Matt Maher: Football sold its soul? That deal was done years ago

Media coverage of Newcastle’s takeover by a Saudi Arabia-backed consortium focused heavily on supporter reaction.

Newcastle United fans celebrating at St James' Park following the announcement that The Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle has been approved.
Newcastle United fans celebrating at St James' Park following the announcement that The Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle has been approved.

Much of it appeared joyous, with several hundred fans celebrating outside St James’ Park after the £305million deal was confirmed.

In the background quieter, concerned voices could also be heard expressing unease at their club now being so closely associated with a brutal regime which has an appalling record on human rights.

But whether supporters were passionately in favour of the buy-out or vehemently opposed, one thing they all had in common was being powerless to do anything about it either way.

This might have been the most controversial takeover since the formation of the Premier League but it was essentially cooked up in the same as all those before it, in boardrooms and five-star hotels a world away from people who spend their hard-earned money at the turnstiles. The feelings of fans will not have been given any great consideration in those talks.

While many neutral observers might have found some of the scenes on Tyneside last Friday distasteful, the celebratory mood was perhaps influenced as much by relief at the end of the Mike Ashley era than pleasure at the identity of the new custodians.

Yet this could hardly be described as a victory for fan power either. Despised though Ashley was by supporters, it is not as though he was forced out. On the contrary, he departed in his own time and on his own terms, selling to the group he was always eager to sell to and recouping his investment after 14 years at the helm.

Long-standing supporter animosity made little difference and the truth is when it comes to who owns a club, from the perspective of fans it has long been a case of pot-luck.

Many Newcastle supporters will feel their ship has finally come in considering Saudi Arabia’s Private Investment Fund, which now owns 80 per cent of the club, has cash reserves estimated at around £250billion.

Elsewhere, the takeover has prompted further scrutiny on the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test and precisely how it was given the green light.

The short answer there is that particular test has never really been about who has the money, only that they have it. The official line from the league, meanwhile, cited “legally binding assurances” PIF would be operating without influence from the Saudi state.

In reality that appears rather fanciful, as PIF and the state are inextricably linked. The former’s directors are appointed by royal decree while Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is its chairman.

It was MBS who, according to UN investigators, approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. According to court filings in Canada, the assassins flew to Turkey on private jets owned by PIF. No-one is expecting MBS or the Saudi state to be picking the team when Newcastle travel to Tottenham on Sunday but the “separation” argument put forward by the league and the consortium’s minority investors appears little more than a PR exercise.

Besides, there is nothing in the owners’ and directors’ test which prevents a state from taking over a club, just as was the case in 2008 when the Abu Dhabi Group purchased its controlling stake in Manchester City. For those wondering, there is nothing in the rules about human rights either. As has been pointed out in several places this past week, Abu Dhabi’s record in that area isn’t particularly stellar either. Anyone claiming Newcastle’s takeover as proof English football has finally sold its soul simply hasn’t been paying attention. That particular transaction took place some time ago.

Ironically, there is a decent chance the owners’ and directors’ test will now be toughened up, though the suspicion is much of the consternation among other Premier League clubs has been caused by the increased competition the suddenly cash-rich Magpies may pose, rather than the source of the finance.

From the perspective of supporters, attention turns to the government’s fan-led review of football governance, set up in the wake of the failed European Super League bid and due for publication in the coming weeks.

Tracey Crouch MP, leading the review, has already outlined her desire for the introduction of an independent regulator to rule on prospective takeovers and there are many inside the game who would share that view.

The consensus is something needs to change, though quite what is a point of debate and making major alterations to a framework now long established won’t be easy.

Premier League clubs who have raised objections to Newcastle’s takeover in private are likely to be more reluctant in agreeing to anything which might reduce their own power base, or push the balance back toward supporters whose views have for too long been easily ignored.

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