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Ken Early: Newcastle take final step in becoming Saudi regime’s pet club

Any success the club achieves won’t feel like the fans always dreamt it would feel

The cameras had feasted on the joy of Newcastle's new chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan and minority shareholder Amanda Staveley as they celebrated Callum Wilson's second-minute opener.

Now they lingered on their stony faces as they watched their new team be humiliated by Tottenham: 3-1 down, a man sent off and hardly able to get a kick of the ball.

Might this actually have been the biggest public humiliation of Al-Rumayyan's career? Certainly it was hard to imagine that the 51-year-old, who combines being chairman of Newcastle with roles as governer of Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund and chairman of Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil producer, has been the face of many globally televised debacles before this one.

At the end, the defeated Newcastle players forlornly applauded the wonderful fans for whom they will soon no longer be playing.


Don't expect to hear criticism of the takeover from any ex-pro who can point to a couple of seasons at St James' Park that might entitle them to a place on the gravy train

At the sort of heights Newcastle are aiming for, the air is a little too rarefied for the likes of Jonjo Shelvey. The substitute midfielder had played an almost horizontal ball across the face of the box, with most of his team-mates having already pushed ahead of it - effectively a telegraphed square pass which invited a fast Spurs counterattack into the undefended Newcastle half.

The mistake forced him into fouling Sergio Reguilon for a second yellow card. Such richly comic scenes of ineptitude could soon be mere folk memory at St James' Park and, who knows, maybe even the stuff of nostalgia.

Earlier the match had been stopped for 20 minutes while a Newcastle fan who had collapsed in the stand received urgent medical attention. In this moment everyone clearly understood how matters of life and death take precedence over mere football.

At least as long as these matters are unfolding before everyone’s eyes in the stadium. When they take place in some distant embassy or Yemeni killing field, well - out of sight, out of mind.

Paltry consolation

It was a good day for Spurs, with Harry Kane scoring and the team pushing up to fifth in the table, ahead of Manchester United. But three points also seemed a paltry consolation, given the grim implications of Saudi Arabia's arrival for Tottenham and several other aspiring Premier League powers.

The arrival of another state owner for whom money is no object intensifies the trends that made the owners at Spurs and their counterparts at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United want to break away into the Super League. History shows that oil clubs are almost impossible to dislodge from the Champions League places. The "conventional" business-minded owners will now surely seek to exit.

Who, though, will buy their clubs at the valuations they place on them, when new investors can get better results buying a fixer-upper? The Daily Telegraph reported last month that Daniel Levy valued Tottenham at £3.5 billion, but the Saudi sovereign wealth fund spent less than one-tenth of that on Newcastle.

The £3 billion plus change in the difference is more than enough to turn them into Europe’s dominant club. Why would any incoming billionaire or trillionaire choose instead to spend their money enriching the owners of a club that believes it is already big?

Of course, bad news for the Spurs owners is not necessarily bad news for the Spurs players. Harry Kane is an obvious target for Newcastle’s new owners: as the cliché has it, “they love their number nines”.

Whether or not Kane ever joins Newcastle, the wage and transfer inflation that will be driven by the takeover is good news for him and for other top players and their agents. It's fantastic news for celebrity managers like José Mourinho, who was already carefully positioning himself as "a little Magpie" and the spiritual heir to Bobby Robson in the days when the takeover was no more than a gleam in Amanda Staveley's eye.

Insofar as wage inflation destabilises the economy of the game and drives clubs towards bankruptcy it is not such good news for the majority of players outside the elite. So the takeover is part of a familiar process by which an ever-greater share of economic rewards accrues to an ever-smaller circle of beneficiaries.

Other conspicuous potential beneficiaries include ex-Newcastle players. The NUFC cinematic universe suddenly has the budget for a greatly increased cast of characters, a new Geordie Valhalla must be populated with living legends to analyse Newcastle matches, and ambassadors to represent the club in new markets.

Don’t expect to hear criticism of the takeover from any ex-pro who can point to a couple of seasons at St James’ Park that might entitle them to a place on the gravy train.

Little appeal

Of course the takeover is bad news for most football fans, since the prospect of watching Saudi Arabia and the UAE duke it out with Qatar for the top prizes in the sport has little appeal.

The question of whether it is good news for Newcastle fans might seem absurd to anyone who witnessed the scenes of jubilation and rejoicing in the build-up to kick off. But it’s clear that the takeover has the classic structure of the Faustian bargain. The fans will finally get to watch Newcastle win some trophies. But it won’t feel like they always dreamt it would feel, because everyone will understand the success has been bought by Saudi Arabia for the greater glory of Saudi Arabia.

It's as the former Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez said, when asked in 2006 to appraise the work of his rival Mourinho at Chelsea: "Mr Abramovich has done a fantastic job." The jibe infuriated Mourinho because he knew everyone knew it was true.

Whatever Newcastle used to represent has been superseded by its new identity as the Saudi regime’s pet club. The role of Newcastle fans now is to provide a spectacular backdrop for shots of Saudi businessmen looking like rock stars. The worst indictment of what went before is that most of them insist this is a good deal.