Geoff Sheard is sniffing around at Newcastle United, but Mark Murphy is less than convinced that he is the right man to lead Newcastle United to a bright, new dawn.
The list of potential bidders since Mike Ashley first considered selling Newcastle (about two weeks after buying it, some reports would have had you believe) could fill its own page Yellow Pages. Inter-Media Partners, Anil Ambani, Nasser Al-Kharafi, Clark Hunt, Fred Wilpon, Saul Katz, Profitable Group, Freddie Shepherd and even “some Nigerians that don’t exist”. Ordinarily at this point I’d be saying I made those last three up. But I didn’t. Not even ”Freddie Shepherd”. Some have remarked that the hoax bids for Newcastle this summer have had more credibility than the real ones, and looking at that list it’s hard to disagree. Although, even the most gullible saw through The “Profitable” Group bidding for a club with an overdraft the size of a medium-sized American city’s budget deficit.
So, what to make of the latest new bidder, then? Lancastrian “businessman” Geoff Sheard is fronting an “American-backed” consortium., and what Sheard doesn’t know about protracted bids for Football League Championship clubs isn’t worth knowing. He has a wealth of experience from his go at Sheffield Wednesday. For all his wealth of knowledge, he didn’t have a wealth of, well, wealth. Which is why the Wednesday saga pretty much wrote the template for such things. Wednesday’s hunt for new investors had lasted over a year before Sheard emerged. Putative Birmingham City owner Carson Yeung, leisure millionaire Paul Gregg and any number of “mystery”, usually Russian or Swiss-backed, consortia were on their list.
One Kenneth William Bates had previously -and misguidedly – been supported by the club’s supporters’ trust, Wednesdayite, in his brief battle to take over control from incumbent chairman Dave Allen. This, unsurprisingly, caused a residual resentment by Allen towards them, which hampered the investment hunt. Wednesday’s labyrinthine share structure was also block to significant new investment. Allen and two other directors held 30% of the club between them. And Wednesdayite held a pivotal 10% share. Wednesdayites’ shareholding was unsellable without trust members’ democratically-expressed approval and many potential investors felt that the work involved in garnering enough control to justify significant investment was simply too much.
Sheard seemed happy enough to gain whatever control a 29.9% shareholding afforded him, even though he couldn’t offer to buy any more than that without having, by law, to offer to buy the remaining 70% too. This necessitated approaching Wednesdayite for their 10%. After four months of newspaper headlines varying none-too-wildly from the “takeover still on track” tack so favoured by Sulaiman Al-Fahim during his Portsmouth negotiations, Sheard made them an offer that over 90% of them couldn’t refuse. This overwhelming acceptance was subject to a number of conditions, including the all-too-often deal-breaking words “proof of funds.” They proved to be this deal’s breaker too.
After some thorough investigative journalism from the Yorkshire Post’s Rob Waugh, stories appeared throughout September of Sheard’s financial problems, both personal and those of potential associates. Sheard reacted bitterly to these revelations: “This is ridiculous, I’m not buying Sheffield Wednesday”, he squealed to the Post, and you almost felt sorry for him until you remembered that he’d happily allowed that impression to be created, while freeloading in Wednesday’s directors’ box.
But what was eventually “very clear” to Wednesday was that they had been hoodwinked almost from the word go. Sheard’s “proof of (initial) funding” back in January 2008 was a letter he’d purportedly received from Caribbean island Dominica’s “Private Capital Bank”, claiming that 100 million euros “in cleared funds with full valid provenance” was available in one of the bank’s accounts for the “acquisition of controlling shares in an English Football League club” . The bank had none of the above. It had a licence but had yet to start operating and the letter, unsigned, allegedly came from a ‘Richard Francis’ who quickly emerged as “Richard Francis Downes”, a once-convicted money-launderer who had used the bank’s name as a way into negotiations to buy Chester City in August 2007.
As with Sheard , Downes had claimed simply to be a front man for the real “money men” behind the bid. And as with Sheard’s bid, the money never materialised. Once a string of Sheard’s personal debts emerged in the Post – the list of companies with charges on his property read like another Yellow Pages page-filler – Wednesdayite withdrew their offer to sell to him and, 24 hours later, the club told the London Stock Exchange that “no acceptable proposal” had emerged from talks with Sheard, or anyone else. So it is that Sheard comes with a health warning the size of a cigarette machine, let alone one the side of one packet. He has not only made his Newcastle role far clearer far earlier than he did at Wednesday, but has also (or, at least, “sources close to” him have) at least offered some detail about the origins and nature of the bid. However, these are American and Americanised respectively, and some have a wearingly familiar ring to them.
The bid is being led by a wealthy US-backer, which rather begs the question of whether anyone other than circus contortionists lead and back something simultaneously. There are plans to “rebrand the Magpies on a global scale… to make sure Newcastle United live up to their potential as a worldwide brand”. At the time of writing, however, “Sheard’s party have yet to show proof of funds”, which might be a cue for a rousing “here we go again” from Toon fans. Mike Ashley has made every recent Friday “deadline day” for selling Newcastle, in much the same manner as offices have “dress down Fridays.” So, unless, by the time you read this, Ashley has said “this Friday is my deadline and I’m sticking to it”, this particular chapter of the ongoing saga of Geoff Sheard .