THE sale of Newcastle United appeared to be on the verge of collapse last night as Mike Ashley prepares to take the club off the market for the second time in less than a year.
With talks between Tyneside businessman Barry Moat and Ashley’s camp stuck in a disheartening stalemate, there is a growing sense of desperation surrounding the attempt to sell the club.
The Journal understands there have even been attempts to attract fresh interest by offering the club for a down payment of £20m with another £80m due to be paid to Ashley in 12 months’ time.
That desperation is reflected in an increasingly exasperated Alan Shearer, who cannot believe the situation remains as shambolic now as it did when Ashley put the club up for sale back in May.
Although Seymour Pierce – the bank put in charge of the search for a buyer by United’s owner – are ready to recommend an offer from Tyneside businessman Barry Moat as their preferred bid after months of sluggish negotiations, Ashley remains reluctant to sell for anything less than the £100m he initially asked for.
Moat is backed by anonymous American investors, but he has still not put together a package able to satisfy Ashley’s strict financial demands because the club’s wage bill means Newcastle’s operating loss this season could be as high as £30m.
That has led to growing tension between Seymour Pierce and the Ashley camp.
The bank are convinced they have got the best deal they could in the present financial climate and are frustrated by Ashley’s stubborn stance.
That raises the very real possibility of the sale being cancelled after Ashley took a similar step when he could not find a buyer back in December.
Sources have already tried to play down Moat’s interest and are privately briefing he does not have enough money to go through with any deal.
Moat, though, is continuing to try to break the deadlock and attended a series of meetings with Newcastle’s managing director Derek Llambias yesterday in the hope of reaching a compromise. Those talks will resume this morning.
If Moat’s bid is not accepted, it is understood there are no serious alternative bidders. That would force Ashley – who is on holiday in Hawaii – to pull the plug on the sale and look to install a manager as quickly as possible to try to make the best out of the wreckage of the first-team squad which failed to keep the club in the Premier League last season. Who would want such a task remains to be seen and the prospect of Joe Kinnear or David O’Leary taking the helm instead of fans’ favourite Shearer will sicken many already thoroughly disillusioned by this long-running farce.
Indeed, Ashley would have to invest some more of his own money to keep the club ticking over financially, while any new manager serious about getting Newcastle back into the top flight will ask for some sort of transfer budget to strengthen a squad which is alarmingly short on cover in every department.
Infuriatingly, if Ashley had decided to give it one more year as an owner immediately after relegation in the hope the Magpies will make an instant return to the Premier League, many of those problems could have been remedied by Shearer over the summer.
Instead, everyone has been stuck in limbo and the club has been allowed to drift without proper leadership on or off the pitch, with Shearer a frustrated spectator.
Newcastle’s manager-in-waiting has been aware of Moat’s interest for several weeks and had remained hopeful throughout the due diligence phase that he would be successful.
Moat was the chairman of Shearer’s testimonial committee and had already assured the 38-year-old he would be appointed manager as soon as he received the keys to St James’s Park.
Indeed, the former Magpies skipper turned down the manager’s job at Southampton last month as he was confident Moat would eventually complete a takeover at United this summer.
That hope is now hanging by a thread with Ashley ready to look elsewhere for a manager as he does not want to give Shearer any assurances regarding transfer budgets and player retention.
Meanwhile, Portsmouth chief executive Peter Storrie has confirmed they are interested in signing Australian striker Mark Viduka following his release by Newcastle.