Amanda Staveley has spent sufficient time in Middle Eastern souks to be able to spot a precious stone hiding, unpolished, amid a sea of replicas.
No jewel, though, has ever quite captured her heart the way Newcastle United did when, almost exactly four years ago, she arrived at St James’ Park to watch Rafael Benítez’s then team draw 1-1 with Liverpool. “I fell madly in love,” she says. “Newcastle’s unique; it’s like a fantastic gem which needs buffing up at every level.”
At the time Staveley and her husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, were exploring the idea of forming a consortium to buy a football club. “We looked at Liverpool and it didn’t work but when I came away from that game four years ago I went to our friends in PIF [Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund] and said: ‘This is the only club we can ever buy.’”
Several legal skirmishes with the Premier League and a pandemic later, Staveley was finally back on Tyneside this week, awaiting the keys to St James’ Park. On Thursday Jesmond Dene House, a discreet five-star boutique hotel, hidden away in Newcastle’s leafiest quarter, was the scene of heartfelt celebrations as at 5.18pm it was announced that the consortium had completed their £300m purchase of one of English football’s doziest sleeping giants from Mike Ashley.
The small print revealed PIF hold an 80% stake but that Staveley, the North Yorkshire-born financier behind PCP Capital Partners, had a 10% stake and a directorship and would be responsible for running the club.
As she perched on the plushest of sofas in a suite at Jesmond Dene House on Thursday evening, the 48-year-old was adamant that, amid much important debate about sportswashing and Saudi human rights abuses, her partnership with PIF and the British based property developers Reuben Brothers, who also hold a 10% stake, will prove a force for good.
After all Saudi’s grand modernisation plan – the so called “Vision 2030” – can only be enhanced by not just the very visible presence of a woman making big decisions at Newcastle but that of her fellow director, Jamie Reuben.
The 34-year-old’s Iraqi Jewish grandparents fled Baghdad in the 1950s, escaping to India as the persecution of Jews in the Middle East intensified, but now he is set to become a key figure in a region for so long off limits to his family.
“Football’s inclusive to all, that’s the great thing about it,” says Staveley. “I understand and appreciate all the messages on human rights and we treat them very seriously. But I wouldn’t bring partners into the consortium if they didn’t have the right record and PIF is autonomous and independent of the Saudi government. PIF owns Newcastle, not the Saudi state.
“In buying Newcastle PIF are not going to hide and we’re proud of them; we need, strong, brave, partners. I love brave, passionate, people, that’s how I do business.” While Yasir al-Rumayyan, PIF’s governor, serves as Newcastle’s non-executive chairman, Jamie Reuben’s family business will be responsible for investing hundreds of millions of pounds of Saudi money into regeneration projects across the north-east.
“We want to see more investment in the north of England, levelling up’s part of the agenda,” stressed Staveley before conversation switches to spending on players.
Her six-year-old son might beg to differ but she knows a club currently second bottom of the Premier League needs more than mere big-name signings: “We’re in the market to compete for world-class players but we need the right infrastructure. They must have the right training ground, the right medical facilities.” While the 52,000 capacity St James’ Park “needs a little bit more love” the team’s antiquated training ground is arguably in need of pulling down.
“It’s really awful,” agrees Staveley. “There’s no point having fantastic players if there’s nowhere suitable for them to train.
“PIF have great ambition but this is a long-term investment and things take time. To reach the top of the Premier League you don’t just need great players, you need robust, strong foundations – and we have to build them. You need a strong academy, we want to see lots of local lads playing here, that’s huge for us.”
By the time the transfer window opens in January Newcastle will long since have replaced Steve Bruce as manager but, right now, things are fragile and Staveley is anxious to reassure the current squad ahead of Tottenham’s visit on Sunday week.
“This is a great team and they shouldn’t be in 19th position, we need to challenge that straight away,” she says. “But the players also need to know they have our fullest support.”
Accordingly, in-between offering Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan ambassadorial roles, she made time to telephone Jamaal Lascelles, the club captain. “I think Jamaal was a bit shocked,” said Staveley, who will be similarly nervous as she takes her seat in the directors’ box to watch Newcastle seek a first league win of the season at Tottenham’s expense.
Whether in Dubai, London or North Yorkshire, the club’s new public face is not accustomed to viewing games sitting down and, instead, has specific rituals involving running on the spot and repeatedly jumping up and down.
“Watching Newcastle on TV I’m terrible,” she said. “I have these really weird rituals so I don’t know how I’ll be at the ground. I have this thing in my head that, if I keep on running, then they’ll score again.
“It’s a big responsibility. I’m investing my family’s money and we’ve taken on a club near the bottom of the Premier League. That needs to change.”