What now for Newcastle after takeover? The problems new owners face in a very different football world

Newcastle’s new owners have plenty of work to do to deliver what supporters desire

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 15 October 2021 13:11
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Newcastle United fans celebrate takeover deal 2

Amanda Staveley and the rest of Newcastle United’s new executive might have impressed supporters with meetings in the first week of the Saudi Arabian ownership, but that hasn’t really been the case with figures within the game.

Many have been left perplexed by the new regime’s initial dealings. That has been most evident in the highest profile exercise so far, which is the search for a new manager. The hierarchy want Steve Bruce out, largely because they know the fanbase want Bruce out. The entire takeover has after all been built on wide-scale pandering to supporters, with Staveley repeatedly delivering the same spiel about love for the club that she was prepared to give Liverpool when she was part of a consortium that considered buying the Merseyside club.

The consortium have so far known exactly what buttons to press, but that makes the reluctance to press the button on Bruce all the more surprising.

Staveley and the team around her were advised to just get rid of the manager immediately and worry about a replacement later, since that is clearly their will. Instead, Bruce will remain in his job for now casting a shadow over a Sunday match against Tottenham Hotspur that is supposed to be a welcoming party.

A mere glance at social media shows supporters talking about a celebration potentially being spoiled.

Part of the hesitation is about Bruce’s replacement. The hierarchy are currently undecided about what to do next, despite having so long to think about it. There is currently no interest in Frank Lampard. There have been indirect approaches to some big names, but none have given positive responses. Antonio Conte, as an example, doesn’t see Newcastle as anywhere near close enough to competing to be attractive. Eddie Howe may end up representing the most viable option.

Another complication is admittedly that the structure around the manager still has to be decided. In short, there isn’t much football intelligence at this Newcastle, for now at least. Agents say that, in the first week, they were mostly dealing with Staveley’s husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi. He was regularly seen kicking a ball around the training ground.

And there remained Bruce, “the ghost at the feast”, as some sources have quipped. Other sources more sympathetic to the manager have described the situation as “amateurish” and “a shambles”.

Some of that may be fairly interpreted as inevitable bitterness but Bruce being in place on Sunday would still be such a needless misstep at a time when the hierarchy can do almost no wrong in the eyes of supporters. A “shambles” is certainly not the image that the Saudi Arabian owners will have wanted to give off.

On that, there are bigger questions. While so much of the criticism of this takeover rightfully centred on the political use of a club, it is at least possible they have moved too late.

This is a very different football world to 2008, and the time of the Manchester City takeover. Back then, the term “sportswashing” didn’t exist and there was no war in Yemen. There was just a greater naivety about it all. By the time human rights groups had succeeded in making “sportswashing” a part of the conversation, the modern iterations of City and Paris Saint-Germain, owned by the Abu Dhabi and Qatar ruling families respectively, had already been normalised.

That may not be so easy for Newcastle’s new owners. Observers in England are instead putting the team in the context of Saudi Arabia’s many human rights problems.

Figures within football are openly talking about the state’s history of beheading as a capital punishment, and making dark jokes about players who go to Newcastle and underperform. It feels unlikely that any success will ever escape association with human rights questions, which is something that City and PSG have largely avoided. You don’t exactly get Abu Dhabi’s oppression of dissidents discussed on Match of the Day or Super Sunday, even though part of the purchase is precisely about using football to shift criticism. Micah Richards isn’t going into that.

Jubilant Newcastle fans celebrate the club’s Saudi takeover outside the stadium

By contrast, even Alan Shearer has had to acknowledge “human rights issues” around this takeover, while talking about a “special day” for the supporters. Those issues were similarly brought up in the Premier League shareholders’ meeting on Tuesday, which excluded Newcastle to allow for “open discussion”.

Some do have misgivings about the international image of the competition if they are being seen to do business with Saudi Arabia. There were exasperated questions about the process that sanctioned the takeover and even calls for moves against Richard Masters and Gary Hoffman at the top of the Premier League.

Others would not be so bold, as they are highly conscious of the questionable ways so many other clubs make money, from gambling sponsorships to their own deals with much-criticised states. Manchester United’s Richard Arnold has spoken of their “long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia” and companies from the kingdom, which has been in place for over a decade.

While concerns about human rights should be paramount, and some figures who spoke on Tuesday are genuine in citing them, others are being accused of using it for their own self-interest. “That’s the problem with the modern game,” one source with knowledge of the meeting said. “Self-interest is rife. Most seemed more concerned with greater competition.”

A series of sources say it was “mid-table clubs” who led opposition to the takeover in the meeting, and not “big six” clubs like Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur. This was one striking element of the fallout from the meeting. Many were said to be opposed to the takeover but almost no one would put their name to it.

“It’s almost like they don’t want the badge of having criticised the new owners,” a critical figure from one Premier League club said. It’s all the more curious because some of the complaints were also entirely legitimate if separate to human rights issues.

One email drafted with the consent of 12 clubs expressed concern about cost controls, and there was subsequent discussion about the need for the Premier League to enforce restrictions. There is justifiable worry about how this could further drive up player salaries. “It’s not so much where the money is coming from,” one source said. “It’s about where it’s going.”

All of this, from the uncertainty around Bruce to the debate within the Premier League, informs the bigger discussion of what Newcastle can be.

The great fear that unites so many different parties in the game for many different reasons is that the Saudi Arabian owners pump in huge money to distort the playing field and make them another super club, who play the sort of fantasy football that washes away all concerns. Anything can be normalised if the play is outstanding.

The early days have suggested there is some doubt over whether that will be the case. Most immediately, it is a different world to 2008 in more senses than just awareness of sportswashing.

There is more competition at the top of the Premier League, and more restrictions, at least theoretically. The power structure is much more defined, and it isn’t so easy to just spend your way into the big six.

It remains unknown whether the new owners are even willing to spend that much but, if they do, it still takes proper planning. The danger is that you can end up in an Everton situation, perpetually signing players that take you to the brink of the top six but no further.

City’s owners instead excelled in this area. They eventually went out and just bought the brains trust from “the Apple of football” in Barcelona’s 2009 hierarchy – bringing in Txiki Begiristain, Ferran Soriano and ultimately Pep Guardiola – but there was impressive design even before that.

As revealed in The Club by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, City didn’t just go and spend what they could in the windows after their 2008 takeover. They specifically went out to take key players from their most immediate competitors for a Champions League place. City greatly strengthened by significantly weakening all of Aston Villa, Everton and Arsenal.

“We crippled Villa,” former chief executive Garry Cook boasted to Robinson and Clegg. Cook was notoriously brash but he had real nous, and had worked for a sports company as substantial as Nike. It’s also easily forgotten that he was nowhere near as brash as Abu Dhabi’s initial frontman.

Amanda Staveley has plenty of work to do

Sulaiman al-Fahim was making all manner of claims about there being “no limit” to what City would do. He was quickly replaced on the orders of Abu Dhabi, and Khaldoon al-Mubarak was brought in. There is some difference in profile between the two figures. Khaldoon was educated at Tufts University in Massachusetts and is described as the de-facto prime minister of United Arab Emirates, always in the room when ruler Mohamed bin Zayed meets world leaders.

Al-Fahim was the host of an Apprentice-style reality show. He was seen as having made himself far too central to the whole takeover in 2008. The wonder is whether Saudi Arabia go for the same level of political sophistication.

Right now, they don’t even have any real football expertise. Many in the game believe Staveley has been given at least a year to run the club. Her next steps will tell a lot, but they should perhaps be seeking instruction from City.

Middle Eastern experts do cite this as a key difference between the two allies. Saudi Arabia are seen as much less “slick” in these operations than the Emiratis.

There have nevertheless been murmurings about how much Staveley has made herself front and centre of this. Some agents have sought to go over the current hierarchy and straight to the Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Early days could even be tough. There are 12 Premier League matches until the transfer window, and Newcastle now have a squad of players who know their futures are uncertain. The team may even need the positive momentum around this takeover to be influential on the pitch. Tottenham could well spoil a party on Sunday, to go with the presence of Bruce.

It is why the manager’s situation will be so instructive. Saudi Arabia of course have enough money to eventually get this right. That tends to be how football goes now.

It’s just, in the first week, many within the game have been struck by how haphazardly the early days of this ownership have gone.

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