AMERICAN billionaire Arthur Blank is understood to have expressed an interest in buying Newcastle United.

Blank, who is the owner of both the NFL team Atlanta Falcons and the MLS club Atlanta United, is keen to break into the European sports market, and regards Newcastle United as a potentially viable investment opportunity.

The takeover talk surrounding the Magpies ratcheted up significantly on Monday night when Mike Ashley claimed that discussions over a possible sale were “at a more progressed stage than they have ever been” and expressed a hope that a deal could be concluded before the end of the year.

The Northern Echo understands that at least three interested parties have held discussions with Ashley and his representatives in the last two months, with at least two signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Blank is not believed to be involved with any of the groups that have signed NDAs with Newcastle officials, and Ashley’s surprise comments could have been an attempt to ascertain just how serious his interest is.

The US businessman made his fortune as the co-founder of The Home Depot, the world’s largest home-improvement retailer and the fourth biggest retailer in the whole of North America with more than 2,000 stores.

Forbes estimate his total wealth at around $4.6bn, a sum that means Ashley’s asking price of more than £300m for the Magpies should not present a problem if Blank deems it a worthy investment.

The New Yorker took his first steps into sports management when he paid $545m to purchase Atlanta Falcons in 2002, an investment that is now worth more than $2bn.

He founded Atlanta United, an MLS expansion franchise, in 2017, and is now keen to spread his football ownership outside the United States.

There has been considerable US-based interest in Newcastle in the last few months, with former Manchester United and Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon having been attempting to put together a consortium. Kenyon has been working with New-York based investment company, Rockefeller Management, but Blank is not believed to be involved with his group.

Instead, if Blank was to make a move for Newcastle, it would almost certainly be as a sole buyer, something that would suit Ashley as it would potentially make it easier to expedite a quick sale.

Even so, with no one having signed an exclusivity agreement or begun a formal process of financial due diligence, it is hard to see how a sale could be pushed through ahead of January.

That is problematic for Ashley, as it means the responsibility for financing deals in the January transfer window would fall on his shoulders, and as was the case 12 months ago, when he was involved in talks with Amanda Staveley and her PCP Capital Partners group, he would almost certainly be reluctant to sanction a major outlay with a potential sale on the horizon.

That scenario has caused understandable concern amongst Newcastle supporters, and fuelled speculation that Ashley’s unexpected interview on Sky News was little more than a ruse to justify little or no investment at the turn of the year.

Senior Newcastle staff are understood to have been caught on the hop by Ashley’s comments, so while the Sports Direct owner has a justified reputation for making off-the-cuff moves, there is bound to be a large amount of scepticism about the veracity of his words until he is able to provide tangible proof that a potential buyer is in place.

Given his own infuriation at Staveley’s attempts to play out last December’s discussions in the public arena, it is also strange that he opted to go public himself when the vast majority of successful takeover deals are conducted in private.

That said, however, there has been increased talk of potential interest in the last month or so, with a consortium based in Turkey also having been heavily linked with an imminent move.

“I am hopeful – for the Newcastle fans, for the club, for everybody, that I will be able to step aside and we will be able to get an owner in that will please everybody,” said Ashley on Monday. “I’d like it to be before the January transfer window.”