While this week marks the six‑month anniversary of the Newcastle United takeover by a Saudi-led consortium fronted by the minority shareholders Amanda Staveley and Mehrdad Ghodoussi, it seems an awful lot longer since images of home fans celebrating with unfettered Geordie abandon outside St James ‘Park were first beamed around the world.
Signed, sealed and controversially waved through by the Premier League during an international break bookended by defeats for the club against Wolves and Tottenham Hotspur, the change of ownership took place with Newcastle second from the bottom of the table, ahead of only Norwich City and with just three points from seven games to their name. It would take another seven matches for them to chalk up their first win of this campaign but, while results may not have immediately improved under the new regime, the mood around Tyneside certainly did.
Following more than a decade of what was, at the best of times, plodding, ambition-free mediocrity under Mike Ashley, Newcastle fans finally had grounds for what they saw as long overdue optimism even if – for some – it came at a moral price . Some, but by no means all, as the preponderance of Saudi flags hoisted alongside the social media avatars of many Newcastle supporters would soon testify.
While a legal distinction was made between the majority shareholders, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia (chairman: Sheikh Mohammed Bin Salman), and the country which runs it (crown prince: Sheikh Mohammed Bin Salman), it was widely accepted the two entities they were pretty much one and the same. Newcastle had joined Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in becoming a state-owned club bought for image-laundering purposes, in the process swapping one billionaire with an almost heroic disregard for what anyone thinks of him, for another far more wealthy and apparently generous one who, it seems, just wants to be loved.
Cue much finger-pointing, whatabouting and often vicious squabbling as many Newcastle fans, who had always been quick to point out the myriad shortcomings of their former proprietor, suddenly began taking serious exception to even the mildest criticism of his replacement. Questions regarding the suitability of Bin Salman as an owner owing to the claims of US intelligence that he approved the slaying of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi – a claim denied by the Saudi foreign ministry – plus his country’s sustained campaign of bombing in Yemen and the litany of human rights abuses visited upon many of his subjects have been fielded – and often dismissed – in a variety of ways veering from the reasoned to the downright deranged.
In a sit-down interview with the Athletic shortly after the takeover was confirmed, Staveley, who along with her husband, Ghodoussi, is the public face and mouthpiece of the Newcastle ownership, paid lip service to these issues but only fleetingly, utterly unconvincingly and up to a point. “Human rights we take very seriously but our partner is PIF, not the Saudi state,” she said. “The separation issue has been resolved. It’s not sportswashing, it’s investment.”
Less than a week later, the Athletic published another article. It explained quite clearly how, despite Staveley’s best attempts to create a clear distinction between the Saudi sovereign wealth fund from the state, the two are, as everyone knows, inextricably intertwined. “If Newcastle is owned by PIF, it is de facto controlled by the government of Saudi Arabia,” said Bradley Hope, the journalist and co-author of Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power.
Meanwhile, in the wild west of the internet, all hell was breaking loose, with critics of the new ownership group accused of high-handed hypocrisy because they had once supported multiple Saudi‑supported businesses by checking their Facebook account in the back of an Uber on their way home to watch a movie on Disney+. Levels of whataboutery went off the scale, with football writers discovering that, unless they openly criticize everything that is wrong in sport, they are apparently precluded from criticizing anything that is wrong.
What about the Saudi Grand Prix? What about the Joshua fight in Riyadh? What about Saudi investment in Manchester United? What about Chelsea? What about Manchester City? What about what about what about?
The more reasoned arguments came from Newcastle supporters who felt under attack and on the back foot despite having no say whatsoever in who owns their club. Unlike the army of useful idiots PIF seem to have acquired as part of their purchase agreement, these fans made the entirely reasonable point that it ought to be acceptable for them to cheer on a team they have followed all their lives without feeling compelled to wave pom -poms on behalf of the regime that owns it.
Installed as the replacement for Steve Bruce, Eddie Howe has pointedly refused to answer any awkward questions about his new employers, peddling his “I am but a humble football coach” line whenever they are posed. While nobody expects him to thrash those who pay his wages, as the sole club spokesman who is, fairly or unfairly, shoved weekly in front of a hail of interrogatory projectiles, he could perhaps learn a thing or two from his Chelsea counterpart, Thomas Tuchel , who seems far more accomplished at answering such queries. Then again, as a former PSG manager, the German has had more practice.
On the field, Howe has had an easier time of it after a shaky start. Through a combination of lavish January spending and his skill at revitalizing players who had been hideously underperforming under his predecessor, he has put distance between his side and the relegation mire. Even after three consecutive defeats, the most recent to hide by Tottenham, they still look safe. For all their incandescent rage at their club’s detractors, Newcastle fans have never seemed happier as they dance and sing along to the tune Howe is getting from his side of him.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism