BACK in January 2018, when Amanda Staveley’s first attempt to seize control at St James’ Park broke down, Mike Ashley did not exactly hold back when it came to assessing the North Yorkshire financier’s prospects of eventually completing a takeover. “Attempts to reach a deal with Amanda Staveley and PCP have proved exhausting, frustrating and a complete waste of time,” an Ashley-approved associate told Sky Sports News.

Contrast that to the statement that was released last night. Two-and-a-half years on, and rather than being a time-waster, Ashley clearly regards Staveley as his passage out of St James’ Park. “Mike Ashley understands fans’ frustrations and would like to reassure them that he has been fully committed to ensuring this takeover process reached completion as he felt it was in the best interests of the club,” read the official release.

Two key things have changed since Staveley first came onto the scene. First, the involvement of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) has assured Ashley of both the financial viability of Staveley’s bid and the desire of the bidding group to push through a deal. Previously, Ashley’s team regarded Staveley as a self-publicist pulling a good PR stunt. The minute senior officials within the Saudi Government came on board, that perception changed at a stroke.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, Ashley’s desire to sell up has strengthened – perhaps as a result of the struggles being endured by his core retail businesses - and, unlike in 2018, when various consortia were still regarded as viable purchasers, this time around Staveley’s group is seen as the only show in town. Forget Henry Mauriss, the Bellagraph Nova Group or the myriad of other weird and wonderful collectives that have been sporadically linked with Newcastle. Having sized up the alternatives, Ashley clearly feels it is Staveley’s consortium or nothing when it comes to him being able to move on.

That clarity has focused minds, and explains why Ashley has proved so unwilling to admit defeat, even though it was Staveley’s group that initially pulled the plug on a takeover, rather than the Premier League or Newcastle’s current owner. Had alternative options been regarded as viable, Ashley would have pursued them. As it is, he has seen his exit route from Tyneside closed off, and has decided to lash out in response.

The crucial question now is whether the Newcastle owner will carry through with his thinly-veiled threat of legal action against the Premier League. Wednesday’s statement was carefully worded, going far enough to alert the Premier League board to the potential for a legal battle, but stopping short of conclusively committing Ashley to such a move.

“The club and its owners do not accept that Premier League chief executive Richard Masters and the Premier League have acted appropriately in relation to this matter and will be considering all relevant options available to them.” Considering all relevant options. That is legalese for, ‘You’d better start worrying about what we might be prepared to do next’.

Would Ashley really take on the Premier League, in either a legal setting, via the civil courts, or a sporting arena, via the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)? If the sportswear magnate’s previous business dealings teach us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. Ashley is not afraid to take on a fight, and cares little for established practices or norms. It would be unprecedented for one of the Premier League’s 20 stakeholders to take on a body it effectively helps run, but unprecedented tends to be Ashley’s business modus operandi. If the Premier League underestimate Ashley’s willingness to disregard convention, they could be making a damaging mistake.

Masters, the Premier League’s CEO, has embarked on something of a charm offensive in recent weeks. He wrote a public letter to Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah, in which he revealed Staveley’s consortium had rejected an offer of independent arbitration over the league’s assessment of the links between the PIF and the Saudi state. He met with members of Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust and stated that no commitments were ever given about the likelihood of the owners and directors’ test being met, something that is disputed by the bidding group. He also conducted an interview on Sky Sports earlier this week in which he expressed “sympathy” with Newcastle fans.

None of this, though, should be interpreted as the Premier League accepting they have got things wrong. Masters is willing to have a fresh look at the owners and directors’ test, implying he acknowledges improvements are required. Speak to sources close to the league though, and they insist Masters continues to stand firmly behind his decision to, in the words of Newcastle’s statement, “reject a takeover bid”.

Will he be prepared to test the legitimacy of that judgement in a courtroom? If Ashley carries through on his threat to pursue “all relevant options”, perhaps time will tell.

One party have remained silent so far, though. The Saudis. And ultimately, they are likely to hold the key to how things play out from hereon in. Will the senior Saudi Government officials involved in the PIF agree to their state’s dirty washing being discussed in a public forum? Will they stand alongside Ashley and Staveley in either a courtroom or at CAS to take on the Premier League? Do they still want to take an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle given the geo-political wrangling that has proved so intractable in the last six months?

Without the PIF’s money, or a massive change of tack from the Reuben brothers, it is hard to see how Staveley can make the sums work. With the continued support of the Saudi state, Ashley might be prepared to step up the fight.

In July, when Staveley announced the withdrawal of her bid, it felt like an end. Now, though, it looks more like the beginning of an entirely new chapter in a saga that continues to run and run.