Dilemma for Newcastle fans illustrates the moral complexity of supporting any big club

It's easy for celebrating Toon supporters to rationalise that position in their minds

Newcastle United fans celebrate at St James’ Park following the announcement that the Saudi-led takeover of the club has been approved. Photograph:   Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Newcastle United fans celebrate at St James’ Park following the announcement that the Saudi-led takeover of the club has been approved. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

 

In 2013, the musician Sting roused himself from the penthouse-and-pilates lifestyle, reclaimed the thickest Geordie accent since Chris Waddle was last heard speaking and wrote The Last Ship, an ode to the Tyneside shipyard workers of his grandfather’s generation.

It ran as a musical on Broadway for a while before Sting realised the only fitting stage was home. He called Jimmy Nail, got an orchestra and male choir going and the pair banged out a performance which evoked the lost camaraderie of England’s industrial north while glorying in Newcastle’s moment as a port city of world renown: “Why, they’re goin‘ to Newcastle and they dacent be late/For they’re launching a boat on the Tyne at high tide/And they’ve come from all over, From far and from wide/There’s the old Dalai Lama and the Pontiff of Rome/ Every palace in Europe – and there’s nay bugger home.”

They might now add the shimmering palaces of Saudi Arabia to that list of visiting eminences. Sting is a Newcastle United fan. Bobby Moncur was his football god growing up. Along with Nail, he has supported the fans in their protests against the dismal atmosphere of nothingness which governed the club under the ownership of Mike Ashley.

In his column in the Athletic on Friday, Alan Shearer, the first and last in Toon football royalty, described the Ashley period as “14 dreadful years”. The club was stagnant and moribund, existing to exist. There had been rumours of consortiums and takeovers before but Shearer had become so disenchanted he stopped taking phone calls to comment on them. He’d lost heart.

On Friday he found himself commenting on the stunning transformation of his beloved club in his column: “Theoretically at least, Newcastle will now become the wealthiest club in the world.”

Haddaway, man.

The biggest surprise about the takeover is it took so long for outside interests to recognise the potential of Newcastle. The club was always a comatose giant and it’s modest trophy cabinet – four league titles, the last in 1927; the last of six FA Cup wins in 1955 – a genuine mystery. The club has gold carat tradition, an obsessive fan base and a reputation for producing classicists – Shearer, Keegan, Waddle, Gascoigne, Beardsley were all, as the schoolteacher said, elusive in their prime. In the imagination of tens of thousands of fans, Newcastle United was just as “big” as Liverpool or Arsenal or any of the others. They just couldn’t show it. Until now.

The shorthand version of Newcastle’s new ownership is that after watching the team draw with Liverpool at St James’ Park four years ago, the business woman Amanda Staveley absorbed all the passion and authenticity and potential of the afternoon and decided there and then to try and buy the club. A self described “Yorkshire girl” Staveley has been greeted as a saviour in her appearances at the ground on Thursday and Friday morning.

After four years of perseverance, she has finally engineered a successful bid to buy the club from the loathed Ashley. Her firm, PCP Capital will own a 10 percent share. Another investor, Jamie Reuben, will also take 10 per cent. The remaining 80 per cent comes from the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is chaired by Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

Newcastle United’s new director Amanda Staveley and husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi talk to the media as she leaves the foyer of St James’ Park in Newcastle on Friday. Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images
Newcastle United’s new director Amanda Staveley and husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi talk to the media as she leaves the foyer of St James’ Park in Newcastle on Friday. Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

News of the takeover has generated inevitable disquiet. Saudi Arabia’s record since MBS became crown prince has combined surface liberal gestures with dismal human rights abuses, the most high-profile of which was the notorious killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a visit to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018. To detached observers, the purchase of Newcastle – solid emblem of the north, brown ale, all that – is just another example of an oppressive, wealthy state using a rooted sports club to burnish its image.

But there is a massive gulf between positions of theoretical disapproval and the euphoric, beery response across Newcastle, where Toon fans are celebrating as though they’ve won the lottery. The dilemma for Newcastle fans illustrates the moral complexity of supporting any big football club now.

Over the past few days, there was a strange and saddening overlap between the Khashoggi atrocity and English football when his former partner Hatice Cengiz requested the Premier League to block the takeover and appealed, on Sky News, to fans to stand for the fundamental values of human rights and freedom.

A significant minority of Newcastle fans have voiced similar concerns. But the vast majority was too busy celebrating to hear the protest. And it is easy for them to rationalise that position in their minds. The PIF has invested in companies all over the world – in Boeing, in Disney, in Facebook, in British Petroleum, in Bank of America. Where was the outcry to those investments? And what control does the fan have over who owns the club? Did anyone care when Mike Ashley ruined the club? They can console themselves that their money, the sterling they put down on their season ticket or for the new club shirt – is good. It is earned clean.

Look at the landscape of English football, they will say: the Manchester City renaissance since the influx of UAE funding; the success of Chelsea in the Ambramovich era. The world of international business is big and complicated and has always been morally queasy and cynical and sport is part of that culture: why should Newcastle United stand excluded?

Rumours of Saudi interest in acquiring Manchester United from the Glazers have been circulating for the last few years. And it is over a year since the Financial Times reported that Staveley and her husband attended a party on the Serene, the yacht owned by MBS, where an agreement was struck for the £300 million purchase of Newcastle from Ashley.

It was Staveley who had orchestrated the purchase of Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed of the UAE. There is no ethical dilemma in these transactions on her part. And for over a year, the bid seemed caught in limbo – a reflection of the club’s on-field stasis. Formidable determination – a calling card in her business career – pushed it through.

And, as the public face of the takeover, she has performed impeccably, already promising the intention to make Newcastle league contenders. Who would bet against that happening now? Newcastle as a Champions League force would have a transformative economic effect on the city. The fans are as happy as any relegation-threatened club has ever known. By Friday, there were rumours of Keegan sighted at the airport, like Peron returned. Fans became giddy predicting future signings. Mbappé! Pep! This is the state of their delirium.

In January of last year, George Caulkin, who covers Newcastle for the Athletic, wrote a wonderful essay on what it is to follow the club which appeared under the memorable headline: These Beautiful Bastard Heartbreakers, This Fucking Club – the Maddening Inescapable Beauty Of The Away End. It was an on-the-ground account of an away game at Goodison: “This is Everton away and we are Newcastle United: the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, the pissed and the proud.’ The piece cuts to the unique sensation of what it is to be of Newcastle: unconquerable pride mingling with increasing desperation.

When you have hundreds of thousands of football fans in a football-mad city starved of success and offer them a financial pathway to glory that comes with the caveat that the benefactor comes from a faraway place where bad stuff sometimes happens, the answer will be a deafening: yes. Nobody wants that, like . . . but yes. The rationale will be: that’s the world, isn’t it? As Shearer put it, while admitting a sense of conflict about the Saudi involvement: ‘I want my club to represent my city and my region and not some distant, authoritarian regime, but it looks like the second thing is opening the way to the first. Maybe it’s just our go.”

That’s the bottom line. So they’re launching a boat on high tide at noon. It may look like a murky kind of victory to those watching from afar. But as their song goes, the fog on the Tyne is all mine, all mine.

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