Amanda Staveley gave ‘false picture’ over Newcastle United finances, court told

Financier Amanda Staveley allegedly gave the press a “false picture” of the financial health of Newcastle United under former owner Mike Ashley, putting her in breach of a £10 million loan deal with the sportswear tycoon, the High Court has been told.

Mr Ashley is bringing a claim against the businesswoman, alleging she broke the terms of the agreement that required her not to “admonish” him or “diminish” his reputation over the management of the Premier League team in public or to journalists.

Ms Staveley, who is opposing the legal challenge alongside her husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi, the guarantor of the loan, denies making any breach, including allegations she passed information directly or indirectly to a Sunday Times journalist.

The takeover of the Magpies by an 80% Saudi-backed consortium completed in October last year was brokered by Ms Staveley, with her firm PCP Capital Partners taking 10%.

The loan secured by the financier with Mr Ashley at the time was to pay for costs and expenses incurred by her and her subsidiaries in relation to the buyout, the court was told.

A preliminary hearing on Friday heard that Mr Ashley, bringing the case through his St James Holdings company, alleges Ms Staveley violated the loan agreement through two “events of default” – in statements to journalists on November 11 last year and via information provided to Sunday Times journalist Sam Chambers on or before January 21 2022.

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley is bringing a claim against Amanda Staveley (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

The two-year “vendor loan agreement” is due to be paid back on October 9 next year, plus simple interest of 3%, but Mr Ashley is seeking early repayment, the court heard.

Richard Lissack KC, representing Mr Ashley’s holding company, told the online hearing, at which neither Mr Ashley nor Ms Staveley and her husband were present, that a “false picture as to the financial health of Newcastle United was conveyed” by the businesswoman to the press or on her behalf.

The barrister, who described Newcastle’s new Saudi owners as “controversial”, alleged that Ms Staveley had “intended to do some harm to Mr Ashley”.

In written submissions, Gerard Rothschild, representing Ms Staveley and her husband, said Mr Ashley gave the impression of treating the case as a “roving inquiry” into her opinions about the retail magnate and as “an opportunity for a judge to write a history of Mr Ashley’s involvement in Newcastle United Football Club”.

He said direct quotes from Ms Staveley used in press articles in November last year were “innocuous” and did not breach the loan terms, while also denying she made statements to a journalist prior to the publication of a Sunday Times column in January.

The relevant statements in relation to the newspaper allegations include “Sports Direct did not pay NUFC for advertising for the past two years” and that “NUFC’s cash reserves were depleted when the new owners took over”, Mr Rothschild said.

They also included: “Mike Ashley wanted to remain a minority shareholder in NUFC but the new owners refused.”

Friday’s hearing included a bid by Mr Ashley’s barrister to widen the scope of issues in the case, to include whether Ms Staveley may have made other statements to journalists breaching the loan deal or publicly criticised Mr Ashley “for making insufficient investments in Newcastle United”.

Mr Lissack argued in written submissions that this was appropriate to include in disclosure in the claim because the “financial soundness” of the club at its sale to the consortium of investors “has direct bearing on the meaning and motivation behind the information provided to Mr Chambers”.

He alleged that if “additional negative briefings” against Mr Ashley were made it was allegedly “more likely” Ms Staveley gave information to the journalist.

But Mr Justice Bryan rejected Mr Lissack’s arguments, ruling that as a bid to secure further disclosure it was a “fishing expedition” for evidence or a “turning out of the filing cabinets” over what was not a “key issue” in the case.

The judge ordered that disclosure in the case should be made by Valentine’s Day next year, telling lawyers this would allow time for both sides to potentially find an alternative resolution to the dispute.

He said the value of the claim was “not high” but the costs were going to be “very considerable” and encouraged the parties to “consider their overall dispute”.