The framed photographs on the piano at Amanda Staveley’s Park Lane home in central London have been a signal to all who arrive to do business there that she has seriously impressive connections.
Sir Alex Ferguson, Theresa May and many shades of royalty have featured. And then there is the image of Staveley in the directors’ box at Anfield, spotted there by one football executive a few years back. It is testament to how she could well have wound up somewhere other than St James’ Park, Newcastle, where she will appear to rapturous applause on Sunday.
Staveley’s strenuous attempts to match buyers with Liverpool reveal much about how she looks to make her networks count. It was 2008 and Liverpool’s detested Americans owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett were in a state of civil war with fans when she met Hicks’ son, Tommy, at a pheasant shooting meet in her native Yorkshire, where he told her his father wanted to sell.
Staveley’s prompt approach to Anfield came through another contact, David Mellor, the former Conservative Foreign Secretary, who called Liverpool to ask if they would meet her to discuss a Dubai takeover.
There was a sceptical agreement to do so. Dubai had expressed interest in buying Liverpool a few years earlier but proved so ponderous that Hicks and Gillett moved in instead.
Staveley’s connections in the Middle East had seen Abu Dhabi’s Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan recently buy Manchester City. Why, Liverpool asked her, had she not brought the Abu Dhabis to them? ‘They wanted a smaller club,’ she said, according to a source familiar with the talks.
There was then frustration at the top of Liverpool with how Staveley worked — the lack of documentation and vague promises. ‘We never saw anything which suggested she was formally appointed by Dubai,’ said the source.
‘There were also these meetings at the Park Lane house. I would have been more comfortable meeting in an office and seeing the documentation. It was always: ‘‘Don’t worry, they are going to pay the 550 (million)’’. We wasted hours and hours.’
A second executive from a different club agrees. ‘There was never any detail,’ he said. ‘It felt like hot air.’
Staveley would say making the connections is fundamental and that formalities flow from that. ‘She also doesn’t prevaricate,’ said one colleague who has worked with her for more than a decade.
‘She contacted me just before the Abu Dhabi Manchester City deal to run through the valuation. I told her I thought it was worth 150 (million). She said, “I just wanted your view. We’re going to pay 260 (million)”. She’s ballsy. She grasps detail.’
Staveley did have Dubai connections. She was close to Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, appearing in the directors’ box at Anfield with him for Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in 2008. An image from that night was the one spotted on the Park Lane piano.
She also saw where the power bases lay. She met the Liverpool fans’ group Spirit of Shankly (SoS) at the Circo restaurant in Liverpool’s Albert Dock, clearly aware their active support for Dubai would bring huge leverage in getting the Americans out. She told them Dubai would create an advisory board, on which SoS would have a seat. But the meeting was not a walk in the park.
‘I don’t think it went quite as she imagined,’ said one source. ‘Our representative, Paul Rice, said we were not going to sit on a board with no power. The meeting was nice and polite. Staveley was a good public face. She told us we were “the best fans in the world”. But it wasn’t quite the “Yanks Out, Dubai In” that she had wanted.’
Her capacity to circulate among big spenders dates to when she dropped out of Cambridge University and borrowed money to buy a restaurant popular with Gulf racehorse owners. Her next venture was a conference centre for Cambridge Science Park, where she met Prince Andrew, who visited as UK trade ambassador with King Abdullah of Jordan in 2001. She and Andrew struck up a two-year romantic relationship.
When the company that bought the conference centre collapsed, Staveley was forced into insolvency, although she used contacts from the previous businesses to set up PCP Capital Partners, her advisory and equity firm, with offices in Dubai and London. Some who have worked with Staveley say her propensity to make connections can make it difficult to keep the lid on things.
One Liverpool executive left a meeting she had set up between Gillett and the Dubai contingent, at offices opposite New Scotland Yard, only to walk straight into a prominent sports journalist. The story of the meeting leaked.
‘Hicks and Gillett were at each other’s throats at the time,’ says a source. ‘When news broke that one was talking to Dubai, the other went off the deep end.’
The deal never happened.
Another set of talks that leaked were between the Chinese state-owned conglomerate Everbright and Liverpool in 2016.
Staveley believed she could make that one happen if she could only meet John W Henry, Liverpool’s principal owner, say sources familiar with the bid. But a face-to-face encounter was not forthcoming.
In response to Staveley’s request, Henry said that if Everbright could demonstrate proof they had the funds they claimed, he would ‘happily’ meet their chairman.
‘Get him to say it’s credible,’ insisted Henry. When news of the deal leaked, Henry immediately called things off. Everbright denied any knowledge. Sources say Staveley was devastated. The setback is thought to have hardened her resolve to buy a Premier League club. Newcastle was being proposed to her within a month. ‘We said, “Do this one”,’ said a colleague. ‘And once she wants to do something, she’s extremely tenacious.’
The Middle East was the only hunting ground to do a deal of that size. ‘If you are Staveley, part of the game is to be close to these people and know what they want,’ said a source familiar with the region. ‘Not a lot of people are doing that.’
A sense of just how successfully the 48-year-old circulates in such echelons surfaced in testimony at a High Court case she brought last year against Barclays, for allegedly deceiving her in a deal during the 2008 financial crisis.
The case details her attending one of the deeply traditional, male-dominated ‘Majlis’ receptions, hosted by Sheik Mansour at Abu Dhabi’s Royal Palace — a glorified evening of musical chairs in which high net-worth guests inevitably get 10 minutes with Mansour, one-to-one. Staveley had another, more formal meeting with Mansour scheduled on the same weekend.
Prince Turki, a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family, pops up intermittently in the court documents. Mansour is patched into one conference call from a hunting trip in Kazakhstan. And there are frequent meetings with Ali Jassim, an adviser to Mansour, who met her when they worked on the Manchester City deal and with whom she seems very close.
Text messages have Jassim telling Staveley he would ‘always have ur back’ during the Barclays fallout. ‘U are very dear to me,’ he said in another. ‘We have a fruitful future together.’
The Newcastle cash was secured aboard ‘Serene’, the mega-yacht of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Those who have worked closely with Staveley don’t feel football is in her blood.
‘It’s still just investment: “How do you make this more valuable?”’ said the colleague.
Another source thinks there may be a Leeds United leaning — Staveley was brought up in nearby Ripon, North Yorkshire and attended the private Queen Margaret’s School in York before heading to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. There is amusement on Merseyside that she has now described Newcastle’s fans as ‘the best in the world’.
Some ascribe her wish to enjoy the unique position that club ownership offers to the particular urgency life has for her. She was diagnosed in 2013 with the gene for Huntington’s disease, a rare and incurable brain disorder.
The diagnosis came two years after her marriage to Mehrdad Ghodoussi, a former banker who had worked for her company and is now its managing partner.
The task of running a club is already proving more difficult than Staveley might have anticipated. Newcastle will not part company with manager Steve Bruce before Sunday’s match with Tottenham, as she had originally wished.
But Staveley’s extraordinary visibility on Tyneside, visiting the training ground and meeting fans and staff with cameras in wait, has finally afforded a taste of what ownership feels like, while allowing the Saudis to avoid questions on their human rights record and keep a low profile.
‘I don’t remember a 10 per cent shareholder being so visible when a club has been bought,’ says one of the sources. ‘She’ll have known the Saudis need her as a figurehead. They’ll thank her for that.’