From Sports Direct to Sports-Washing, Newcastle United eight months on from the takeover.



Let's rewind to the 13th of August 2021, to the caption I posted on Instagram for the start of the season.


"Football is back. Another season of guaranteed disappointment for me, but I like to think of it as character building. Only another 14 months until I can forget I support Newcastle and stake claim to the best ballers in England."


Fast-forward to the end of the season and Newcastle United are the richest club on Earth after a takeover, Joelinton is voted the Player of the Season by club fans and finish comfortably safe from the drop. It's been a whirlwind, and a controversial one at that. Let me take you on a guided tour of the past ten months, explaining exactly what this season entailed and why the takeover means so much to so many, for so many different reasons — good and bad.


For Newcastle fans it’s been well-documented that the Ashley era was one of absolutely dire performances, aside from the outlying season with a sprinkling of magic provided by a top 5 finish. The consistent dross endured by fans on a weekly basis, paired with the absolute apathy from the top down, was a cocktail that led to two relegations accompanied by complete and utter disillusionment. Almost everything that has been done so far under the new ownership could have been done under Ashley. The only difference is the engagement with the club, and a plan of how to actually take it forward.


Yes, I have to recognise and accept the almost £90 million spent in January represents a significant investment, however, if you look at the graph below (created by the excellent SwissRamble on Twitter) you will see Newcastle are the only club that have played in the Premier League between 2010-2020 to have actually paid out to their owner, rather than receive investment.





So I am prepared to say this investment is long overdue. Before Mike Ashley bought the club, NUFC had the 14th highest revenue in the world, with only a £19million gap between them and 10th place on the list. That gap increased to £209million by 2021, and as you can see in the second graph, player purchases between 2019-2021 put NUFC below Sheffield United and Fulham.


Money is a huge talking point around the takeover, and yes, NUFC are the richest club in the world by a huge margin. However, it's the hope and desire to engage with the fans that has been the most notable change — one that not many non-NUFC fans would recognise. The return of Shearer's statue onto the ground around St. James Park, having previously resided just outside due to the pettiness of Mike Ashley. Nine Bar, located in the stadium having its name changed back to Shearer's Bar. The inclusion and encouragement of WorFlags, who have contributed hugely to the atmosphere at home games, have all contributed to the feel good factor returning. All of this pales in comparison to the appointment and work of one Eddie Howe.


His predecessor, Steve Bruce, can only be described as a turgid appointment. One of the many managers on the merry-go-round of jobs, somehow always managing to be employed, regardless of their horrendous track record. The football was awful, the results were dreadful and it got to the point where you questioned if he was actually un-sackable. NUFC didn't win a game until the 4th December, and whilst Eddie Howe was announced on the 8th November, the two draws and a loss to Arsenal before that first win was quite the turnaround for a side absolutely devoid of confidence. Nothing embodied this more than the moment Jacob Murphy squandered a chance against Watford with the NUFCTV commentator screaming "AAAARGHHH, JUST PUT IT IN THE NET!" If anyone has their doubts about NUFC fans' constant bemoaning of Bruce, he then took the West Bromwich Albion job when they were 6th in the league. Losing seven and drawing four of the remaining 17 games, they finished 10th, well outside their play-off place he inherited.


With Howe in place, and Newcastle looking for their first win, possibly the strangest turnaround of a player's fortune occurred on the 30th November. NUFC played Norwich in what was possibly the earliest six-pointer I can remember. Nine minutes into the game and Finnish international Teemu Pukki steams through on goal, only to be brought crashing down by Ciaran Clark. The crowd goes ballistic, I go apoplectic at home and within ten minutes it seems as if NUFC is consigned to another week of misery. Eddie Howe on the other hand, pulls off one of the finest managerial tweaks I've ever seen. Joelinton, the much derided centre forward / winger / no-one-really-knows, drops into the centre of midfield and he produces one of the most memorable midfield performances in Premier League history (okay, slight embellishment but you get my point). With Whatsapp groups struggling to keep up with the praise, it almost single-handedly revitalises his career. For the rest of the season, he is the first name on the team sheet, providing a pivotal machine-like work ethic in midfield. His performance in a 1-1 draw against Tik-Tok FC (aka Manchester United) was capped by nutmegging Rashford after receiving a delicious cross field ball and laying it off to Saint-Maximin.


January arrives and the feverish atmosphere surrounding the club being linked with every player under the sun is somewhat quelled by no announcements within the first week. Kieran Trippier becomes the first to sign on the dotted line for a measly £12 million and signalled the intent of the new owners. Granted, £12 mill for Trippier could've been achieved under Ashley, however I fully accept that there is not a chance in hell he would've signed for the club it was in August. With the first player over the line, the arrival of Dan Burn, Bruno Guimarães, Matt Targett (on loan) and Chris Wood also provided some form of depth to a paddling pool squad. Chris Wood, it must also be mentioned, was absolutely needed. Yes, he might not have scored many goals and didn't exactly get Newcastle fans out of their seats after his move, however, the alternative was having Dwight Gayle start, with academy players on the bench to make up the numbers. Did he justify his £25 mill price tag? No, although the parallel universe in which he didn't sign would've been very different.


Safety was confirmed in April, with Norwich and Watford all but making up the numbers in the league. The final day of the season ended with Newcastle beating Burnley at Turf Moor to consign them to relegation. I've seen my team relegated, and it's horrible, but you're not relegated on the final day. It's the 37 games before that and I am glad that the final horcrux of the long-ball mantra teams (à la Stoke City) are out of the division.


The season recap is complete. I've hopefully shed some light onto some of the events that you may have missed, however I do need to talk about the elephant in the room. The new owners.


The breakdown as to the ownership is as follows.


Public Investment Fund (80%), is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, reported to have assets of around £490 billion. It was created to invest funds on behalf of the government and is controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.


RB Sports & Media (10%), aka the Indian-born British-businessmen David and Simon Reuben, are the second wealthiest family in the UK, making their money in the metals business before moving into real estate. Reportedly worth £16 billion.


PCP Capital Partners (10%), headed up by Amanda Staveley, who was also responsible for facilitating the successful takeover of Manchester City in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group.


With that clarified, whenever anybody mentions 'The Saudis' it's a rather more complex situation to unravel. The accusations of sports-washing originally put forward to the group are rebutted with the assurance that the PIF group is a separate entity from the nation state itself. Which legally is true, and any wider direct influence is yet to be seen, aside from the mid-season training camp being held in Saudi Arabia. The face of the takeover has been Amanda Staveley and her husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi, with the Reuben Brothers popping up now and again.


My opinion on the new owners is a malleable one, and it needs to be. I believe that Newcastle fans shouldn't be blamed for the takeover or any sports-washing that is allegedly occurring. We've been here long before the owners, and will continue to be long after they are gone. I however do believe that it is responsibility of the fans to be visible in their open-mindedness and acceptance of all, and the engagement that has been shown by the new owners with fans and fan groups is a very encouraging sign for both parties. It may be wishful thinking, but even if the appearance of pride flags at matches provides a talking point and encourages conversation within the upper echelons of the country's society, then that can only be a good thing.


The acceptance of Amanda Staveley as the individual to facilitate the deal is also a point that shouldn't be forgotten, and with the owners deciding to schedule the first NUFC Women's team match at St James' Park, I am encouraged by the first signs of the ownership. Over 22,000 fans turned up for the fourth division game, and it is something that Amanda Staveley wants to build on to take the club forward.


Is this an example of sports-washing? You could argue, yes. However, the PIF Group are huge. The amount of money and the investments that they have stretch far and wide, with some being a world away from the Premier League. If people are going to boycott the group, you'll have to think long and hard about where you draw the line. Just to pluck an example out the hat, in 2021 they purchased stakes in American video game companies EA (Electronic Arts), Take-Two Interactive and Activision Blizzard. This in addition to their purchase of a 5% stake in Nintendo in May 2022, which means they have many fingers in many pies.


Can we shy away from the accusations of Human Rights abuses in the country? Of course not. Can we put our fingers in our ears and pretend that it is something that is miles away and has nothing to do with us? No. What we can do is educate ourselves to be able to stand up and make our voices heard. This however, being realistic, falls on those with the voices to make a difference: fan groups, leaders inside and outside the club. The expectation that football fans are suddenly going to become experts in geopolitical issues is ridiculous, and this doesn't stop at Newcastle fans. Chelsea, at the start of the year, also had to question their club's owner Roman Abramovich's relationship with Putin, and it's a tough one. The vocal minority at certain games shouldn't be a barometer of the wider thoughts and emotional intelligence of a fan base.


As we saw with the Super League, fans voices can be heard and it is down to them to be a catalyst for change. Do I think fans in general will come out as strongly to oppose this going forward? Not in the slightest, as ultimately it's down to the Premier League to be the gatekeeper for the league and to ensure that any new club owners pass a hopefully more rigorous owners test. For the moment, we are yet to see how much involvement the PIF group are actually going to have on a day-to-day basis, the financial backing has already been seen and Newcastle fans revelling in some hope being injected into the club that was stuck on life-support shouldn't be deplored. Visibility of how we believe society should be accepting of all as well as the pillars of 'Western' values should be at the forefront of any conversation.


I will continue to support Newcastle United as I have done through thick and thin over the past 27 years, and I am excited by the hope of potential on-pitch success. How I support them and to what capacity I feel comfortable with the owners may change, but I want — and sincerely hope — that both Newcastle United and Saudi Arabia can make positive societal changes, locally and nationally.

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