Newcastle United are one of those unhappy clubs with the knack of finding themselves in the headlines when the stories have nothing to do with them. Or football.
Last week was a classic case with a double whammy. On Friday, Amanda Staveley lost her long-running case against Barclays, even though the judge said the bank was “guilty of fraudulent representation”. Later in the day a declassified United States intelligence report asserted that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi three years ago.
This week, Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom group, filed a criminal complaint in a German court accusing the Saudi regime of “widespread and systematic” repression of the media, a policy that culminated in the death of Khashoggi.
As if Newcastle fans have not got enough to worry about with the threat of relegation looming ever closer.
Supporters in the north-east had placed their hopes on the aborted takeover led by Staveley and financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). The £300m proposed buyout had PIF taking an 80 per cent stake in the club with Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben brothers each acquiring 10 per cent. The consortium walked away last summer after the Premier League looked for further assurances about the day-to-day running of the club. The ruling body were concerned about the Saudi government’s involvement in the pirating of broadcasts by the rights holder in the Gulf, Qatar-based BeIn Sports.
Mike Ashley, the owner, has issued arbitration proceedings against the Premier League and is still keen to offload the club. PIF will not comment on the matter but the Saudis are understood to remain eager to complete the transaction.
Staveley’s courtroom struggles have no impact on Newcastle. The businesswoman is considering an appeal against the Barclays verdict – which would take the case into its 10th year – but whatever decision she makes will not affect her desire to become involved with the club. Neither would relegation. Sources close to the situation maintain that all parties in the consortium would still be interested even if the team are relegated to the Championship.
Saudi Arabia was involved in a four-year cold war with Qatar. In January steps began to repair the breach between the Arab states. As part of the normalisation of relations between the countries, BeIn broadcasts have begun to be shown in the desert kingdom, despite officially being under ban. If the détente continues, the objections to PIF based on the Saudi treatment of the rights holder are likely to disappear.
The controversy over the killing of Khashoggi is harder to overlook. Amnesty International called on the Premier League to review the owners’ and directors’ test, saying that Saudi Arabia’s participation in the English top flight would be ‘sportswashing’ a nation with an appalling human-rights record. Most Newcastle supporters appear happy to rationalise the involvement of a repressive regime if it makes the club more successful. Put bluntly, many hate Ashley more than the authoritarian monarchy in the Middle East.
Those close to the takeover have always believed that the political wrangling should not affect the sale. The murder of Khashoggi has not caused an interruption of economic relations between Britain and Saudi Arabia and many in football do not see why the game needs to take a stance that is not being held by the government.
The counter-argument is that sport is a community-rooted activity with wider moral and social obligations because of its history. That is unlikely to wash when there are millions at stake. Amnesty’s pleas, and the intervention of Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz, did not change opinions on Tyneside. Even the local Labour MPs castigated Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, for not waving the takeover through. Liz Twist, the member for Blaydon, wrote to Masters saying fans had “every right to be appalled by the lack of transparency” in the league’s approach to the buyout. The lack of transparency in Saudi Arabia was not a concern.
The stories of the last week add to the air of chaos around Newcastle. By the time they play again on Sunday – away to West Bromwich Albion, one of the three clubs below them in the table – they could be just one point away from the drop zone. There are no saviours arriving from the Middle East in the short term. Steve Bruce’s undermanned and injury-hit squad need to rescue themselves.
The takeover could be done very quickly. All the preparation work that takes time before a transaction was completed last year. A price renegotiation would need to take place if the unthinkable happened and Newcastle went down, but the figures are straightforward and that would not take long.
The Premier League would need to give PIF an indication that they were ready to rubber-stamp their involvement. The consortium think that this will be the eventual result but the negative publicity does not help. There is no immediate sign of a change of situation for Newcastle. The only good news they can generate is with a couple of wins on the pitch.