Amid a whirlwind of excitement, trepidation and impatience, Newcastle United fans anxiously anticipate the confirmation of some long-awaited news. Finally, Mike Ashley has agreed to sell the club. With the necessary paperwork signed and with just the Premier League to confirm the ownership of the club passing over to Saudi Arabia and its Public Investment Fund (PIF), it now seems merely a matter of days before a new era begins on Tyneside.
There are some United fans who are — perhaps justifiably — questioning the motives of the state merchants, suggesting they are using the club for their own agenda. Others are less preoccupied with such political implications and simply glad to see the back of the Mike Ashley “dictatorship” that has riddled the club throughout one of the most turbulent periods of its history. I spoke to those in the know about the seemingly inevitable deal and what might lie ahead for Newcastle, should they emerge from the doldrums of the Ashley era as the world’s wealthiest club.
According to an article by The Athletic’s James Montague, the widowed Hatice Cengiz (whose husband Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in 2018) believes that the move is entirely political, persistently opposing the potential takeover of the club by Saudi investors. In Cengiz’s eyes, buying Newcastle is a demonstration of Saudi Arabia attempting to “show the world its face of reform.”
The bid — fronted by British businesswoman Amanda Staveley, who also aided Abu Dhabi royal family member Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of Manchester City in 2008 — may well be a move to rebuild the reputation of a nation which, under crown prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), is one of the worst on the planet. Human rights abuses and executions are routine.
PCP, headed by Staveley, will take a 10% stake, with a further 10% split between the billionaire Reuben brothers, David and Simon. 80% of the club’s ownership will belong to PIF, led by MBS. But, Geordie fans have been clear in their vow to raise issues about the human rights record of the homeland of their prospective new owners, should it go through. As each day with no positive news passes, fears over the finalization of another takeover — and salvation from the greedy clutches of Ashley — are raised.
Evin Grant is an admin of the fan site NUFC 360. In the 15 years or so he has been a supporter, a Mike Ashley-owned club is virtually all he’s known.
“The entire fanbase is absolutely buzzing for this to go through. Considering what we know about the buyers, it means that it’s not just Ashley going, but also a wealthy consortium coming in,” Grant says.
Chris Waugh covers North East football for The Athletic and echoes the thoughts of Grant having gauged the palpable excitement of fans online.
“A large part of the excitement that I’ve seen is on social media. In general, people are really excited. It’s been a strange few weeks because obviously this is a very controversial deal and I think a lot of the issues that have been raised are important, but I also think there’s nuance to this.
“A lot of Newcastle fans, for a long time, have really wanted Mike Ashley to sell up and it hadn’t looked like that was going to happen,” despite the fact that the Chief Executive of Sports Direct put the club up for sale in October 2017.
Waugh has been covering the club for five years now, having previously worked for publications including MailOnline and The Chronicle. The initial euphoria, he feels, is primarily down to the likelihood of Ashley’s departure rather than the identity of his prospective successors. The news has been at least a decade — in which time there have been a series of nearly moments regarding the owner’s sale of the club — in waiting.
“There’s a lot of excitement and almost relief that Mike Ashley is going. There really will be a party atmosphere albeit from within their own homes rather than the centre of Newcastle once it happens,” Waugh says.
Rob Spereall contributes to Newcastle Fans TV and has been attending games for as long as he can remember, having witnessed the comparatively upbeat pre-Ashley years. He neatly sums up the reasoning behind the outpour of elation.
“When we say that we will celebrate, that is because Mike Ashley will leave. It’s not necessarily about what could be coming around the corner, it’s the fact that this dictatorship might be coming to an end.”
Since Kevin Keegan left in 2008, the relationship between Ashley and the Newcastle fans has been fractious at best. Waugh also identified the misgivings and apprehension of a large portion of the fanbase about the involvement of Saudi Arabia and its sovereign wealth fund. Despite these concerns, “the overwhelming majority of fans are really excited about what they feel may be a new era for their club.”
The potential for a change of ownership gives Newcastle fans hope of propelling them to a position in the table more befitting of their club’s status, and who knows beyond. Some have already dared to dream.
Renewed ambition, a previous lack thereof
As Grant puts it, “the takeover would immediately transform the club from an unambitious shallow institution to the richest club in the world.
“I don’t think PIF would buy a club to be happy for it to languish near relegation places or in mid table.” Neither would the fans. They are allowed to be ambitious.
“At best, we have to hope for a steady improvement. We’re not just going to fly straight to the top on a Concorde,” Spereall says. “Ashley leaving would be what provokes the celebrations, because we’ve had two relegations under him, and six in our history. He has been responsible for a third of our relegations, going back 128 years.”
It is remarkable that ambition has waned so drastically and underachievement so normalised, to the extent that immediate bounce back Championship title victories following the two relegations (in 2009 and 2016) have been the highlights of Ashley’s time at the club. Until this season, Newcastle had never gone past the FA Cup fourth round under Ashley’s ownership.
In Waugh’s opinion, the biggest negative of the Ashley era has been the “artificial glass ceilings” figuratively placed on ambition. “Whether ambition and reality match is a different matter, but as a football fan part of it is about escapism and wanting to dream. That hasn’t been the case during Ashley’s era.”
Spereall is of the opinion that perceptions must now change. European qualification and a genuine pursuit of the club’s first major trophy (Championship titles aside) since the 2006 UEFA Intertoto Cup triumph may be on the horizon.
“Whenever we have stayed in the Premier League, especially since around 2015, we’ve been looking over our shoulder. Hopefully, with this injection of new owners, we will be looking at what’s above us.”
Politics and football: mutually exclusive?
As for the present matter at hand, Spereall believes its political and footballing aspects must be looked at independently.
“This is a footballing issue, and therefore politics should be kept out of it. Just like the Eurovision song contest, there should be no political agendas involved in this.
“I do feel it’s convenient for people to bring up the whole political agenda when it’s Newcastle being taken over, when the likes of Anthony Joshua just a few months ago had a big fight over there [in Saudi Arabia, the “Clash On The Dunes”] against Andy Ruiz Jr, and when they are heavily involved with our royal family and have had several official meetings with Her Majesty The Queen. No one has ever said anything when those things have come up.”
Waugh also subscribes to the feeling that the two issues can be mutually exclusive, while noting that it is still important to understand how they are connected. Fans have become disillusioned, perhaps wondering if they would see the day Ashley gave in to the wishes of the masses.
“It’s difficult, unless you’ve been submerged in the Newcastle United story over the last few years, to truly understand the situation a lot of fans have been in.
“To be excited about the end of the Mike Ashley era doesn’t mean that you don’t harbour concerns about potential Saudi involvement. Those two things aren’t contradictory, they can work side by side.”
There are those who fall on both sides of the argument, with minorities of supporters either unconcerned by non-footballing matters or unwilling to morally support the takeover, all things considered. Most, Waugh says, seem to fall somewhere in the middle.
It seems that Ashley is now resigned to the fact that his controversial 13-year tenure at the club is coming to a close. There is also a degree of resignation, although of a slightly different variety, among Newcastle fans — many of whom would argue that they have suffered enough to be deserving of some success of their own.
Spereall is aware that supporters of other teams, potentially out of jealousy, would play the ‘buying success’ card when it comes to the Newcastle takeover. He winces at the future idea of being labelled a ‘plastic’ fan should the investment lead to an expansion of the fanbase as has been seen with Chelsea and Manchester City since the turn of the century. In fact, Spereall is at pains to qualify his own metallic, historical strength in supporting his beloved club.
“In terms of buying success, it’s a sad reflection of what the game has evolved into nowadays when you see Manchester City winning many trophies left, right and centre.
“For a long time now, I resigned myself to believing that we would never win a trophy at all in my lifetime. Hopefully I’ve still got a few long years to go, but I just want to win one! I want that earned trophy that isn’t the Championship.”
Asked about whether it has been difficult to remain level-headed given the number of rumoured new owners NUFC have had over the years, Grant was unequivocal in his response. “For sure. We’ve had numerous false dawns in recent years like the first PCP bid, the BZG bid and the Kenyon bid. They were reportedly ‘done’ but never happened, so it’s at the back of everyone’s mind and some people are still cautious.”
Having covered a series of Newcastle takeover sagas over the past three years, Waugh called the caution of fans like Grant “probably a healthy mindset to have.”
But this is the furthest a possible deal has gone. Seemingly, both sides have done everything they possibly can. Now, the completion of the deal rests in the hands of the Premier League. The league itself has come under intense scrutiny from beIN Sports and Amnesty International, as well as from Cengiz, regarding the need to “fully interrogate” the proposed takeover. There are complications that mean, naturally for Geordie fans, that there is a sense of wariness.
“I’ve always told myself ‘don’t get too carried away yet.’ It needs to happen first before we can start to think about what we could possibly be,” Spereall says.
Big spending ahead and what next for Bruce?
Since his appointment in July of last year, Steve Bruce has faced persistent difficulty in winning over the fans. A big part of that has been down to the popularity of his predecessor and the handling of that particular exit.
“I’d be more than happy to see him (Bruce) stay because he has earned that right. He came in last year into a very hostile situation just because he wasn’t Rafael Benitez,” Spereall says.
There is, however, a ‘but’. Similar to the balanced consideration of both sides regarding the identity of the new owners, Waugh surmises that “I don’t think if they were offered a clean slate about who would be the manager, they would pick Steve Bruce. But most fans would acknowledge he’s done a decent job.”
Bruce is odds on to not be sat in the Newcastle dugout come the start of the 2020-21 campaign, whenever that may be. As Spereall puts it, some initial support for Bruce as the league schedule resumes for this season would likely subside with time, “now that we might be able to attract a top manager, one that has done it on the biggest of stages like the Champions League.”
One such manager who has done ‘it’ in European football’s premier competition — ‘it’ being improbably taking his then Tottenham side to Madrid for last season’s Champions League final — in recent times is Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentinian has emerged as the Saudis’ number one choice to replace Bruce upon his expected exit; whenever that may be.
It is not just rumours about some of the game’s elite coaches that have been bandied about. A number of the world’s biggest names on the pitch have also been linked with a move to Tyneside, as part of the soon-to-be owners’ grand plans to return Newcastle to the top table of English football. Spereall feels that a striker would be the primary position requiring investment, given the stark underachievement of Brazilian club record signing Joelinton since his move from Hoffenheim last summer.
‘Once we can afford it, we need a proven striker. He’s (Joelinton) just found this level and has been played in a completely different position to where he was while at Hoffenheim.
It may just be an “opportune time,” as Waugh puts it, to be in a position to steal a march in a heavily coronavirus-impacted transfer market. As other clubs may be unable to spend or are struggling economically to the extent that they need to sell star players at cut-prices, the influx of unparalleled wealth would prevent such issues for the Magpies. There are, though, layers of complication remaining in the way of fanciful visions of Gareth Bale, Philippe Coutinho and the like running out in black and white for now.
On Monday, it was reported that new legal documents had been passed to the Premier League which, along with the ongoing complications surrounding Project Restart and remote operations, are likely to delay the process further.
The saga appears to be stuttering to a conclusion. After years of relegations for the club, along with protests towards Ashley’s questionable, ambition-lacking ownership of their beloved Newcastle, fans will desperately hope a takeover does go through. If and when it does, they will be faced with the inevitable questions regarding their new owners.
In the contemporary world of an enduring lockdown, most Newcastle supporters would accept those questions as a consequence. They must now stay alert and await the impending news about their club’s financial transformation, happily waving goodbye to the Ashley years in the process.