Ken Early: Newcastle supporters have full sight of latest exploitation bid

Geordie Nation continue to luck out but this time they know what they are getting into

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is in talks to sell the club to buyers from Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

It's almost 30 years since a Thatcherite property developer bought Newcastle United for £3 million, appointed Kevin Keegan as manager and began a major redevelopment of St James' Park, naming one of the stands after himself.

Sir John Hall had a good line of patter about the "Geordie Nation", asking why Newcastle could not become a great European regional capital like Barcelona. For a brief and brilliant time in the mid-1990s Newcastle United really were more than a club. They were the heart of a great surge of northern pride and energy, and the love of the fans for their team was famous throughout the world.

The passion of the Newcastle fans turned out to be very lucrative for Hall. He floated the club on the stock market in 1997, and the initial share issue was seven times oversubscribed as Newcastle fans rushed to own a piece of their club. By 2002 the shares had collapsed from the initial £1.40 to 20p, so most of the small fan investors lost their shirts, but Hall would make back many times his original investment through share sales and dividends. By the time Hall sold out to Mike Ashley in 2007, his family's total gains from their relationship with the club were in the region of thirty times his original £3 million investment.

The nature of the Newcastle ownership and management's relationship with the fanbase was exposed again by the Fake Sheikh scandal of 1998, when Hall's son Douglas and the new club chairman Freddy Shepherd were secretly taped describing Newcastle women as "dogs" and laughing at the stupidity of "mug" Newcastle fans who queued up to pay £50 for replica shirts which, according to Shepherd, cost £5 to manufacture in Asia.


The episode foreshadowed the reign of sportswear retail tycoon Ashley, who bought Newcastle for £133 million in 2007. Shepherd had insisted that the club was too precious to sell to anyone but a "Geordie Abramovich" – a deep-pocketed local benefactor who would pour millions into the team. Ashley was neither Geordie nor, in terms of how he saw the role of football club owner, anything like Roman Abramovich, though his purchase of Newcastle did pour almost £40 million into the pockets of Shepherd, who had built up a 28 per cent share in the club.

At first Ashley tried to cosplay as a man of the people. He sat among the fans in a Newcastle shirt as though he were just one of the lads, rather than a billionaire who had amassed his fortune thanks to a business model that was described by a 2016 parliamentary inquiry as being reminiscent of a “Victorian workhouse”. The report condemned the methods of Sports Direct, saying Ashley’s company “treated workers as commodities rather than as human beings”.

Former Newcastle owner Sir John Hall at the unveiling of Kenny Dalglish and Terry McDermott as the club’s new management team in January 1997. Photograph: Stevie Morton/Allsport//Getty Images

The Newcastle fans soon rejected Ashley, who seemed over the years to delight in repaying their loathing with petty acts of vengeance, humiliating legends like Keegan and Alan Shearer and renaming the stadium after his company. He ran Newcastle like one of his shops – a no-frills, low-margin, high-turnover trading enterprise festooned with his company branding.

Ashley is famously a high-rolling gambler, but as a football club owner his gambler’s instinct manifested in a peculiar, almost masochistic way. Rather than speculate to accumulate, he seemed obsessed by the goal of keeping Newcastle in the Premier League by the skin of their teeth and no more, as though to net the annual TV rights income with the absolute minimum of investment in the team was the sweetest thrill the game had to offer.

Consider the cruelty of this in the context of the luckless city of Newcastle, its traditional heavy industries long gone, and the remnants hollowed out by the kinds of business practices that turned Ashley into a billionaire. Consider the frustration of fans who feel bound to the club by the memory of dead generations, forced to watch an absentee landlord deliberately degrading it into something fake and unloveable, something transparently unworthy of devotion. Consider the disillusionment of being expected to turn up and cheer on this soulless travesty.

No wonder Newcastle fans now greet news of a Saudi Arabian-funded takeover with open rejoicing. No wonder they are not in the mood to listen to any haters right now. Britain and Saudi Arabia are allies and partners, after all. If the prime minister can shake hands with the Saudi leader after he was credibly accused of having a critic chopped up and dissolved in acid, why should football fans be expected to have higher standards? Many Newcastle fans have taken up the Manchester City line about their club having won the football lottery. All criticism is interpreted as jealousy, as though it was obvious that all football fans secretly yearned for their team to be taken over by a distant and despotic oil state.

The truth is the Newcastle fans are more bystanders than beneficiaries. Their club has been chosen because 13 years of Ashley austerity meant it was cheaper than some other clubs the Saudis would rather have owned. Newcastle’s prize is to become a host organism, the vehicle for a propaganda agenda that has nothing to do with the supporters and their city. Newcastle fans now get to pay for the privilege of supplying a lifelike and colourful backdrop – stage scenery for the soft power play.

Once again these fans are being exploited, just as they were when Freddy Shepherd was laughing at them for buying replica shirts, or when Sir John Hall was whipping the Geordie Nation up into a fever as he prepared to sell their own club back to them.

The only difference is that back then, they could credibly claim they didn’t realise what was happening at the time.