Newcastle United: After The Hope

by | Jul 31, 2020

After the hope come the recriminations. The collapse of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund’s bid to buy Newcastle United was met with an entirely predictable response, inevitable from the moment that the promise of being richer than Croesus was first made to the club’s supporters. But these are just the supporters, and if there’s one thing we should most reasonably know about the effect that fans can have on the game, it’s that their opinions count for very little if the smell of money is in the air. It was a deal with the devil, and no amount of whataboutery relating to other Middle Eastern kingdoms can mask that. This entire story became a mess, though, and that fact that this happened over a protracted period of time and to the satisfaction of nobody actively involved in it doesn’t reflect particularly well on anybody concerned.

The popular reflex reaction to yesterday’s news seems to be the belief that the Premier League simply left the clock running on the takeover, letting it run and run until Saudi Arabian patience ran out. There’s no evidence to suggest that this was the intention of the Premier League, of course, but everybody’s a conspiracy theorist in 2020 and it suits several different narratives to believe that this was the case. Certainly it’s the version of the story that the Saudis themselves want everybody to believe. Amanda Staveley, who was leading the takeover in this country, was very quick to issue public statement yesterday afternoon saying this.

It was a curious flex, on Staveley’s part. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic would be a more logical reason for pulling out of the bid, and this was alluded to in their statement, and while the lapse in the exclusivity of their contract with the PIF makes logical sense, it doesn’t say a great deal for the entire project that there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of talk of extending it. The question of why they would pulled the plug on the deal before the Premier League had made a final decision is a fair one to ask.

Of course, the failure of the Premier League to act swiftly and decisively on this matter doesn’t reflect particularly well on them either. It might well be argued that the beoutQ controversy, which inconveniently reached its peak in the middle of their checks being run, could have given the Premier League all the ammunition they needed to stop the purchase. It has been suggested that their clause relating to “criminal activity” could have been interpreted as sufficient to do so. Perhaps the League was waiting on the WTO report as a justification to approve the deal, only to find that the report didn’t find what they’d hoped it would. This, however, doesn’t excuse the further six week delay that there’s been since then, and it’s unlikely now that we’ll ever find out the actual reason for their inertia over this.

The Saudi reaction to the WTO report didn’t exactly help, either, a mess of conspiracy theory and counter-allegation which showed no contrition for what they’d been involved with and which failed to understand that the small matter of supporting piracy of their own product might be something that the Premier League would take a dim view over. There’s little to suggest that there was any benefit to the Premier League delaying their decision for as long as they did, and it’s entirely plausible that the League held off until this time in the hope that the Saudis would show them signs that they were going to act decisively in ending beoutQ once and for all. As things turned out, though, the Saudi reaction was probably about as unhelpful to their case as could they could have managed. Using the WTO logo on a document full of falsehoods and half-truths at that point was unlikely to play well with the Premier League either.

So the prevarication continued. For seventeen weeks the matter dragged out, and it feels as though they were giving the Saudis as much opportunity as they could to resolve the beoutQ matter to their satisfaction. Such a half-hearted response along with the WTO-headed document didn’t seem to engender a great deal of confidence that they had. But if there was a reason why there was a delay of this length, “giving the Saudis every opportunity to get their house in order over this” makes more sense than “they couldn’t be bothered to deal with it” or “they sat on it, hoping it would just go away.” There is justification in being disquieted by the likelihood that damage to overseas television rights may have meant more to the Premier League than other human rights abuses, but the logical implication that Saudi human rights violations should be overlooked because, say, UAE human rights violations may have been overlooked in the past isn’t an argument that carries a great deal of moral weight.

Yet whilst so much of this entire episode has been somewhat unseemly, it is important to remember that Newcastle United supporters have been trapped in football purgatory for a long time. It’s now more than fifty years since the club last won a major trophy and the club has only finished above tenth in the Premier League twice in the last fifteen years. When we consider the adventure that the club went on in the decade prior to that, it feels as though the lifeblood has been sucked out of the club by Mike Ashley, reduced to being little more than a billboard for his other business interests, happy to trudge along in the nether regions of the Premier League with little ambition beyond delivering a pile of television money every year.

And no, it’s not a life-threatening state of affairs, like what’s happened at Bury, Bolton Wanderers and a whole load more over the last few years. This modern trend of reflexing to, “Well, you haven’t got it as bad as…” whenever anybody makes any expression of dissatisfaction can be a little tiring, and the slow bleeding dry of this club over such an extended period of time presses a lot of buttons. So no, things at St James Park might not be quite as bad as they are at some other clubs, but that doesn’t mean that supporters of all other clubs should shut up and meekly put up with their lot.

For all the despondency on Tyneside this week, though, there remains the possibility of a silver lining, for the club’s supporters. Mike Ashley apparently does want to sell – it hasn’t been suggested anywhere that he was anything to do with the deal collapsing, whilst his collection of high streets shops is obviously struggling to keep its head afloat – and this leads to the possibility of new owners coming into the club in the future. Another group, an investment group led by Henry Mauriss, a California-based American CEO of Clear TV, is believed to be ready to make a £350m bid for the club, but there seem to be doubts on the part of the club over the credibility of his proposals, and the likelihood of such a big sale being completed quickly would seem to be remote. If Mauriss – or, indeed, just about anybody else – could complete the sale of the club, breathe a bit of life into a moribund fanbase, and get the team back into the top half of the Premier League, then the Saudi’s attempted takeover of Newcastle United may even end up being considered a bullet dodged.