WHEN Mike Ashley broke his silence to conduct a rare interview last summer, he delivered a candid assessment of the takeover situation at Newcastle United. “I’m not a believer anymore,” said the Magpies owner. “The reality with these deals is that once it gets out, if it’s not done, it’s probably not going to get done.”

Amid all the frenzied reaction to the story that broke in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday morning, outlining Amanda Staveley’s renewed attempts to broker a takeover of Newcastle as part of a consortium propped up by the vast riches of Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, it is worth keeping Ashley’s caveat in mind. If recent history has taught us anything when it comes to takeover talk on Tyneside, it is that scepticism is a fairly reliable default setting.

That said, however, it is worth pointing out from the outset that there is substance to the latest flurry of stories. While Newcastle United are sticking to their policy of refusing to make any on-the-record comments about the club’s ownership situation, senior sources have been willing to concede that talks have taken place over the last couple of months about a possible sale.

Those talks have involved a number of different groups, one of which is the investment vehicle that was unveiled amid a blaze of publicity in the United States over the weekend.

The driving force behind the consortium is Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the means by which the Middle Eastern state invests its Sovereign Wealth Fund, overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudi Arabian state is currently involved in a major drive to shift the way it is portrayed and perceived outside the Middle East, diversify its economy away from oil and develop new entertainment and tourism industries.

Its ‘Vision 2030’ plan is an ambitious attempt to mirror China’s successful ‘Belt and Road’ initiative by investing overseas to secure influence and exposure, and having seen how successfully Abu Dhabi has used its ownership of Manchester City to shift perceptions, the Saudi Arabian state is known to regard European football as an attractive investment opportunity.

The Saudis made an unsuccessful attempt to mount a takeover of Manchester United last year, so given that Newcastle have effectively been for sale for the last two or three years, it would have been a major surprise had they not forensically examined the pros and cons of a move for the Magpies.

The waters begin to muddy via the involvement of Staveley, the North Yorkshire-born financier whose previous attempts to broker a deal for Newcastle with the PCP Capital Partners group in 2017 led to Ashley branding her a ‘time waster’.

Staveley is expected to act as the public face of any Saudi bid, with reports suggesting she will put forward around ten per cent of the capital for an offer with the Saudi PIF stumping up 80 per cent.

The remaining ten per cent has been attributed to the Reuben brothers, David and Simon, figures who have also been linked to previous takeover attempts and who already have strong links to Newcastle thanks to property developments in the city completed by their companies.

On January 6, Staveley incorporated a new company, PZ Newco Ltd, which is shorthand for Project Zebra, the codename for the Saudi-backed attempts to buy out Ashley. The company has two listed directors, Staveley and her husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, and its incorporation came at the same time as Staveley re-incorporated Cantervale Ltd, a shell company that had been linked to previous takeover deals.

Again, we have been here before, and as previous experience with the Bin Zayed Group, who registered Monochrome Acquisition Ltd, and Joseph Dagrosa, who registered companies in the US with Newcastle in their name, proved, setting up companies that might be involved in a takeover is no indicator that a deal will be concluded. Nevertheless, at the very least, confirmation of Staveley’s involvement adds weight to the veracity of this weekend’s reports.

Why would a Saudi Arabian prince need Staveley’s involvement to buy a football club? It is a pertinent question, but for all Ashley might question the financier’s effectiveness, her involvement in previous discussions involving Manchester City and Liverpool confirm her ability to wheel and deal in football circles.

Staveley is known to have attended October’s Future Investment Initiative, known as Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’ event, so it is quite conceivable she held talks with PIF in which she persuaded Prince bin Salman’s advisors Newcastle was a club worth pursuing.

For all that her previous attempts to broker a deal with Ashley ended acrimoniously, senior St James’ Park sources have always suggested she has never really disappeared from the scene. This might finally be her opportunity to make Ashley swallow his words as he pockets the £340m that has been suggested as the Saudi PIF’s anticipated offer.

Having repeatedly valued Newcastle at around £350m, an offer of anywhere close to that figure would seriously test Ashley’s willingness to sell. For years now, supporters have questioned whether the Sports Direct boss is serious about wanting to sell up. Perhaps we are about to find out.

Or perhaps not. Ashley is currently conducting business outside the UK, but his reaction to this weekend’s developments is understood to have been one of weary resignation. ‘Here we go again – with the same people performing the same old tricks’ is believed to sum up his assessment of where things are at.

Given the way things have played out over the last few years, his suspicion is justified. Why has all this leaked out in the United States before a formal offer has been tabled or discussions have moved anywhere close to a point where Staveley’s group would want to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement?

Why would the Saudi elite, normally so publicity-shy and wary about the way in which their name is used in the West, be so willing to be plastered over the US and European business reports? Why do events appear to be following such a similar pattern to the one that preceded the collapse of talks when Staveley was involved with PCP?

These are all pertinent questions, and having been left frustrated once before, it would be understandable if Ashley was wondering whether this week’s events are little more than a clumsy attempt to scare away potential rivals, leaving Staveley with an opportunity to drive down the asking price. If those are her tactics, all available evidence suggests they will fail.

The involvement of the Saudi state makes this latest bout of takeover talk more intriguing than most, not least because of the moral and ethical questions it would raise should it turn out to be a viable means of removing Ashley from his current position.

Ashley runs a company that has been embroiled in a debate over zero-hour contracts; the Saudi state executes prisoners and is alleged to have been complicit in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In terms of geo-political impact, moving from one to the other really would be a case of leaping out of the frying pan into the fire.

This weekend, though, the prospect of such a situation becoming reality has been the dominant narrative on Tyneside, completely overshadowing Newcastle’s drab FA Cup draw with Oxford United.

Unlike the recent discussions involving Peter Kenyon, whose ability to raise transformative funds was always questionable, the involvement of the Saudi state would enable Newcastle supporters to dream of the kind of overhaul that enabled Chelsea, under Roman Abramovich, and Manchester City, with the support of Abu Dhabi, to turn English football upside down.

Deal or no deal? As ever when it comes to the Magpies, only time will tell.