MIKE ASHLEY will return to England today to assess his next move as Amanda Staveley’s Saudi Arabia-backed consortium look to push through a deal for Newcastle United as quickly as possible.

Ashley was abroad on business as news of new takeover discussions broke over the weekend, but the Sports Direct boss is expected to address his future ownership of the Magpies on his return to the UK.

He has always insisted he is willing to sell if the price is right, and while he is known to be wary of takeover stories that break in the press before a deal is completed, senior sources suggest there is growing optimism on both sides that an agreement could be close.

Talks between Ashley’s representatives and the investment group backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) - the investment arm of the Saudi regime, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have been ongoing for the last few weeks, but sources close to both sides agree this weekend’s developments mean they have now reached a pivotal stage.

Justin Barnes, a long-time confidante of the Newcastle owner, is leading Ashley’s negotiating team, while former Newcastle chairman Chris Mort is spearheading Staveley’s bid, which has been codenamed ‘Project Zebra’ and is backed by the Reuben brothers as well as Saudi Arabia’s PIF.

Mort, a partner at law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, is understood to have held a number of discussions with Barnes, with the ‘Project Zebra’ group offering around £340m for sole ownership of Newcastle.

If a successful takeover goes through, it has been suggested their first move could be to remove head coach Steve Bruce and reinstall Rafael Benitez, whose tenure as Newcastle manager ended last summer.

Benitez is known to be close to Staveley, and while the Spaniard has publicly insisted he remains committed to his current role as manager of Chinese side Dalian Yifang, he would jump at the chance of a return to St James’ Park under new ownership.

A weekend report in the Financial Times suggested that as well as committing £340m to the purchase of the Magpies, the ‘Project Zebra’ group would also make around £200m available for transfers and infrastructural improvements, a figure that could potentially transform Newcastle’s fortunes.

A successful takeover would thrust Newcastle into the international spotlight, with human rights groups already criticising the idea of a leading Premier League club being owned by the Saudi elite. Amnesty International says Saudi Arabia has “an appalling record on LGBT rights, women's rights, extra-judicial killings, beheadings, the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, and their involvement in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.”

However, Newcastle would not be the first English club to come under Saudi control as Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud took full control of Sheffield United from former owner Kevin McCabe last year.