This is a dream come true. This is what I’ve always wanted. When Kevin Keegan was driven to quit, when Alan Shearer went down with the ship, when Chris Hughton was callously tossed aside after getting us promoted, when Dennis Wise and Joe Kinnear raised merry hell with smiles on their faces, this, what is happening as I write this, is precisely what I and countless Newcastle fans around the world have long hoped for.
So why does it not feel like it? Why am I tormented by this new impending reality?
I feel as though I am a child again; I’ve woken up on Christmas Day and, despite the anticipation, the amount of time I’ve spent picturing this exact moment, I don’t want to open my presents; they’re tainted somehow.
I became a Newcastle fan when I became a football fan. It was the 95/96 season. I was young, naïve, and infatuated with The Entertainers that gave us David Ginola, Les Ferdinand, and a 12 point mid-January lead in the Premiership. As a 7 year old I was hooked; this was football as it should be; fast, exciting and positive, how could I possibly look elsewhere?
The season ended in despair and, compounded by the miserable Euros on home turf, it was a wonder that I didn’t pack it all in. I should have turned away, accepted that football offered nothing but misery and that perhaps rugby was my game; a sport which upheld (then and now still) obedience and camaraderie over capitalistic endeavour.
Sadly, my young self lacked the maturity to twist and was too enamoured by the arrival of Alan Shearer, Faustino Asprilla, and an epic 3-2 win against Barcelona in 1997 cemented my status as a lifelong Magpie.
I could list everything wrong with Mike Ashley’s tenure, but that’s been done to death. I could tell you about when he renamed the sacred stadium and sponged off the free advertising without a second thought for what it meant for the fans. Or when his abhorrent treatment of Keegan, the man who embodied everything that the club and fans represented and believed in, led to the Messiah’s acrimonious departure. Or when he refused to bend and let Rafael Benitez, our best manager since Sir Bobby Robson to take the helm, walk away in spite of his being exactly what the fans wanted and the club needed. But, he didn’t fit the Ashley mould: the all too common focus on financial gain over all else: keep expenditure as low as possible, even if that was to the detriment of the club and the fans, and then turn a profit. The club was a means to his further accumulation of wealth and nothing else.
So here we are. Finally on the precipice of a new beginning. A beginning that should be filled with the childish excitement that enlivened The Entertainers. As has been widely reported, we are just waiting for the dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s on a lucrative investment that sees 80% of Newcastle United coming under Saudi ownership.
And therein lies the problem…
Saudi Arabia’s record is troubling at best. Indeed, they make Mike Ashley look like Mother Theresa when you begin to unpick the human rights abuses of only the recent past (the Yemen, Khashoggi, workers’ and womens’ rights, etc.).
How, therefore, can I accept this as a positive? If I loathed the tenure of Mike Ashley because he favoured money over the stability and longevity of club tradition and progress then surely I need to have a voice at least twice as loud against this new ownership which represents those that have done so much worse?
In an attempt to justify it, I could talk about the issues relating to the Abu Dhabi ownership of Manchester City, or Chelsea’s enigmatic Russian oligarch owner, or the Qatari ownership of Barcelona, and how the latter’s eyebrow raising receipt of the right to host the 2022 world cup has led to endemic mistreatment of workers involved in the project. But that just feels like misdirection; selfish whataboutism that makes me feel able to justify my maintaining support of the club I love. Loved.
And so it is with regret that I am having to stand down as a Newcastle fan. My shirts will be donated to charity, my membership will expire, and I will delete my epic Football Manager games that have seen The Magpies reign supreme for decades. I will likely become a distant, indifferent observer of the sport that I used to know and love. Perhaps show an interest in golf, or tennis. Snooker looks like a laugh.
But… it’s not quite that simple.
All the above is what I should be doing. And yet, there is a part of me that still wants to open a bottle of Brown Ale and dance around the house to Knopfler’s Local Hero in my 04/05 Patrick Kluivert shirt. There is just a lingering thought that won’t go away, in spite of everything. A lingering assertion that we have a right to enjoy this.
We deserve this, damn it!
We’ve seen it all, and then some. While others have fought for European places, we have suffered repeated relegations. While we’ve seen teams come up to the Premier League with forward thinking, positive managers, and outplay us on our patch (see Wolves, Fulham, Norwich, etc. etc.), we’ve parked the bus and had Steve Bruce (bless his heart) lick his lips and demand we put more men behind the ball. While Sebastien Haller has shone at West Ham, Joelinton has been mocked for not doing enough, in spite of his instructions of hold the ball up in the centre circle and pray that someone makes a run for him to attempt to find. Our £40m striker is being asked to be an Andrea Pirlo, a Zinedine Zidane, and still to do his day job. And people wonder why he’s struggled…?
So, ultimately, no. I will not cease my support. I will double down, I will buy another shirt, I will buy more tickets. I will continue to support the club that made me fall in love with the beautiful game.
Football is broken. We are seeing it break before our eyes and there is nothing we as fans can do about it. Until there are means by which the sport is vetted properly and it becomes a representative of positive ethical practice, it is out of our hands whether or not a monster or a saint takes charge of our clubs. We can only hope, in vein perhaps, that it is one day the latter with pockets deep enough to compete (as far-fetched as that may no doubt seem).
Once the new owners pass the “fit and proper persons” check by the league (yes that is a thing and no it doesn’t mean anything really), Newcastle’s majority owners will represent that which is morally unacceptable, but my club will have a chance to become what it has long deserved to be, and not the farce that has played out through much of my lifetime.
If our government can sell, unchecked, an eye-watering stock of arms to the Saudis (at least £4.7bn worth since the bombing of Yemen began in fact – illegally), with little recompense or judgement, then the new owners can buy my club a box-to-box wonder-kid and consider themselves beyond my reproach.
All I can do is hope that Saudi Arabia become necessitated by the global scrutiny, to which their recent investments will hold them, to improve and adhere to the standards that are (largely) held dear by modern society.
You’re welcome to judge me, as I will continue to judge the new owners of my football club but, until that actually matters, all we can do is accept that all of football exists outside of normal ethics, and until that is put to a stop, all we can do is continue to be football fans. Singing, raging football fans who have little choice but to blindly cheer on the eleven men on the pitch, in the hope that something positive has happened by the time the final whistle has been blown.
And now might just be our time.