the Euros with Holland, as well as reaching the World Cup final. 

She also favours a technical, passing style, which is the only way forward for England. Whether she has the players for it is debatable. Yet progress beyond a direct, physical approach is essential if England are not to fall behind.

DCMS point the finger… but don’t meet their own targets either

A report that several sports organisations have failed to meet gender targets brought swift admonishment from Julian Knight, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee. 

The RFU have four female directors out of 14, one shy of the 30 per cent threshold, and it is the same for England Hockey, England Boxing, British Mountaineering and British Judo (all three of 12). GB Boxing and the British Karate Federation are down by two.

Knight appeared to be leaning towards demanding sanctions, given that many of these sports receive public money. ‘It’s all very good having targets,’ he blustered, ‘but if there’s no comeback if you don’t meet those targets, what’s the point?’ Indeed. And as the head of a committee with two female members of 11 — two short — he would know.

Mac are the fall guys but did EFL play fair?

The right team went down from League Two in the end but not for the right reasons. Macclesfield Town deserved to be jettisoned from the competition, having failed to fulfil fixtures and pay players on more than one occasion through the season.

Yet the way the deed was done — after an EFL appeal against a delayed points deduction — smacked of connivance and convenience. By then it was known the number of points that would get Macclesfield relegated. It was almost as if the punishment was tailored to the consequence.

And what of Stevenage, who now survive? They have spent 53 days preparing for life outside the league on very different budgets. Phil Wallace, the chairman, argued that automatic sanctions should be in place — three, six, nine, 12 points for every month the players are not paid.

It’s a reasonable idea, albeit devoid of the nuance applicable to individual cases. And had Macclesfield lost nine points across this season, they would not have gone down. So a club could default on wages for two months and sail on. That is why a re-election vote in addition to points deductions would be a better solution. That way, the rest of the league — perhaps minus relegated clubs that might be saved — decide on the fitness of its members.

It separates genuine hardship from rogue practice. One imagines Stevenage and Macclesfield would have known their fates long ago.

Macclesfield were relegated after getting six-point deduction for misconduct on player wages

Covid-19 helps football see sense

Carabao Cup semi-finals will be pared back to one match and there will no longer be FA Cup replays next season to make room in a shortened schedule. 

Amazing that it has taken an event as ghastly as Covid-19 to make football’s administrators see sense.

We hacks felt Atalanta’s pain

We’re quite a hard-hearted lot, sportswriters. We’ve seen enough competitive heartbreak to feel immune. A cup final lost, a medal missed, we understand the pain, but we don’t feel it the same way. 

Those two late goals for Neymar’s PSG against the team from the blighted city of Bergamo? That hurt. 

Watching Atalanta – a team from blighted city of Bergamo – collapse against PSG was painful

Never mind the red button, UKA should hit panic button

Morecambe and Wise were on the BBC. Del Boy was on the BBC. Top of the Pops was on the BBC. Athletics is not.

It is on the red button, on iPlayer, on the website. It is like one of those bands at Glastonbury that no mainstream audience want to watch.

The BBC rushed out an agreement to show five Diamond League meetings this summer, no doubt in response to reports that it was preparing to drop its deal with UK Athletics. Yet when athletics mattered, when it was popular, it was prime time and on a prime channel. Maybe not always BBC One but nobody had to search for it.

And a last-minute swoop for Diamond League action is not the same as the annual £3million going into the sport domestically. To lose that would be disastrous at a time all sports fear recession. Yet this has been coming. Athletics has been run with a sense of entitlement for too long — in March, the new UKA chief Joanna Coates even talked arrogantly of turfing West Ham out of their stadium so the Anniversary Games could take place, with its dwindling attendances.

And what exactly would the BBC be paying for when the sport’s few big names are almost all skipping the British Championships next month? Sir Mo Farah and Katarina Johnson-Thompson have committed to an event in Brussels and there has been scant encouragement from Dina Asher-Smith or Laura Muir.

The public perception of the sport is too many scandals, too many excuses. How often do you hear they’re ‘all cheats’? Actually, they’re not. There are great, noble, straight-as-a-die athletes, some of whom are listed above. Yet their sport is increasingly doubted and when that happens the audience turn off, turn over or leave that red button well alone.

Jumping ship: Katarina Johnson-Thompson will snub the British championships




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