TOON TAKE OVER
So at last a long running saga has reached a conclusion, well perhaps not a conclusion, more a stage in the journey of the club business, with Newcastle United taken over by the Saudi Arabian Investment Fund. Here in Toon, Newcastle upon Tyne, the passionately adored Football team have been in the Doldrums, listing like a sinking ship, shipping water, and slowly sinking. Fans, supporters, all desperate for change, ambition, ownership, direction, funding, team manager, and desperate for anything other than the current ownership, UK’s Mr High Street, Mike Ashley. Check websites and learn how many fingers he has in how many pies, well one less pie, having sold Newcastle United.
Mike Ashley has been trying to sell the club for almost 5 years, BUT you don’t go from selling sports shirts, from a car boot, at Sunday markets to having a business empire worth £3bn plus, by giving a business away on the cheap. But years of acrimony, have seen the boil lanced, and some poison released, albeit for a few weeks, football fans are rarely happy for long. But that said there are perhaps more reasons for this takeover to present problems for loyal fans. Not least of all because the other 19 members of the most elite football league in the world immediately organised an expression of concern, at the potential for damage to their brand.
There have been, and will continue to be questions about the relationship between football and politics. That question is now centre stage. Moral questions concerning the owners are widespread.
There is a longstanding tradition of broad left wing support, and respect for human rights in the area. At Sunderland there was outcry at the appointment of Paulo Di Canio, whose political views were seen as contrary to that City’s ethos. There are well documented visits to Newcastle of Martin Luther King, and down the river Mohammed Ali had his wedding blessed at one of the oldest mosques in the UK. So the involvement of Saudi Arabia with it’s popular press reported Human Rights restrictions, on women, gay people, and religious minorities has seen Amnesty International’s vocal opposition to this deal, and this has been reflected in the outcry in the national press.
So how does the takeover play with Newcastle’s, Toon’s, fans. First off I’m not Tyneside born and bred, second I’m not even a Newcastle fan, but living here, and having friends who are Newcastle passionate, it’s easy to get sucked in, and it does mean I’m able to see and understand the emotions close to hand.
First up, the takeover itself, yeah fans are delighted at the exit of an owner, almost anyone with a bit of ambition would have been welcome, and the Saudis are seen as that in spades. The scenes of Thursday 7th October evening, saw fans wildly, maniacally and fervently celebrating the departure of the at best despised, more commonly hated owner, Mike Ashley. This morning there are the hangovers of those there and those who made it as far as the pub for beers and chants and cheers and hugs and rants and tears. But also for some the questions of morality, and what price success.
In football, soccer, there is a real ethos of community, of history and soul-selling. It’s the source of fan resentment at clubs as widely spread as London’s Charlton, the Midland’s Coventry, and North West’s Oldham, Bolton or disastrously Bury, of course the headliner in these disputes is Manchester United. Stir into the mix international politics, human rights, justice, and basic respect blend it with money, morality, ambition, and self doubt for some fans, perhaps, and the adage of being careful what you wish for.
The issues of morality and human rights contrary to what people read and perceive are not forgotten, overlooked, or casually dismissed. Indeed there is a recognition that the owners have problems, and there are real human rights issues. BUT they the fans point out; the UK has done arms deals, selling arms used in killing civilians in the war in Yemen: The UK Government flew the Union Flag at half mast over Buckingham Palace when the Saudi King recently died. Successive UK Governments have regularly bellowed success in attracting Saudi Investment into the UK. They raise the issue of what’s so different about a Football club in England’s North East, why single them out, these views have some traction for me.
There are a whole range of football critics, with many different agenda’s from other club boards anxious at the potential financial competition, bidding up prices, player wages.
From a business point of view, in any market, significant competition is not desirable. Indeed early in this disputed takeover, there were reports, not denied, that other EPL clubs had tried to expel Newcastle United from the Premiership. So for me Criticism from these sources is colored by a huge dose of self interest. From the fans of other clubs there’s bound to be a huge slice of jealousy, that’s natural, who wouldn’t feel jealous, I would, and do. I have no doubt that some will use the human rights issues as a stick to beat Newcastle United.
Beyond sports, there’s the whole range of UK industries providing goods, services and involved in supply chains to, through, and out of Saudi. If we want a moral line and Saudi abstinence from our lives it’s going to be bloody hard, years of investment have left their national wealth fund as embedded in our economic, political, cultural, and personal life as Huawai are in the UK’s telecoms industry.
It’s perhaps significant that wider international sports bodies have had little quoted responses, with international sports regularly taking place across the Gulf, from Boxing to Formula 1, Boxing to Cricket, all have events, whilst others are desperate to get a share of the Arab pie, Culminating in Qatar’s hosting of FIFAs world cup in 2022. Across Europe, we’ve seen Gaddafi’s involvement in Italy’s “Old Lady” Juventus, whilst France’s PSG and Manchester City have significant input from Middle East state backed institutions. Football’s hands are far from clean in the ‘who owns who’ debate. Football and morality have often been uneasy bedfellows, as the debates on England and their 1936 Nazi salutes in Germany demonstrate.
Just for clarity, I AM NOT DEFENDING the TAKEOVER, nor the views of Newcastle fans, be those views total opposition and abandonment of the club as an item of adoration, a grudging acceptance of a brutal 21st Century reality, through to, don’t give a shit, just gimme the cups, medals, and European away nights. I am merely trying to present what is for many a difficult decision, given the deep seated passions sport, and especially football expose in its rawest, most visceral moments.
What this whole debate does scream all too clearly is the critical importance of football in the lives of significant sections of the population, on Tyneside and beyond. This is NOT to justify the views on club ownership, nor to excuse them, but to highlight some of the issues supporters face. BUT just before the music lovers start throwing toys out of prams, perhaps we could reflect on where and when bands tour, who has sponsored them, and more recently artists, supposedly with principles, have sold catalogues to investment hedge funds , Dylan and Young, selling beer despite rejectionist songs.
I’m not saying there’s the same moral equivalence, but just to say there are questions for us all in a 2020s moral battlefield. The issues in music and sport just teach us about how transitory some moral debates can be. I’m sure there’ll be those screaming at the screen about Saudi murder, taking massive whilst ordering good from Amazon, or food from just eat before Uber ridding to a gig, or meal. If we really care about Saudi abuses, do we, should we check what the Saudis own? I have no idea who what they’ve taken shares in, and are slices of food companies, computer companies, logistic or power companies any more immoral that sports and Football organisations
Whatever conclusions we reach when it comes to entertainment perhaps we need and especially fans need to reflect on the words of one of AC Milan’s, and Europe’s most successful managers, leading the football world in the mid 1990s Arrigo Sacchi
“Of all the most UNIMPORTANT THINGS in life - football is the most important “
Looking, listening and reading this debate, I can’t help feeling there is a truth in Arrigo's words.
Martin McG - wikipedia - The statue of the Newcastle United and England footballer Jackie Milburn (1924-1988), located at the south east corner of United's St James' Park stadium in Newcastle upon Tyne. Milburn scored 200 goals for the club between 1943 and 1957. One of three statues of Milburn in the north east region, this is the second to be sited outside the stadium, having been moved here on 23 April 2012.