ONLY Amanda Staveley and her closest confidantes know whether she was at St James’ Park on Sunday as a potential investor sizing up the attractiveness of a club on the market, or a Liverpool supporter who simply fancied taking in one of her team’s games.

Despite the flurry of attention that accompanied her appearance in the Milburn Stand at the weekend, it is hardly the only time she has been to a Premier League game this season.

It is also far from the only occasion that Newcastle have been linked with a possible takeover during the ten years of Mike Ashley’s reign, but this feels different. The background chatter about potential outside investment has increased in volume markedly in the last few months, with Chinese groups signing non-disclosure agreements and Lee Charnley flying off on meet-and-greet missions to the Far East.

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Staveley’s sudden appearance at St James’ adds another layer of intrigue, but unlike previous figures who have been credited with an interest in taking over on Tyneside, the Ripon-born 44-year-old boasts cast-iron credentials. She has brokered complex footballing takeover deals before, having been the key negotiator in Thaksin Shinawatra’s sale of Manchester City to Sheikh Mansour, and has publicly reiterated her desire to purchase a Premier League club in the last few months.

Crucially, she also boasts more than enough capital to make her a serious player. Her PCP Capital Partners Firm, with its billionaire Middle Eastern backers, presides over an investment pot of around $37bn, while Staveley’s personal fortune is also considerable. For her role in the sale of Manchester City alone, she was reportedly paid £30m.

She has also been credited with an interest in Liverpool, Tottenham and West Ham United in the recent past, but it is surely significant that she made a point of heading down the tunnel in the wake of Sunday’s game in order to meet Charnley, Keith Bishop and Justin Barnes in the St James’ Park boardroom. Barnes, a corporate lawyer who has been parachuted into the Newcastle United set-up at Ashley’s behest, will be the key figure in any takeover talks.

Introductions were made, numbers exchanged. More substantive discussions remain some way off, but for the first time in his Tyneside tenure, Ashley finds himself at a juncture where his bargaining position could be tested. If nothing else, the next few months should tell us whether the Sports Direct owner is serious about his desire to sell.

When he broke his media silence to speak to Sky in the summer, Ashley expressed a willingness to move on, but left himself sufficient wriggle room for his exact motives to remain unclear.

“If someone would like to come along, take this seat and fund Newcastle with a nought on the end with more wealth than me, I will not stand in Newcastle’s way,” he said. “But one of the reasons I am doing this interview is because I don’t think you’ll find many people out there who will actually stand up and do it. So I think myself and the Newcastle fans are going to be together for a good while longer.”

In other words, ‘I’m happy to move on – but it’ll be on my terms, and I’m not sure anyone will meet them’. Well, Staveley might, and it will be fascinating to see Ashley’s response if he receives an offer that comes close to matching his asking price, which remains somewhere close to the £400m mark. For a bit of context, that is almost double what Sheikh Mansour paid for Manchester City nine years ago.

Surely Ashley would sell at anywhere close to that price? He would make a tidy profit on the sum he has invested in Newcastle, pretty much doubling his money, and would be rid of an asset that has caused him plenty of strife in the last decade. The risk of having to plough in more money in the wake of another costly relegation would be removed, along with the stigma of being one of the most unpopular football club owners in the country. No more hassle and harassment, just a whopping great cheque in the bank.

Yet there are also reasons why Ashley might be reluctant to sever his ties. For all the anguish and angst it has caused, Newcastle United has been a fabulous source of free advertising for Sports Direct in the last decade. In Asian and North American markets in particular, where Sports Direct had previously struggled to establish a foothold, the brand association with Newcastle has opened doors that would otherwise have been closed.

That remains a hugely valuable link, and as Sports Direct exhaust their British and European markets, global expansion will become increasingly crucial to Ashley’s business model. Owning Newcastle makes that expansion easier to achieve.

Financially, Ashley has proved it is possible to run a Premier League club on an even keel. Newcastle’s debts have not increased to any meaningful extent in the last five years, indeed there have been a number of accounting periods where the club has turned a profit. There have been footballing repercussions to that model, but in purely monetary terms, Newcastle are a well-run club.

Having ridden out the pain of some difficult periods, would Ashley really want to walk away now when the next round of global television rights negotiations are close to coming to a conclusion? The expectation is that the figures will rise significantly, and after this week’s meeting of Premier League chairmen refused to kow-tow to the wishes of the ‘Big Six’, Newcastle will continue to receive an equal share of that pie. At some stage the bubble might burst, but with worldwide interest in the Premier League showing no signs of cooling, that time does not appear to be drawing close.

Ashley has no doubt been wrestling with such dilemmas for quite some time, but up until now, he hasn’t had to make a decision. That could be about to change, and if Staveley is even remotely serious about launching a takeover bid, the first thing she will want to do is ascertain Ashley’s negotiating position.

Does he want to sell all of his stake, or would he be willing to cede 50 per cent ownership for an investment of £200m? Is there any room for movement on his asking price, if for example his debt payments are staggered? Is this all just an elaborate ploy to keep Newcastle in the headlines and raise the club’s profile?

Lots of questions, that up until now have remained unanswered. With Staveley on the scene though, all that could finally be about to change.