‘I’m massively conflicted – I still love that football club’: Newcastle fans in the face of a tarnished takeover
For a situation that’s an emotional maze, Norman Riley is straight up about Newcastle United’s takeover, and admirably honest.
“I’m saying to you now, I’ll still go to matches,” the contributor to True Faith podcast says. “And I have a masters in human rights. I’m fully aware of Saudi Arabia’s record. I’m massively conflicted. I still love that football club. The reality is I am going to engage in behaviour that’s hypocritical. There are no two ways about it.”
Newcastle supporters are forced to look multiple ways right now, because of a genuine moral dilemma that this takeover poses. One long-time fan The Independent spoke to was privately close to tears about the situation, not least about some of the online fan backing for Saudi Arabia. Riley fairly describes it as an “awkward, awful position to be in”.
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That almost always seems the luck for Newcastle in the modern era. They get their wish, but it comes with a heavy price, much greater than that the £300m PIF-led consortium are set to pay for the club.
The supporters have finally rid themselves of Mike Ashley, which is a genuine reason to rejoice. There is a hope the club can at last be released.
Amid such euphoria, though, there is already this growing noise that the new owners may be worse. Morally, much worse.
Many fans just don’t want to confront this right now. Many more find it very complicated. Others don’t know what to think.
For some outside the club, the thinking seems obvious. Such a deal – to use the words of democracy activist Iyad el-Baghdadi – is “disgusting”. It won’t be Newcastle as they know it. It will be a host organism for a sportswashing exercise, from one of the most criticised states on earth.
Worst of all, a specific part of that exercise is using the fans and their emotional connection. The thinking is they should walk away, boycott, whatever.
For those involved, though, it really isn’t that simple. The same has long applied to Manchester City supporters. Because what is actually involved are deep psychological connections to clubs, that aren’t easy to break.
“I went to my first match when I was seven years old,” Riley says. “You start getting into football as a kid. And all the politics, all the rest, you’re not exposed to it. That love you develop, it’s really difficult to pour water on. I think that’s the position a lot of fans are in. To extinguish that is really tough.”
Greg Tomlinson, who is on the board of the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust, goes even further.
“It leads you to that famous Bobby Robson quote about what a club is. It’s not the directors or the owners. It’s the fans. We’ve been here before any owners, and we’ll be here after any owners have gone.”
They’re about to outlast Ashley, and all spoken to for this piece admit this greatly influences the current mood about the next owners. Alex Hurst, the host of True Faith, is equally honest about his feelings.
“I’m excited. Delighted. The easy thing would be to sit here and say I’m conflicted, but the feeling of everyone I know who supports Newcastle is one of massive excitement.
“You’ve got to remember this is a weary fan base. There’s been huge internal conflict. I’ve got criticism because I’ve continued to go to games. Everyone has a story like that.
“The fanbase had given up on fighting Ashley and had started fighting each other.
“So, before you even get into new owners, it’s that Ashley’s leaving. It could be anyone. It’s like a weight has been lifted from everyone’s shoulders.”
Many might fairly scoff that the “suffering” under Ashley isn’t sufficient to so overlook the real-life suffering caused by the Saudi Arabian state. It was only 13 years of mostly mid-table finishes, with two seasons in the Championship. That actually mirrors more of their history than the glory days of the 90s, as even Hurst admits.
“That period hangs over everybody as ‘this is how things are supposed to be,’ whereas Newcastle since the 1970s has really been lower mid-table, for one reason or another, and I’d always say that’s about bad ownership.”
Such scoffing would also overlook the sense of aimlessness, futility and frustration caused by Ashley’s time. Newcastle, really, were just existing.
For Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University in Houston, this might well be a specific reason Saudi Arabia picked Newcastle.
They are a club with history and potential, but who are so frustrated they are ready to see anyone coming in as a saviour.
“Newcastle is probably a similar category of club to Man City when they were taken over,” he says. “It may well be the Saudis think they can do an Abu Dhabi, fanbase, history, all the rest of it.”
That’s all the more powerful when, after so much austerity, there’s the prospect of ostentatious spending. It’s difficult for a supporter not to be seduced. Mocked-up images of Kylian Mbappe in a Newcastle shirt abound online.
“Every football fan wants their team to win matches and trophies,” Riley says. “There’d be no point in going in going if you didn’t. Obviously it’s about the bigger picture as well, family and friends, but for the first time in years Newcastle will have that opportunity.”
It should be acknowledged that it is an indictment of modern football that a club like Newcastle need a takeover like this to even compete. That is the hyper-capitalist nature of the modern game, and many Newcastle fans would fairly see that’s one reason they should not ruminate on this takeover too much. A general helplessness about it all remains.
“We are effectively stuck in this position,” Tomlinson argues. “We’ve been put in it and had no say. So the idea that we bear responsibility for who buys our club, in a system that allows football clubs to be owned by billionaires and sovereign states, that’s beyond absurd.”
“Where is the line? Maybe there is a line, but Newcastle fans aren’t the ones to draw it. Many won’t care. It’s football in 2020. You can look at the Premier League, the EFL, Fifa, Uefa, the government.
“All of the people who have the power to do something don’t want to do something, and that also legitimises what happens, that it’s OK.
“There are a lot of people out there who will just think if the Premier League allow it, they know better than me. It’s an easy dissociation to make.”
Hurst does then raise a telling point.
“If Newcastle are rubbish again, and run really badly, you will see people highlight the Saudi regime. That happened with Ashley. His sportswear practices were targeted by Newcastle fans because every other effort – boycotts, protests, banners – didn’t work.
“So you will see the fans criticise Saudi Arabia if they are run as disastrously as they had been under Ashley.”
There are many who feel this is much more possible than is thought. El-Baghdadi, who used to live in the UAE before being expelled for dissent, says Newcastle fans should not expect a replica of the modern Manchester City.
“There is a business culture difference between Saudi Arabia and UAE. The UAE tends to be more professional in the way they manage their money. Emiratis would give it to people who run it professionally. I would not think the same of the Saudis outside oil. They tried a similar relationship with Hollywood and all those contracts fell flat, due to mismanagement.
“One of Mohammed Bin Salman’s right-hand man, Turki al-Sheikh, got involved with football clubs in Egypt. That saw him abused by supporters. So I wonder is this really good for Newcastle?”
There already appears some difference in plans. While City’s Abu Dhabi owners eventually went and appointed the ‘Apple’ of football by appropriating the brain trust of Barcelona, the Newcastle consortium are set to initially put financier Amanda Staveley in charge.
One source close to the deal adds a note of caution.
“The biggest thing that Newcastle fans need to know is that this isn’t the Saudis arriving with barrowloads of money. They’re lukewarm and want a profit.”
How they use money is one thing, though.
The bigger moral issue in all of this is how they use the club, and the fans. This is the major political motivation. They plan to utilise the emotional power of the supporters, creating that subliminal link.
Given that, and how much of this move has been motivated by the fall-out from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, do the fans not actually have unprecedented power here? They can undermine such motivations, and how they themselves are used, with a huge banner of Khashoggi.
It’s worked for fans in other countries, particularly Germany. Lyon supporters meanwhile created a giant Tibetan flag when one of their matches in October was moved for Chinese TV. It was quite a show of political power. A banner of Khashoggi would be similar. The actions of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur supporters getting furlough decisions reversed in the last month, meanwhile, reflects a period of unusual empowerment for fans
“You would be banned for life if you did that, so whoever did it would have to be happy with that,” Hurst explains. “You wouldn’t get it into the ground. I started a group called Gallowgate Flags in 2016, and the security procedures just to get a normal flag in are massive. So, I understand the sentiment, and while it would send a message, in 2015 Newcastle fans got a banner in by the union Unite, and it picked up almost no traction, it just wasn’t shown on TV.”
For now, many Newcastle fans don’t know where to look themselves.
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