Newcastle United: Why fans wanted Mike Ashley out and why it took so long

To say the sale of Newcastle United has been a long time in the making could be the understatement of the year.

UNPOPULAR: Fans have wanted Mike Ashley to sell Newcastle United since 2008

Last month marked the 13th anniversary of owner, Mike Ashley, officially putting the club on the market.

In 16 months the 25th richest man in Britain had gone from being welcomed with open arms as "the Geordie Abramovich" as the new £134.4m buyer to the "fat, cockney b******" fans wanted out. He was born in Walsall, educated in Buckinghamshire.

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Ashley had had enough. "I am putting the club up for sale. I hope the next owner is someone who can lavish the amount of money on the club that the fans want," he said.

Things had quickly turned sour for the owner of Sports Direct. At the start he made a point of going to matches in his black-and-white-striped replica shirt and watching away games with the fans. Stories of buying drinks for entire packed bars on Newcastle's Bigg Market did the rounds but having made the crowd-pleasing move of bringing Kevin Keegan back as manager, he made the crowd-angering move of failing to give him the support he wanted. Within weeks of Keegan quitting, Ashley wanted to as well.

"I'm now a dad who can't take his kids to a football game because I am advised that we would be assaulted," he said. "I am no longer prepared to subsidise Newcastle."

In July 2019 after numerous reported offers (and goodness knows how many unreported ones), Ashley seemed resigned to his fate.

"I have to assume I will stay running this football club," he said in a very rare interview. "There are no offers. Define an offer. I'm not a believer any more. I think I could own this football club forever. That is my new mental state.

"The day someone buys Newcastle, they'll do their due diligence - and finished. It will happen like Manchester City. By the time the media find out, it's already complete."

If he was resigned to his fate, so were Newcastle fans.

They quickly tired of him treating their club as one big advert for Sports Direct . During what must have been one particularly dull game there I once counted over 40 Sports Direct logos within view of the press box.

In 2011 Ashley temporarily renamed St James' Park the "Sports Direct Arena" to huge outrage. Just under a year later new sponsors bought the naming rights and restored the historic title. It would have been really good news had it not meant getting into bed with controversial payday lender Wonga.

That was Ashley, though, impervious to public criticism whether it came to his football club or main business. Some footballing appointments - Dennis Wise, Joe Kinnear, Steve Bruce - were guaranteed to be unpopular. Others were the exact opposite - Keegan, Alan Shearer and Rafael Benitez - but ended with an embittered manager frustrated by the regime.

Newcastle were run along Sports Direct lines, keeping costs to a minimum. The only exception would be splurges when the team was relegated because existing in the Premier League seemed Ashley's only aim. Cup runs just did not happen.

"I am just not wealthy enough to own Newcastle," said Ashley two years ago. "I genuinely believe you need £1bn. People say £500m but I'd bet anyone that these days you can't do it for that. Not to compete at the very top."

In the end, Ashley was wrong about being there forever and very wrong about a deal being done quickly.

It was October 2017 when Ripon-born Amanda Staveley was first spotted at St James's Park, brokering a deal on behalf of Middle Eastern investors which fell through.

Staveley, though, would not give up, and in April last year, despite the world being in the early stages of a pandemic, it emerged she was in "advanced talks" with Ashley over a £340m buyout. She was part of a consortium with David and Simon Reuben but the majority shareholders would be Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund.

That was problematic. Amnesty International wrote to the Premier League to object, warning it “risks becoming a patsy” to a regime whose human rights record included imprisonment, torture of government critics and executions following unfair trials.

The bigger crime, as it turned out, was that the Saudi government had not done enough to prevent the illegal pirating of Premier League games in the Middle East, massively undercutting one of its biggest overseas broadcasters, beIN Sports, who raised concerns too.

By July 2020 the deal had "stalled indefinitely" and MPs wrote to the Premier League asking what was going on.

Soon the Saudi PIF announced: "The commercial agreement between the Investment Group and the club's owners expired and our investment thesis could not be sustained, particularly with no clarity as to the circumstances under which the next season will start and the new norms that will arise for matches, training and other activities."

Ashley was said to be trying to get the deal back on with fans protesting outside Downing Street and setting up a petition demanding transparency from the Premier League. More than 80 MPs joined calls for the league to explain why the deal was not going ahead amid rumours the league's "big six" clubs were lobbying against it.

In August 2020, chief executive Richard Masters explained uncertainty over who was involved and to what extent was at issue, but offered arbitration. The sticking point appeared to be the relationship between the fund was the Saudi government.

Newcastle started the process of suing, and a a Competition Appeal Tribunal began last week. The arbitration Masters offered was set up for July 2021, then postponed until early 2022.

Then came an unexpected breakthrough - Saudi Arabia announcing the lifting of its ban on beIN Sports on Wednesday.

Little more than 24 hours later Newcastle were under the ownership of a consortium dominated by a sovereign wealth fund with total estimated assets of at least $500bn.