Why a plan to ban related-party January loans failed, how clubs voted, and what’s next

Jacob Whitehead, David Ornstein and more

There was less than two minutes until the scheduled 10.30am start time of the Premier League shareholders’ meeting when Newcastle United co-owner Amanda Staveley rushed into The Churchill Hyatt Regency hotel.

This was a gathering which had her club at its heart and her arrival fit that narrative — Newcastle as the johnny-come-lately of the Premier League elite.

Newcastle chief executive Darren Eales had been at the venue near London’s Oxford Street for the preceding half hour; the club executives mingling in front of a bust of former British prime minister Winston Churchill.

The hotel’s name might suggest a bastion of Britishness, but the reality is slightly different — Churchill had no connection with the venue, passing away five years before its doors opened, while the hotel was bought by a Qatari consortium for $242million (£193m) in 1998 and is now operated by the American multinational Hyatt.

A British brand which has become increasingly influenced by Gulf and North American voices — this was the perfect location to discuss the finer points of Premier League ownership policy.

There were multiple items on the agenda. The most high-profile of these was a vote on whether there should be a temporary ban, for the coming January window, on related-party loans — a proposed block of incoming loans to the Premier League between teams who share owners. This was popularly viewed as a law targeting Newcastle — who amid an injury crisis, and tight against financial fair play (FFP) laws, could have looked to the four Saudi Arabian clubs also owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) for emergency cover.

Al Hilal’s former Wolverhampton Wanderers star Ruben Neves had been a name who was heavily linked, but The Athletic reported on Tuesday morning that the Portugal international is not expected to leave Saudi Arabia in January. Neves’ name has not been discussed internally at Newcastle this season, either, according to those familiar with the subject, who like others in this article spoke anonymously to protect relationships and discuss private meetings.

The principle, however, for many rivals still stands.

For Newcastle’s owners, despite the meeting’s London location, this was something of a home fixture.

Staveley’s Park Lane base is less than 10 minutes away from the Churchill, ditto the Mayfair powerbase of the Reuben family. The PIF’s UK offices are six stops along the tube network’s Central Line at St Paul’s.

Other topics discussed included more general affiliate transactions — whether between clubs with the same owners or between clubs and sponsors with the same owners — attempting to make its governance more robust. This proposal suggested that if the Premier League disagreed with a related-party transaction, then the offending party would be liable for compensation rather than the league blocking the transaction before it took place. Multiple sources said that could potentially extend to personal liability.

Some Premier League clubs are concerned that players such as Neves could easily join Newcastle on loan (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Another long topic of conversation was the New Deal — an initiative for the 20 top-flight teams to hand over millions to the 72 EFL clubs who make up the second, third and fourth tiers of the English game in the hope of avoiding future crises further down the football ladder.

With documents having been sent out over the weekend, discussions went on for over two hours at the start of the meeting, with every club in attendance understood to have presented their views. No vote was held, with work still to be done to reach a consensus, but this is thought to be close, with clubs keen to strike a deal before the potential introduction of an independent regulator for the game.

Despite the topic’s dominance of the headlines since Friday, Everton’s 10-point deduction for breaking FFP regulations was not on the formal agenda. As a disciplinary process between a club and the league, with Everton exercising their right to appeal, there was not a specific issue for a league-wide ruling despite several Premier League clubs considering whether to pursue compensation.

These are complex issues and the meeting duly exceeded its normal timeframe.

Howard Webb, technical director of PGMOL, the match officials’ body, arrived around noon for his bi-annual briefing and at one point was unsure if he would have his chance to present amid the five-hour-long meeting. He got in, eventually.

It is the second straight shareholders meeting that went deep into added time. They usually try to wrap them up by lunchtime, but the last two have gone on long enough for afternoon tea and cakes. There’s lots to talk about and nowhere near as much unanimity as there used to be.

One club held a preparatory meeting on Monday to discuss their voting intentions. Their view was that the votes on January loans and associated party transactions were “too close to call”. Those suspicions were proved right.

Premier League regulations stipulate that, with each club getting a single vote, a motion must garner the support of 14 teams to pass.

When club executives emerged, two things became clear — both voting motions had narrowly failed to pass despite garnering majority support. The proposal to block January loans attracted 12 votes, just two away from passing, while the proposition on wider affiliate transactions gained 13 — closer still.

The Premier League backed both motions — marking a rare defeat for the league at the shareholders’ meeting.

It is understood the clubs who voted against the temporary ban on January loans were Burnley, Chelsea, Everton, Newcastle, Nottingham Forest, Manchester City, Sheffield United and Wolves.

Most of these clubs are, or potentially soon will be, part of multi-club ownership models: Sheffield United with the United World Group, Forest with Greece’s Olympiacos, Chelsea with Strasbourg in France, and Manchester City with City Football Group (CFG). It is understood that one of these sides had rung around floating voters in search of support in recent days.

Everton have been engaged in takeover discussions with American private investment firm 777 Partners, which already owns sides such as Genoa in Italy and Belgium’s Standard Liege. The Merseyside club are also furious with the Premier League over last week’s 10-point deduction.

Burnley, owned by American businessman Alan Pace, have also been exploring potential partner clubs.

Manchester United voted with the Premier League on both issues, which may be seen as a surprise given they are poised to sell a 25 per cent stake of the club to Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s INEOS group, which owns France’s Nice and Swiss side Lausanne-Sport.

Brighton, another Premier League side who are part of a multi-club network, also voted with the majority, though UEFA, European football’s governing body, has already implemented a ban on transfers or loans between them and Union Saint-Gilloise until September 2024 after both qualified for European football this season. Brighton owner and British billionaire Tony Bloom has also reduced his shareholding in the Belgian club to a minority stake.

It was also noted by rivals that while Sheffield United are part of a multi-club group, they are also, like Newcastle, Saudi-owned.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom and owner Abdullah bin Musaid Al Saud (James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

Wolves have also explored partner clubs in recent years but have no formal partnerships and their motivations are unknown. Their owners are Fosun Group, while Fosun chairman Guo Guangchang’s wife Jenny is the majority shareholder of Switzerland’s Grasshoppers Zurich.

Not every club involved in multi-club ownership automatically backed the motion. In a sign of the sporting politics at play, one such team who would ordinarily side against the proposed rule change to preserve their ability to loan players from their partner club gave serious consideration to voting in favour, purely to prevent other Premier League teams getting a potentially bigger advantage from it than them.

Discussions unfolded slowly in the Churchill’s second-floor Blenheim Suites. Staveley came down in the lifts 45 minutes before the meeting formally finished.

One heavily discussed argument was over a matter of principle — that rule changes should not be made mid-season, with the optics that doing so was targeted at one particular team.

One side, however, who entered with this line of thinking changed their view during the meeting, with another side who theoretically opposed a mid-season change still voting in favour of the motion because they “weren’t that bothered” about a motion which only affected a single window. Other clubs were never convinced by this line of thought.“It’s another form of legitimising the cheating of FFP, which will come back round for another vote,” said one executive who backed the temporary ban. “It’ll get in eventually.”

So what does that all mean? There will be one more Premier League meeting before the end of the year, most likely in the first week of December, but this is not set to affect January. The view is that though these issues may reappear in the coming seasons, clubs have reached a momentary understanding.

Newcastle — or indeed any other teams — are still allowed to borrow players from related parties this winter. Dan Ashworth, Newcastle’s technical director, did not dismiss the possibility of the club looking to the Saudi market for loans when asked by reporters earlier this month.

In reality, the significance of this vote may only be seen down the line.

If the Saudi Pro League progresses as its organisers hope, cementing itself as one of the top 10 leagues globally, the competition will attract an ever-increasing calibre of players — in theory giving Newcastle a potential advantage.

Other sources present at the meeting believe the second vote — on more general related-party transactions — could ultimately prove more important. This motion addresses any related-party transaction ascertaining what amounts to fair-market value, rather than being solely concerned with January loans.

Currently, clubs who want to conduct transfer business or strike a sponsorship deal with a related party have to submit their transaction proposal to the Premier League. There, using a log of existing precedents, a review board including third-party consultants will decide whether the proposal can proceed.

Under the defeated proposal, clubs would have been able to proceed immediately without prior approval, but if the Premier League later decided it was not fair market value, it would hold the offending club directly financially liable. A bylaw suggested that any transaction should also require proof of a second bid at a comparable level. In theory, this would make the regulation tougher — with punishment far more stringent. One source described this as a “gotcha regime”.

The proposal attracted the support of 13 clubs — only failing by a single vote.

Over recent months, the Premier League’s actions have been motivated in part by the desire to show the government it can self-regulate. On Tuesday, by inflicting two narrow defeats, a small group of member teams stymied that attempt in favour of their own multi-club visions.

Premier League teams whose owners have stakes in other clubs

  • Arsenal — Colorado Rapids (U.S.)
  • Aston Villa — Vitoria Guimaraes (Portugal)
  • Bournemouth — Lorient (France), Auckland (New Zealand)
  • Brighton & Hove Albion — Union Saint-Gilloise (Belgium)
  • Chelsea — Strasbourg (France)
  • Crystal Palace — John Textor: Botafogo (Brazil), Lyon (France), Molenbeek (Belgium) – David Blitzer: Alcorcon (Spain), Den Haag (Netherlands), Augsburg (Germany), Real Salt Lake (U.S.), Waasland-Beveren (Belgium)
  • Manchester City — Bahia (Brazil), Girona (Spain), Lommel (Belgium), Melbourne City (Australia), Montevideo City Torque (Uruguay), Mumbai City (India), New York City (U.S.), Palermo (Italy), Sichuan Jiuniu (China), Troyes (France), Yokohama F Marinos (Japan)
  • Newcastle United — Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Al Nassr (all Saudi Arabia)
  • Nottingham Forest — Olympiacos (Greece)
  • Sheffield United — Al Hilal United (UAE), Beerschot (Belgium), Kerala United (India), Chateauroux (France)
  • West Ham United — Sparta Prague (Czech Republic)

* Prospective new owners at Everton (777 Partners) and Manchester United (INEOS) hold stakes in other football clubs

Additional contributors: Matt Slater, Dan Sheldon

(Top photo of Newcastle’s Amanda Staveley and Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images for Premier League)

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