OLIVER HOLT: Newcastle takeover is new low for English football

OLIVER HOLT: The true poison of Mike Ashley is that Newcastle now welcome an owner whose people have his critics murdered

  • Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is reportedly close to selling the club 
  • The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia has estimated assets of £256bn  
  • If and when Ashley departs, it will feel like a shadow has gone from Newcastle

Let us disregard the succession just for a moment and agree that if Mike Ashley departs Newcastle United, it will be a reason to celebrate. 

If he finally sells, it will feel as if a shadow has gone. It will feel as if a yoke has been removed. It will feel as if Tyneside is finally rid of a man who knew the price of the club but never, ever came close to understanding its value.

Ashley has tried to impose his cynicism and his opportunism on a club and a culture that runs on loyalty and passion. He has failed. That, too, is reason to celebrate. The Toon Army sniffed him out soon enough and have been trying to escape his loveless embrace ever since. Finally, deliverance appears to be imminent.

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is close to selling the club for upwards of £300m

He will be remembered in the North East as a vandal, a man who treated icons like Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer with apparent contempt, a defacer who tried to rename St James’ Park, a billionaire who told us everything we needed to know about him when lockdown came and he tried to keep his Sports Direct stores open, arguing they were an essential service. Zero hours and zero class.

English football will not miss him. The limit of his ambition appeared to be to do just enough to make sure Newcastle stayed in the Premier League, with access to the fabulous riches of its television deals.  

Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes he did not. The game has been ready to bid him good riddance for some time. It has had a bellyful of him. He can go back to puking into pub fireplaces in peace.

But it is possible both to rejoice at the prospect of his leaving and to despair at what will replace him. 

That may be the true poison of Ashley’s legacy: Newcastle fans are so desperate to see the back of him they do not care what comes next. And what is coming next appears to be a regime synonymous with murder and tyranny that makes Ashley and his drinking buddies look like Torvill and Dean.

I am already familiar with the excuses and the justifications that are being prepared by some in the North East should the deal, which is said to be 80 per cent financed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, go through.

There is Saudi investment in Sheffield United, the UK sold more than £600million worth of arms to Saudi Arabia between October 2018 and March 2019, Anthony Joshua fought Andy Ruiz Jr in Riyadh last year and Manchester City are owned by Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, which is mentioned in dispatches by Amnesty International for its proclivity for ‘arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and enforced disappearance’.

A consortium backed by Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is behind the bid

All of those things are to be deplored. None of it makes what appears to be about to happen at Newcastle right. None of it makes it any more palatable. It is tempting to be seduced by the prospect of real investment being poured into the club because so many of us love it and what its fans stand for and want it to be successful again. But let’s be honest about it: if the Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle goes through, it will be a new low for the English game.

I dislike much of what Ashley stands for but the last time I saw a picture of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man who is set to replace him, on the news, it was because it was reported there was evidence he had authorised the murder of a dissident journalist in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. 

The Crown Prince has made it known through Saudi public prosecutors that he knew nothing of the murder. His name will not be used as the face of the takeover but he chairs the PIF. He holds the power.

Jamal Khashoggi was strangled and then dismembered by a bone saw by a team of Saudi assassins in October 2018 before what was left of him was taken away in plastic bags. The fate was reportedly visited upon Khashoggi because he had been critical of the Crown Prince, which might be worth bearing in mind if he ever signs anyone as bad as Joelinton.

Ashley’s cohorts might have banned you from the club but at least they did not ban you from your fingers, hands, toes, feet and head. So let’s not pretend Newcastle are getting some sort of upgrade here. One thing Ashley was criticised for was a failure to understand the culture of the North East, so I await with interest the Crown Prince’s first foray into the Bigg Market on a Saturday night.

Newcastle fans are so desperate to see the back of him that they don’t care what comes next

The expectation, of course, is that once Newcastle start buying superstars and playing football from heaven, then we will forget all about what happened to Khashoggi and the myriad other human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and start talking about the transformation the owners have wrought on the club and the investment they have ploughed in to a struggling area.

That is what sportswashing does. It has worked beautifully for Abu Dhabi with Manchester City. 

City employ the best coach in the world and play the most beautiful football many of us have ever seen in this country and therefore our attitude towards the regime in the UAE starts to soften.

Sports reporters like me say we are separating the beauty of the football from the regime that is financing it but the cunning of sportswashing lies in the fact that by reporting on the enchantment of the entertainment City provide, we are creating a subliminal link to the state that has facilitated that entertainment. By doing our job, we are doing their bidding, too.

Which is why it is worth pointing out that what is about to happen at Newcastle is essentially a trick, a ploy more cynical than anything Ashley dreamed up. So enjoy the football the new regime finances if you can but never forget it has been bought by blood money.

The deal could see Newcastle challenge for the elite again, bankrolled by the new owners 

Arsenal’s players are about to take a pay cut to help the club through the coronavirus crisis but the club is said to have bid close to £50m for Atletico Madrid midfielder Thomas Partey. 

Spurs want their players to take a wage cut but are close to a £250m stadium naming rights deal. Are we really surprised that some players are sceptical when their employers plead poverty?

The idea of Harry Kane moving from Tottenham to Manchester United makes a lot of sense but I don’t quite buy the idea that Kane would be the final piece in the jigsaw that would allow United to challenge for the top honours again. 

He would improve the side. He would be another step forward to go with the leap they have already made with Bruno Fernandes. 

United are still a couple of good years and at least two big signings away from challenging Liverpool and Manchester City but at least they appear to be moving in the right direction again.

Tottenham striker Harry Kane would improve Manchester United but they still need more

Pogba left wanting

I don’t blame Paul Pogba for having a go back at his arch-critic Graeme Souness but he did himself few favours by claiming that he did not know who Souness was. 

I like Pogba and I admire him as a player and the truth is that both he and Souness were, or are, close to the top of their profession in their different eras. Souness, though, was a legend at Liverpool and is synonymous with the glories of the greatest period in their history. Even at Juventus, Pogba cannot claim that.

He has won the World Cup but until he wins the Champions League at least once, Pogba’s club career will be in Souness’ shadow.

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