Some of my favourite childhood memories involved watching Newcastle United on Champions League nights. Midweek evenings on ITV2 have never felt so good. Beating Juventus 1-0 at home. Shola Ameobi scoring at Camp Nou before the world even knew Messi’s name. Shearer’s brace against Inter Milan at the San Siro to silence anyone who ever said he wasn’t proven at the highest level. Craig Bellamy’s injury time winner in Feyenoord to see us qualify from the group stage despite losing our first three games.
As vivid as those memories still are, the reality is it only lasted one season and NUFC’s days of challenging for Premier League titles and facing the biggest teams and players in European football were over before I finished primary school.
What’s followed since has been a gradual slump from nobility to ignominy, with Mike Ashley’s ownership from 2007 a living and breathing example of how not to run a football club.
He signed players on the back of YouTube clips, sacked managers who didn’t deserve it and kept managers who did, rebranded SJP as ‘The Sports Direct Arena’, banished legends like Keegan and Shearer, dropped Jonas Gutierrez like a stone after he recovered from cancer, hired Joe Kinnear as Director of Football twice, gave Alan Pardew an eight-year contract, and let Rafa Benitez walk away from the club.
That’s a light list – and doesn’t include the two relegations in 2009 and 2016.
“Mike Ashley’s crimes against football pale in comparison to crimes against humanity.”
Mike Ashley was everything a football club owner shouldn’t be. He didn’t care about the club or the community it represented. But his crimes against football pale in comparison to the crimes against humanity linked to the club’s new owners – and Newcastle fans have a responsibility to recognise that and hold the ownership accountable where we can.
In Newcastle United’s new structure, 80% of the club is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), a state-owned wealth fund that looks to reinvest the country’s money from exports – in Saudi’s case, mostly oil – into other ventures. Chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, PIF has already invested into companies all over the world including Facebook and Disney, and brought major sport events to the country including F1, WWE and boxing courtesy of Anthony Joshua’s rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr in 2019.
While the Premier League is satisfied that the Saudi Arabia government will have no direct control over NUFC – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman won’t sit on the board – the links between PIF and Saudi’s regime is clear and, for many fans, difficult to swallow.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses are well documented. It’s a regime that US intelligence believes approved the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Women continue to face discrimination in law, while women’s rights activists remain in jail or on trial for peaceful protest. Homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment. Courts use torture as punishment, and executions are among the highest in the world.
These are issues that should give every Newcastle fan pause for thought once the joy of slamming the door shut on Mike Ashley starts to settle down.
There is no doubt that transformational times for NUFC lie ahead – but for every fan that appears on Sky Sports News and talks up the hype about Mbappé or Haaland pulling on a black and white shirt, there’s another who’s genuinely passionate about the prospect of modernising St. James’ Park, regenerating the city centre, investing in the club’s academy for the first time in 15 years, and providing an economic boost to a part of the country that’s often overlooked by government.
This is a football team that’s had all ambition suffocated, and what you’ve seen over the last 24 hours are the first signs of a sleeping giant coming back to life.
There’s nothing wrong with that – and there’s nothing wrong with being positive about what this development means for your club and your community on one hand, while also being concerned and upset by the history and actions associated with its new ownership on the other.
Ironically, life isn’t always black and white.
“The game should now embrace the opportunity to showcase the inclusivity and tolerance in football at every possible opportunity.”
In a perfect world, this football club wouldn’t be owned by either Mike Ashley or Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – but the Premier League don’t seem to agree. All we can do, as fans, is work out what to do next.
Those who are upset about the Saudi Arabian state’s involvement in the Premier League shouldn’t vilify Newcastle fans who want to see their club be successful.
Instead, the game should now embrace the opportunity to showcase the inclusivity and tolerance in football at every possible opportunity and directly protest the offences Saudi Arabia are guilty of. Newcastle fans should hang rainbow flags on the terraces to show their new owners where their values really lie, and opposition fans should do the same anytime the Toon Army rolls into town. Those angry at this ownership should consider how they can lend their support to humanitarian organisations challenging the injustices that exist in Saudi Arabia. All of us should support Amnesty’s request to amend the PL’s owners and directors test to prevent this from happening again.
Newcastle United, the Premier League, and football fans at large now find themselves in a unique position. They’ll be in the eyeline of the Saudi regime every single weekend and have the ability to make their voices heard on issues that really count.
If the Saudi Arabian government wants to use the Premier League as a thinly-veiled attempt to “sportswash” their image and give the country a new brand image in the western world, concerned fans should play them at their own game and show them what sort of society we truly believe in.
I’m a Newcastle fan and I’ll always want my club to win – but I’m not going to bury my head in the sand about the difficult conversations that lie ahead.