Like many, I have a soft spot for Newcastle. A city I know well. I’ve worked there, filmed footballers and Chubby Brown performances there, watched football, fallen in love there and partied the night away more often than was wise.
I’ve even been escorted off ‘the boat’ into a freezing blizzard when a colleague refused to allow his expensive leather jacket be taken hostage by a cloakroom attendant in the legendary, floating nightclub.
So do not mistake me for someone who dislikes or mocks life on Tyneside. You could not be more wrong.
I have, however, been dismayed by recent events at Newcastle United, a club I have long had time for despite it sometimes falling into the wrong hands in past years.
So much has been written and spoken about the takeover at Newcastle United. And by better writers and speakers than me.
I would urge you to read articles in the Guardian by Barney Ronay and Jonathan Wilson. With which I agree with almost every word. And if you subscribe to the Guardian Football Weekly podcast, you will hear the respected French football journalist Phillipe Auclair say everything I would want to say about the new owners at Newcastle. Listen to him speak on that podcast here, between 41 and 53 minutes.
As Phillipe says: “Defend Newcastle Utd, defend it’s history, defend your colours. Don’t defend people who bought the rights to use those colours to further their cause and who don’t give a shit about your club.”
No football fan begrudges Newcastle fans celebrating the end of the reign of Mike Ashley. The club has stagnated under him for 14 years. He’s a nasty piece who didn’t care two hoots for the fans. Ironically, his business acumen (aka meanness) means he leaves the club in a good financial state. The club was ripe for a takeover and the new owners knew they could not lose with the supporters as, frankly, the patient Newcastle fans would have welcomed Harold Shipman or Peter Sutcliffe as a new owner.
Which is fitting considering that their club is now owned by a murderer. A man who, a CIA investigation confirmed, ordered the capture, killing, mutilation and disposal in body bags of an innocent man.
The club now has as its head the Crown Prince of a country that beheads people in public every day. A country that cross amputates the limbs of people on a regular basis. A country that tortures people on a scale that makes what the Americans did at Guantanamo Bay look like a medical examination.
Newcastle United have parted company with a bully. And replaced him with a person who heads a country that systematically abuses human rights. The fans hated the former but welcome their club being run by the latter. The two men have something in common. Neither cares about you or the football team.
The new owners deliberately chose Newcastle not because they love the big market for a night out. They chose Newcastle in part because they knew the fans were so desperate for change, they would not protest about the new custodians beheading thirty seven people in one day.
Neither the supporters or anyone else should fall for the spin that there is a separation between the state of Saudi Arabia and the official owners of Newcastle, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (P.I.F). There is no difference between the pair. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, funds the P.I.F.
The irony is that, financially at least, the new owners actually don’t need the fans, as football writer and broadcaster Lars Sivertsen said on Thursday via the Guardian Football Weekly podcast: “It’s not the biggest issue when it comes to sports washing, but it is an issue. Because when the money you put into a club as a fan, even if it is minuscule in the big picture; when the club needs that, then you have a stake in it. Fans are stakeholders.
“We can spend many hours speaking about the ills of Mike Ashley, but he actually did need the fans for the club to make sense. He needed the gate receipts, he needed the money from merchandise. The Saudi Public Investment Fund does not need the money from the fans. The club no longer needs your money. It doesn’t matter, the money you put in when you buy tickets and buy merchandise, it’s completely irrelevant.
“In terms of their actual importance to the club, the Newcastle fans are kind of irrelevant now. They’re window dressing. Which I think is a bit sad.” I doubt the supporters will see it the same way as Lars Sivertsen.
As for the supporters who watch Newcastle play Spurs this Sunday, I’d like to think some of them will smuggle in and hold aloft photos of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But somehow I doubt it. More likely they will unveil banners or sing songs mocking Mike Ashley and outgoing manager Steve Bruce.
It’s not good enough for Newcastle fans to say: “What about Man City?” etc etc. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as my mum used to say. But all football fans should be complaining about this takeover. Not because they are jealous of the billions that are coming the way of Newcastle. But because all these takeovers by dubious states and people are bad for the game as a whole.
We can expect new sponsors. Expect a new manager, eventually. Expect big salaries being offered to better, experienced players to entice them to the North-East in January or next summer.
As I write, the new manager market is all over the place. The word from the Toon is that big names such as Antonio Conte (18/1 with William Hill) and Zinedine Zidane (25/1 with three bookies) are not interested in taking on a relegation battle. Either may still be available come June of 2022. Zidane has plenty of experience of bitingly cold winters. Madrid in January and February can be every bit as cold as Newcastle.
On Tuesday all the talk was that Frank Lampard was the first choice to replace Steve Bruce. Now he’s out to 6/1 with the bookies. He was and replaced as favourite by Brendan Rodgers but now he says he has no interest in leaving Leicester City.
It’s possible Steve Bruce will still be manager come Sunday. As journalist John Brewin said: “That would be like inviting an ex to your wedding. “
As I have long advised subscribers to my VG Tips service do not be tempted to splash the cash in a next manager market unless you are related to, or making love to, the man you know for sure has been appointed to a job. The bookies deliberately change the favourite from week to week, or day to day, in order to attract punters to back multiple candidates.
The Premier League ceased to be of interest to me some time ago. Other than when it comes to beating the bookie. The only plus side from a betting point of view is that I backed Newcastle to stay up days before the takeover was rumoured to be going through. At a much better price than what is on offer today (a mere 4/11).
For my part, I always believed they would stay up even with Steve Bruce in charge. As much I like the idea of someone like Lampard or Rodgers building something there long term, I wouldn’t be convinced the first would be the right choice to enter a relegation dogfight. Perhaps the club will approach Sam Allardyce, a close friend of Steve Bruce, to keep the Magpies up and then replace him with a bigger name and better manager at the end of the season. Although when someone tells the new owners that Allardyce kept Sunderland up, they might think better of such a backward appointment.
Whoever gets to be the new manager of Newcastle United, a big club, with big support in a great city, will have to wait until January before he can splash the cash the new owners throw his way.
It’s now even harder to imagine Newcastle going down now. Which is bad news for the likes of Norwich, Burnley, Watford, Southampton and any other club at or near the bottom of the Premier League.
Were I back in England, developments like those at Newcastle would only make it more likely that I would join those football fans who are disillusioned with the cost of attending the overrated Premier League and who are increasingly deciding to watch non league football. Cheaper, no restrictions on where you stand or sit to watch football in the raw. And, post match, you can have a pint with the players.
True, the football is no great shakes. But, unlike the human rights record of Saudi Arabia or a plastic cup of Bovril, it doesn’t leave a nasty taste in the mouth.