By Guy Wilson
As a lifelong Newcastle United fan, the serious takeover talks of the past couple of months have brought me a childish excitement. The sweet candy of Edinson Cavani, Dries Mertens and Philippe Coutinho glitters in shiny wrappers in the shop window, and feels peculiarly and tantalisingly within reach. Who would have thought that three months ago?
I often have to bite my tongue when Newcastle fans slander their current owner Mike Ashley for being a ‘soft’ or ‘stupid’ southerner or any sibilant combination of the like. I too am a southerner associated with Newcastle United. But while I would practically die for my club, Mr Ashley, I fear, would not.
A scheming and ruthless businessman, Ashley has never viewed the club as anything more than a self-serving commercial project. He would buy players cheap to later sell them on, while proper financial investment has been reluctant and has come only in emergency, when Newcastle fans have reached breaking point.
A prime example is this season’s heavy expenditure on striker Joelinton and winger Allan Saint-Maximin in a desperate attempt to regain fan support after rupturing relations with their beloved Rafa Benitez. Had the same money spent by Steve Bruce been at Benitez’s disposal one season earlier, the story could be very different. Oddly timed investment has typified the reign of the Sports Direct big shot.
Ashley is the unfortunate common denominator in just over a decade of failure for Newcastle United; a decade which included two relegations to the Championship, no silverware (excluding two Championship titles), and just three top-half finishes in 10 attempts (two of which were 10th place). To add to an already unreconcilable reputation, he is one of three Premier League owners to furlough their non-playing staff during the pandemic.
It seems, then, that 13 long and painful years of unambitious and self-centred ownership could end and a new era of glitzy optimism could dawn on Tyneside. Amanda Staveley, owner of PCP Capital Partners, appears to have manoeuvred a deal understood to be around £300m for the club to change hands, with final paperwork and checks the only apparently remaining obstacle. 80 percent of the club will be owned by Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Staveley is demanding a 10 percent stake, while the Reuben Brothers will take the remaining 10 percent. That all seems nice and clear and rosy. Far from it.
The majority shareholder has a considerably tainted track record and the Premier League must be very careful about any pollution of its values by allowing the Saudi PIF such big stakes and influence in its highly reputable competition (I say this grudgingly but necessarily, biased as I am). Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is shady to say the least. Western intelligence has strong reason to believe that Bin Salman himself ordered the murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz has used the opportunity of the takeover to urge Newcastle fans to block the deal given the Saudi regime’s human rights abuses.
A revolution at Newcastle is long overdue — I only hope that this one is treated with caution and inquisition when it comes to the regime behind the owner
The evidence connecting Bin Salman to Khashoggi’s inexplicable murder is intangible enough for optimists to argue his innocence, or even to claim that politics of the sort has no relevance to football. For me, the scandal is a large and obtrusive problem which I am struggling to look beyond.
The abhorrent murder is representative of an oppressive and overly censorial regime which has no place in our modern world. To accept such enormous investment from a national Saudi Arabian fund seems to be an approval of the values of an ostensibly immoral political culture. Few owners in the Premier League are clean – many have a sinister streak and there is uncertainty as to how they legitimately amounted such extortionate wealth. But this is less about the minor exploitation of workers (in the case of Mike Ashley and Sports Direct) or cutting financial corners, and more about human life. There is enough evidence, in my view, that Bin Salman is complicit in a human murder. And simply because someone had the audacity to criticize the Saudi regime? That is an oppressive dictatorship. A victory for Newcastle in a Champions League quarter-final (granted, this might take a while) would taste considerably less sweet if I knew it was lining those despotic pockets.
The second and still sizeable elephant in the room is an alleged three-year theft of Premier League commercial rights courtesy of the Saudi Arabian beoutQ pirate television service. The evidence for this qualm is indisputable. While Qatar-based beIN Sports expends a mouth-watering £400m for three years of precious Premier League coverage, Saudi Arabia shamelessly leaches from its neighbours. It hasn’t offered a penny. Investigations and attempted shutdowns of the beoutQ service have led nowhere, while beIN Sport and their chief executive Yousef al-Obaidly have persistently communicated with the Premier League about the issue. The obstinacy of the Saudi authorities on the matter is seemingly impenetrable, as they confidently deny the claims. Yet it astounds me that an organization with as much clout as the Premier League has continually allowed itself to be mocked by such lengthy and conspicuous piracy.
If the takeover is to go ahead, there simply must be a clause in the contract which demands payment from Saudi Arabia for commercial rights at the very least beginning next season. Remember, Saudi Arabia is trying to invest in the Premier League, not vice versa, and the British organisation must own the terms. “No rights, no takeover” sends the right message about who is in the driving seat. The Premier League endorses the democracy of the country it represents and entering organizations must adhere to these values. If not, what kind of precedent does that set for the future of the business?
I know what you’re wondering. Is this writer really a Newcastle fan? Is he Lee Cattermole or Jordan Pickford in disguise? Why is he putting a big dampener on the most exciting development for his club since the near-title-winning season of 1996-97? Maybe I should be more like the 96.7 percent of Newcastle fans who said they were in favour of the takeover in a survey published by NUST (Newcastle United Supporters Trust) a few weeks ago. The truth is, when your club has been in turmoil for over a decade, it’s near impossible to appreciate the bigger picture — to recognise the malevolent connotations of the gleaming millions about to be injected into your neglected club. For that reason, I cannot and do not criticize that 96.7 percent. I’ve felt their pain and frustration for most of my football-supporting life. But where this is injustice, I cannot let my passion for football blur the vision of my most fundamental human values.
It looks like the takeover will go ahead. Protesting voices like mine on Tyneside will be glaringly few and mutters of uncertainty will be drowned out by the anticipation of marquee signings and headline-splitting bids for Gareth Bale and Kalidou Koulibaly. I’d be lying if I said that I’m unlikely to be swept away at some point by the exhilarating commotion – I’ve evidenced my guilty temptation at the beginning of this same article. Greg Tomlinson, a board member at the NUST best catered for my stance when he said: “It’s not impossible to be excited about Mike Ashley’s departure and still feel concerned about the [human rights] issues”.
That’s certainly where I stand. I agree with Jameela Khan of Amnesty International that there must be “space for people to criticise Saudi Arabia”. If not, the values endorsed by the Premier League will be hideously sabotaged. A revolution at Newcastle United is long overdue; I only hope that this particular revolution is treated with continued caution and inquisition about the regime which stands behind the owner. Newcastle fans: let’s not let the millions blind us. As humans, ethical values always come first.
Image: Gary Denham via Flickr