Why a potential Saudi takeover holds no issue for many Newcastle fans

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February 4, 2020
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    Newcastle fans protest against club ownership

    Newcastle fans have protested against the club’s ownership in recent years

    Billy Cann was a season-ticket holder at Newcastle United for 35 years before he decided he’d had enough.

    He had been watching his team since 1969 but when owner Mike Ashley sacked Chris Hughton in 2010 the 63-year-old decided not to renew and many fans have since followed.

    Their issues are numerous, but chief among them is an owner who they feel does not match their ambition.

    “I don’t want to give Mike Ashley any more of my cash,” Cann tells BBC Sport en route to a goalless draw with bottom-of-the-table Norwich City for which he has borrowed a ticket.

    That is why news of a potential £340m takeover featuring Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has been greeted on the streets of Tyneside with excitement rather than any moral outcry.

    Newcastle fans have have been promised a new dawn many times before, so they are sceptical about whether it might even happen.

    But instead of worrying about a country’s human rights record, which Amnesty International calls “appalling”, many of them see it as a chance to rid the club of Ashley, who has been in charge for 13 years.

    As Cann, who works on a gas rig in the North Sea, asks: “Were Manchester City’s fans complaining when their Abu Dhabi owners took over the club? Now look at their success.”

    It is a common view among Newcastle fans, who see football as a religion and feel their club has been left behind as others have tapped into wealth and ambition from across the globe.

    Billy Cann

    Newcastle fan Billy Cann (right), pictured with his godson Kallum, says he stopped buying a season ticket after becoming frustrated with the ownership of the club

    ‘Ashley’s act of treachery’

    The thread that binds the majority of Newcastle fans is their desire to see Ashley leave the club.

    Even those who have reservations about a Saudi takeover – and it is a minority view – still want Ashley out.

    The final straw for many was the departure of manager Rafael Benitez last summer.

    For them, the Spaniard, who has won the Champions League and the Europa League twice with previous clubs, represented a route back to the top and, more importantly, hope for the future.

    He walked away, however, because Ashley did not provide him with financial backing he wanted and, as a result, thousands of fans did not renew their season tickets this season. That led to Ashley dishing out 10,000 free half-season tickets in December in order to keep the stadium full.

    Ashley will point to record signings in consecutive transfer windows (£20m for Miguel Almiron in January 2019 and £40m signing Joelinton last summer) and the fact manager Steve Bruce almost spent a reported £35m on Lille’s Boubakary Soumare two weeks ago before the midfielder changed his mind.

    The owner also said in a rare interview last July that he offered Benitez an eight-year contract and “couldn’t have done any more” to keep him at the club.

    Newcastle fan Steve Wraith

    Steve Wraith, host of the NUFC matters podcast, says it will take a “ridiculous offer” for Mike Ashley to sell Newcastle

    But down at the Dog and Parrot, a stone’s throw from St James’ Park, host of the NUFC matters podcast Steve Wraith says the way Ashley treated Benitez was “the ultimate act of treachery”.

    He says losing so many fans will cost Newcastle not only next term but in seasons to come.

    “Fans voted with their feet and think of all those kids whose parents or uncles or aunties have turned their backs on the club,” Wraith says.

    “It has the potential to cut out a new generation of supporters. You see a lot of kids now wearing shirts of other teams in the city rather than Newcastle.”

    Asked whether that financial loss could trigger Ashley to sell, Wraith says: “You would think so, but I don’t think he’s a willing seller.

    “He’s quite happy to milk Newcastle United for every penny he can and to build his sports brands globally. The only thing that will push him out is a ridiculous offer.”

    Are some fans conflicted?

    The Saudi bid, which has been led by financier Amanda Staveley and includes the billionaire Reuben brothers, is not short of money.

    Yet not all Newcastle fans believe the takeover should come at any cost.

    Norman Riley of the True Faith fanzine says some fans will feel “conflicted” by talk of a Saudi-financed takeover whatever the issues with Ashley.

    Riley says he finds a lot of Saudi government policy “abhorrent” and would have to “re-assess his relationship with the club” if the deal goes through.

    Those who have no issue often mention how Manchester City are backed by Abu Dhabi, which Amnesty also says is guilty of “sports-washing” their country’s “deeply tarnished image” by pouring money into the Premier League champions.

    It said the country “relies on exploited migrant labour and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders”.

    Others mention how Sheffield United are owned by Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who took full control from Kevin McCabe last year, although he has not been accused of anything similar to the Saudi government.

    Lori, who is sat at the back of the Dog and Parrot with her family, can see both sides to the argument.

    “Talk of Saudi human rights abuses might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it does make you think when you look at it in more detail,” she says.

    “The fact it doesn’t matter for most fans shows the level of animosity towards Ashley.”

    As kick-off for the Norwich game is approaching, Alex, a teacher and mother of one, explains how she is also “anti-Ashley” and keen on new investment.

    But she also recognises some of the issues raised about Saudi Arabia, including rights for women and the LGBT community.

    “It’s a difficult one,” she says. “But similar to what happened at Manchester City, if it brings more investment to the local economy and jobs then it’s a positive.

    “You also have to question our own government’s record given recent wars in the world.

    “I totally respect people’s rights, but perhaps more links with our country might have a positive impact on their culture and society?”

    Do most fans feel the same way as Newcastle’s?

    Wraith says that for many Newcastle supporters, the team’s success would override any lingering doubts over the source of a potential Saudi investment.

    “That’s an issue for the Premier League or the authorities to work out, not for the fans on the terraces,” he adds.

    He also says supporters of other clubs would feel the same way, before referencing Manchester City and Sheffield United.

    Choosing between Ashley and a Saudi-backed bid must seem a world away for fans of Norwich City, who are owned by former television chef Delia Smith and her partner Michael Wynn-Jones.

    Newcastle are a club on a different scale to the Canaries, but it shows it is possible to have wealthy owners who do not cross any moral boundaries.

    Norwich

    Norwich fan Dan is happy with the club’s owners despite the club’s struggles in the Premier League this season

    Norwich supporter Dan said: “I do like the fact we have Delia and Michael in charge. They are big Norwich fans and care what happens. It’s a nice family, community club.

    “It would be nice to have more money but it’s not the be all and end all. Fans mainly care that the team is winning and how much there is to spend, but it’s quite concerning what is going on at some clubs and what else owners are involved in.”

    Perhaps that is easier to say if you’ve not been at loggerheads with your owner for the past decade.

    Source

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