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Newcastle United takeover is far from 'black and white'

Michael Athey gives his take on the prospective Saudi takeover of his boyhood club

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Image Credit: Prashant Menon

With Newcastle United set to become the richest club in England and pantomime villain Mike Ashley’s departure imminent, fans of the club should in theory be over the moon. However, as most times it is with Newcastle, the situation is ironically far from black and white.

If all other factors are ignored just for a moment and we looked solely at the fact Mike Ashley would soon be leaving the club, this takeover should be a resounding success.

Ashley is undoubtedly the most despised figure to ever be associated with Newcastle United. He has repeatedly treated Newcastle fans as a joke, essentially slapping them across the face throughout his tenure just like he slaps hideous Sports Direct advertising onto anything in sight.

As owner he has attempted to change the name of St James’ Park to the Sports Direct Arena, ousted club legends such as Kevin Keegan, Alan Shearer and recently Rafa Benítez, and displayed a consistent lack of ambition, investment and respect for the club. Not to mention he has also overseen two relegations during his tenure. The fact that some fans would be willing to accept the new ownership simply because it signals his departure alone, should speak volumes for the utter contempt fans hold Ashley in.

Therefore, replacing Ashley with an ownership whose wealth exceeds that of every other Premier League club combined should be a dream come true, right? However, the wider context cannot be separated from this takeover, due to the prospective owners being backed by Mohammed Bin Salman, who is effectively the political leader of Saudi Arabia.

This is problematic because, as my Grandma concisely summarised, “they’re into some dodgy stuff like”. This is of course a huge understatement, due to the country’s appalling record on human rights abuses. Torture is a standard practise, as are executions. Women are largely treated as second class citizens and religious discrimination is rife. Free speech is effectively non-existent, an abuse that culminated a few years ago in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist and outspoken critic of the Saudi regime, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

These appalling abuses that Saudi Arabia continue to practice have rightly damaged their international standing.

One of the ways they have sought to begin repairing their reputation is through ‘sportswashing’. This involves using the grandiose nature of sport to wash over their tarnished international image and pacify any criticism, instead of actually changing their practises.
Saudi Arabia recently began this through the hosting of the heavyweight title rematch between Joshua and Ruiz, and undoubtedly the takeover of Newcastle United is an attempt at sportswashing too.

This whole scenario has left myself and countless other Newcastle United fans emotionally torn on whether this is a situation i which to rejoice or reject. In part, I am disgusted that such a morally repulsive regime, who surely shouldn’t pass any “fit and proper” Premier League owner test, could be the owners of the club that I’ve supported my entire life. This feeling is enhanced by the fact any success that we might have, would be the result of blood-soaked oil money.

There is a view that it is not our duty to protest or challenge the new owners and although I sympathise with this view entirely, I can’t help but disagree slightly. After all, the fanbase often raises Mike Ashley’s abysmal treatment of his workers in Sports Direct as a means to criticise his ownership of Newcastle. I cannot help but feel hypocritical if we did not also give the same level of criticism to the new owners, who are in many ways much worse than Ashley, whether they invest in the club or not.

Despite this unease around the owners in waiting, it is still not a cut and dry issue. There are lot of things at risk by saying no to this takeover. Ashley has sucked the soul out of the club and this takeover could go a long way to reversing that. The Toon Army just want some hope again. Older fans have been missing this since the era of “the entertainers” and younger fans have only been able to imagine a club like that. As fans we deserve a club that rewards our loyalty instead of driving us away like in recent years.

This takeover could also have a tremendous effect on the region itself, outside the St James’ Park postcode. It is no secret that the North East is one of the poorest regions in the UK and has consistently been underfunded. As owner, Ashley has showed little interest in the area but with the money the Saudi owners would be arriving with, they could significantly rejuvenate the area and kickstart the North East again.

With the government unwilling to properly fund the area, why should we turn down what could bring instrumental economic growth, especially with a post Covid-19 recession almost certainly on the cards. It’s a sentiment that only grows when as a country we sell weapons and arms to Saudi Arabia and the Queen rolled out the red carpet for Mohammed Bin Solomon himself. Surely, those two acts are more likely to legitimise the abuses of Saudi Arabia than the takeover of Newcastle United Football Club? This is not an advocation of two wrongs making a right, but more a highlight of the hypocrisy that some segments of the media, both at home and abroad, have aimed towards Newcastle fans.

Every Newcastle fan must make their own individual decision on how to respond to the prospective owners. There is no black and white answer, and fans should be respected accordingly. For myself, I know that I will ultimately always support my home club, despite the major reservations I have.

It is sad that fans are being put in this position of insecurity over something they love and in an ideal world football wouldn’t be politicised, but it is a path that the game has been heading down for a long time now. As fans, we cannot change this route, but this is a lesson that nineteen years of supporting Newcastle has already told me. The Geordie faithful deserve a lot better than what we have suffered under Mike Ashley.

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