Newcastle fans back the club’s takeover by Saudi Arabia. Do they bear moral responsibility?

Having craved Mike Ashley’s departure for years, fans are not too squeamish about who might replace him. 

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Keep your nose out,” one of the replies warned. “Go home, woman,” chided another. The insults continued to pour in. “Bore off, pet.” “Move on and stop trying to cause problems.” “Bounce, ya Turkish spy.” “Piss off.” “Go away, for fuck sake.” “You’re clearly being used by Amnesty.” “Nothing to do with us.”

Who, then, was this insolent provocateuse, and what had she done to stir such scorn? She was Hatice Cengiz, and she posted an open letter on social media urging the fans of Newcastle United to resist the takeover of their football club by a consortium backed by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia – the country and regime widely believed to be responsible for the murder of her fiancé, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Alas, Cengiz’s plea was largely ignored. “You have suffered a loss, but end of the day it’s not our problem,” was one of the typical replies. Others suggested she was not his real fiancée; one user that “[Khashoggi] deserved everything he got, no sympathy here”. And although not all Newcastle fans would voice their disapproval in such base terms, the vast majority disapproved nonetheless. Asked whether they would be in favour of their club being purchased by a state culpable for numerous human rights abuses and accused of a litany of war crimes in Yemen, 97 per cent of respondents to a survey by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust said they would.

This warm embrace of one ruthless tyrant has its roots in the revulsion towards another. In the 13 years since Mike Ashley bought Newcastle, adding one of English football’s most famous clubs to his stable of discount leisurewear shops, he has become one of the sport’s most despised owners. If it was not the indiscreet Sports Direct branding plastered all over their beloved stadium, it was the ill-advised coaching appointments, the two relegations, the lack of investment in the training ground and transfer market, and the general feel of tawdriness, of a club and a city having its sap steadily drained from within.

Having craved Ashley’s departure for years, Newcastle fans are not prepared to get too squeamish about who might replace him, or whichever grieving widows want to tug on their heartstrings in the process. This has, in turn, generated its own wave of condemnation. If, as human rights organisations believe, Saudi Arabia’s interest in Premier League football is driven primarily by a desire to paper over its crimes, to what extent will Newcastle fans be tangentially implicated? More broadly, to what extent should fans be expected to bear a moral responsibility that the game’s other stakeholders – players and coaches and sponsors and broadcasters – mostly are not?

This is the crux of the debate that has been raging over recent weeks. When challenged, Newcastle fans are quick to point out that Saudi investment touches our lives in ways that barely occur to most of us. It is merely football’s uniquely prominent position in the cultural conversation, they argue, that has made them a target.

There’s a sadly revealing aspect to this reasoning. Whenever we use Twitter or Slack, order a taxi or food delivery via Uber, watch a Disney show, or click on an Independent article, we are using a product funded in part by Saudi investment. But that relationship is purely transactional, a simple interface of business and customer. Traditionally, the relationship between football fans and their clubs has always meant something more. 

Certainly, when so many Liverpool fans protested against the ownership of US businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett a decade ago, or Manchester United fans against the Glazer family takeover before them, or Newcastle fans against Ashley’s stewardship over the past decade or more, it was on this basis: that a football club should be more than an investment vehicle. That it is irrevocably embedded in its community. That in some important sense it belongs to all of us. 

It is an idea that feels less relevant now, with Newcastle’s takeover on the verge of completion, and fanciful stories already emerging of how the club might splash its new wealth. As it turned out, Newcastle fans’ beef with Ashley had very little to do with zero-hours contracts, labour rights, his eccentric business practices or that he was the first Premier League owner to put staff on furlough, despite a club turnover of £179m and a personal fortune of £2bn. 

Rather, his biggest crime in the eyes of supporters was parsimony: a failure to lavish his wealth with the sort of earth-scorching abandon that has rendered Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City virtually immune to internal criticism. Even if the Saudi deal fails to go through (it is currently pending Premier League approval), Newcastle fans have already shown their hand. And currently, it’s holding up a middle finger to the widow of a murdered dissident in the hope of a few big signings in the summer transfer window. 

This sounds like a blanket condemnation. In fact, it’s merely an admission of where fans sit in the order of things. Shorn of any real influence, deprived of any meaningful stake in their club, shut out of their stadiums for the foreseeable future, perhaps it’s no wonder that so many have simply plumped for the path of least resistance and maximum gratification. The sadness is that what football once liked to imagine as its engaged support is now better understood as a passive, powerless consumer base. It’s ironic that in many ways, this was a process that Ashley has spent 13 years trying to perfect.

Jonathan Liew is a sports writer at the Guardian 

This article appears in the 22 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show

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