The fallout from the withdrawal of the Saudi Arabian bid to buy Newcastle United is continuing with north-east politicians demanding transparency from the Premier League and a leading barrister and Amnesty International calling for a revamp of football’s owners and directors test.
Simon Pentol, a QC with significant experience in the sport, called for an independent panel to be set up to assess the suitability of potential takeovers as well as overseeing a rationalisation of the game’s approach to changes of ownership. At the moment the Premier League, Football League and the FA each apply slightly different fit and proper tests.
Amnesty also questioned the Premier League’s methods and the charity has sent a proposed human rights regulation to Richard Masters, claiming that the Saudi offer for St James’ Park was an attempt at sportswashing. The organisation has asked the chief executive of the Premier League to give “careful consideration” to changing the criteria for owning clubs.
The furore in the north east continues unabated. Liz Twist, the Labour MP for Blaydon, took to social media on Wednesday to declare that she is working with Chi Onwurah, her Parliamentary counterpart for Newcastle Central, “to put pressure on those responsible for the deal’s collapse.” Twist tweeted that she had written to the Premier League and the MP expressed frustration at the club’s predicament. “Things have got to change; our people deserve it,” she wrote.
The reluctance of the ruling body to make a decision on whether the Amanda Staveley-led consortium was an appropriate owner of Newcastle caused the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Reuben brothers and Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners firm to take their £300 million offer off the table last week. The move sparked rage on Tyneside and the chief executive of the city council has also written to Masters offering to set up a meeting with the aim of resurrecting the buyout. Pat Ritchie said Saudi investment in the club and the area would prove “transformational.”
Meanwhile, Pentol has produced a blueprint for the creation of an independent panel to oversee changes of ownership and the streamlining of fit and proper procedures. The London-based lawyer proposed the creation of a new body chaired by a QC and comprised of legal and financial experts with football knowledge. The committee would have a supervisory role in takeovers and have the ability to allow conditional acceptance of any deal. The panel would have the powers to call for evidence and engage business intelligence services to vet potential investors.
Among Pentol’s suggestions are that a new owner would have to deposit a returnable bond equivalent to a year’s running costs. The panel would have the capacity to disqualify individuals and groups on the grounds that a prospective owner might undermine the integrity of the club or competition. All applicants would be subject to an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check.
Written reasons for the panel’s decision would be published – subject to confidentiality – to explain their reasoning. One of the biggest criticisms of the Premier League’s process is the opaqueness of its methodology.
Pentol acknowledges that his proposal for the leagues to relinquish their jurisdiction and control over issues of club ownership would be controversial but believes “the effective administration of the owners and directors tests are bound to become ever more poignant in the global marketplace and the current economic climate”
Ensuring the economic foundations of a club is crucial, the lawyer said, especially after the experience of Wigan Athletic, who were forced into administration last month when the Hong Kong-based owners admitted they could not afford to support the business.
“Some might regard the pre-requisite for indemnities and enhanced compliance as discouraging fresh ownership or to add a significant layer of unwanted regulation,” Pentol said. “However, the disarray visited upon Wigan must never be repeated.”
Sources close to the Staveley consortium believe that there is nothing in the Premier League’s fit and proper test that should disallow PIF from assuming ownership. The wealth fund planned to take an 80 per cent share of the club with Staveley and the Reubens acquiring equal percentages of the remaining equity.
Amnesty are focused on pointing out Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights. “The controversy around the Saudi-Newcastle deal has been a major wake-up call,” Kate Allen, Amnesty’s UK’s director, said. “The Premier League urgently needs to get its house in order. The current owners and directors test is hopelessly unsuited to the task of vetting who gets to own and run English football clubs – it needs a serious overhaul.
“At present, anyone wishing to sportswash their reputation by buying into English football can do so knowing that even their involvement in war crimes or torture wouldn’t stop them. The owners and directors test simply hasn’t kept up with modern trends in international football ownership, not least with foreign powers buying their way into the game.”
Pentol agrees that the concerns around Newcastle are too complex for a sporting body to consider. The Premier League is concerned about abuses of individual freedoms but the more salient issue is the Saudi state’s links with the pirating of Qatari-based beIn Sports broadcasts in the Gulf. BeIn, the television rights holder in the region, has been vocal in complaining about the theft of its material and its treatment by the Saudi government, a regime that is leading a region-wide boycott of Qatar. “This is all politically and legally complex, especially in the context of the geo-political conflict between Saudi and Qatar,” Pentol said. “An independent panel would be much better equipped to deal with the issues.”
Politics in the Middle East are at the heart of the collapse of the deal to buy Newcastle but local politicians in the north east are throwing their weight behind a new attempt to pressurise the Premier League into allowing the takeover to be revived. There is no sign of an end to the row – or the desire on Tyneside to see PIF take control of St James’ Park.