MIKE ASHLEY has officially put Newcastle United up for sale and he wants a deal done before Christmas.

In a statement issued by the club on Monday afternoon, it was confirmed that St James’ Holdings Limited, the company Ashley set up ten years ago to take control, wants to sell up.

Ashley admitted earlier this year he was open to the idea but now he has moved to put it on the market in the hope of striking a deal before the end of the year.

It is understood he is looking for around £400m to hand control over to interested parties and this move is designed to raise awareness globally. In a further sign of how keen he is to get a deal done, he is prepared to offer the option of staggered payments to help finance it.

The statement read: “As a result of increasing press speculation regarding the future of Newcastle United, the owner of the club, St James Holdings Limited, wishes to clarify its intentions.

“As one of the Premier League's oldest and best supported football clubs - and for the benefit of its many fans and supporters in the UK and across the world - Newcastle United requires a clear direction and a path to a bright and successful future.

“To give the club the best possible opportunity of securing the positioning and investment necessary to take it to the next level, at what is an important time in its history, its present ownership has determined that it is in the best interests of Newcastle United and its fans for the club to be put up for sale.

“To give an incoming owner the maximum possible flexibility to make meaningful investment in the club, including in its playing squad, the sale process will give interested parties the opportunity of deferring substantial payments.

“A process will now commence of identifying new ownership for the club that will be capable of delivering the sustained investment in and dedication to the club that is necessary for it to achieve its ambitions.”

There have been suggestions for weeks that Ashley was looking to sell up but issuing this statement highlights how strong his intentions are.

Talk has intensified in recent weeks after it became known how Amanda Staveley, a leading financier, had registered an interest in buying the club after watching Newcastle’s draw with Liverpool earlier this month.

PCP Capital Partners, Staveley’s firm, has global assets of more than £28bn although she is known to have an interest in other Premier League clubs as well as Newcastle, including Liverpool.

Ashley is also aware of several other interested parties, many of which are believed to have signed non-disclosure agreements, and he would prefer to have the club sold before the transfer window opens in January.

He is looking for his fractious ten-year reign at St James’ Park to end quickly, although Benitez has been assured that a failure to sell would not prevent him from adding to his squad in the New Year.

But Newcastle’s fans will be hoping it does not get to that point having wanted him to move on for years following a number of controversial decisions, including the handling of Kevin Keegan’s second spell at the club and the renaming of St James’ Park.

Benitez, who was left frustrated by a lack of top quality signings in the summer, has been aware of Ashley’s desire to sell for a number of weeks and he will hope this will end in him being able to enjoy a more productive January window.