AS Sheffield United’s co-owners lock horns in what has instantly become an unedifying High Court battle to win full control of the club, it is reported that one of them is in talks to buy into Italian Serie A side Sampdoria.
Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud already has a substantial stake in Belgium club KFCO Beerschot Wilrijk which has just finished third in the Belgian second tier. It has been reported in Italy that he is in talks with British hedge fund Ufp Aquilor Capitol which is said to be raising 90million euros to complete the purchase of Sampdoria, plus another €30m to cover the club’s debts.
Aquilor are reported to have headed off a rival bid from a US-based hedge fund who enlisted the help of ex-Chelsea striker and manager Gianluca Vialli. The former Italian international made more than 200 appearances for Sampdoria, currently ninth in Serie A and who are at home to champions Juventus on the last day of the season.
If confirmed it might suggest that Prince Abdullah is preparing for life after Sheffield United if he should lose the legal battle to wrest control of the club. Although if a rare message to supporters is anything to go by he intends to fight his corner to the bitter end, pledging to share the coming Premier League adventure with them. “My fellow Blades fans,” he tweeted, “I want to congratulate our great coach Chris Wilder who has had an unparalleled record of success, his outstanding assistant Alan Knill, his staff, the players who were the heroes of this season, our CEO Stephen Bettis, his management team and the entire staff for the magnificent accomplishment of promotion to the Premer League.
“As we all know, promotion has been achieved against great odds. Still, we did it the right way, the Sheffield United way.
“Above all, I want to thank you, the Sheffield United fans. You are the real heroes. You’ve stood by the club through thick and thin, year in year out, through some good times but also some very difficult times. I hope that this is only the start of greater things to come and look forward to sharing the journey with you.”
Prince Abdullah, until 2017 held a post in a Saudi government regime which has a long record of appalling human right abuses, including public executions by stoning or beheading, has been a rare visitor to Bramall Lane since buying 50% of the football club from Kevin McCabe for a token £1 in 2013.
He did, however, watch United beat Nottingham Forest 2-0 in what may have been a last ditch effort to come to an agreement before he and McCabe headed to the High Court.
In March Prince Abdullah used his Twitter account to post an image of actor Bill Murray accompanied by a cryptic quote without explanation: “It’s hard to win an argument with a smart person, but it’s damn near impossible to win an argument with a stupid person.”
McCabe, meanwhile, was an ever-present as United closed in on promotion. Despite his legal woes he sounded buoyant during the civic reception and open-top bus parade to Sheffield Town Hall where thousands of jubilant supporters gathered.
Sheffield-born McCabe, 71, a lifelong Blade who has been involved with the club for about 25 years, hinted that further investment is already lined up should he win control.
“We have discussions with other parties, yes,” he told BBC Radio Sheffield. “Those discussions will not be concluded until the outcome of the court case, which has actually started now, is over.”
McCabe, who has made no secret of his intention to bow out and hand over the club to a suitable buyer, added: “People want to be investing in the Premier League, that's a reality of life. We're a Premier League club now.”
Pressed on what budget Wilder will have at his disposal to strengthen his squad, McCabe’s reply suggested that he and and Prince Abdullah have reached some sort of agreement. “Let’s just say it’ll be a healthy one, said McCabe. “We’re not in the Premier League for fun and when you play in any market you can’t buck it.”
McCabe admitted publicly in February 2018, at a question and answer session on stage sitting alongside Wilder, that United would have to be more ambitious financially as their status improved in order to compete.
At the civic reception he reaffirmed that, but with a note of caution: “We’ve got to plan in the Premier League to have a nucleus of a squad that will maintain its position,” he said. “But that if we did come on hard times we wouldn’t go down with a massive, massive tumble.”
It is still unclear just how much Prince Abdullah has invested since 2013. He is reported to have put in an initial £10m but the major investment which McCabe expected and famously described as a “game-changer” has never materialised.
As the High Court hearing in London where McCabe and Prince Abdullah sat a few feet apart with their respective legal teams, the pair’s dirty linen is being washed in public.
Early into a hearing expected to last five weeks and Paul Downes, QC for McCabe, has alleged “Far from being minted, Prince Abdullah couldn’t even come up with a piffling £500,000 to pay staff wages. There was no way they [McCabe and the Board] would have done this deal if they had known Prince Abdullah was a man of straw.”
Mr Downes explained that McCabe trusted Prince Abdullah to honour their agreement in good faith. “More fool us,” he told Mr Justice Fancourt, presiding.
For his part, Prince Abdullah’s council, Andreas Gledhill QC, claimed McCabe found it difficult to accept criticism and could be “overbearing and aggressive’, denying the Saudi he did anything underhand in moving some of his shareholding to a separate company.
A manoeuvre which McCabe’s team claim was a deliberate attempt to sidestep what was in the original agreement’s small print and enabling the Saudi royal to make an offer to buyout his partner without also purchasing associated property, said to be worth £40m.
Jan Van Winckel is a confidante of the Saudi royal who appointed him to United’s board of directors in 2017. A curious figure in the background at Bramall Lane whose efforts to become involved in transfer policy were soundly rebuffed by manager Chris Wilder.
Van Winkel is also a director at Beerschott where he heads the technical committee, a management model favoured by the prince. He appointing Van Winkel technical director of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation when the United co-owner held a government position similar to that of minister for sport in the UK
The Belgian, offered the chance to be Thailand’s director of football earlier this year, holds a UEFA Pro License to coach and was assistant to Marcelo Bielsa, now Leeds United’s boss, when at Olympique de Marseille.