It wasn’t totally inspiring, and it wasn’t totally cringeworthy. It was neither and both all at once. It was on the very first day that incoming director Amanda Staveley—who was quite deliberately made the face of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United FC—gave her first interview after Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) were confirmed as the club’s new owners. She told Sky Sports in that first sit-down interview in October that “Premier League is the best in the world… and Newcastle United is the best team in the world.”
The awkward part is that Staveley was gravely wrong, of course. Newcastle are not the best team in the world now, sat in 13th place in the Premier League, so you can bet your life they weren’t the best team in the world when she gave the interview. The Magpies were 19th at the time. “This squad should not be at 19th position. It really shouldn’t,” said the Ripon-born businesswomen.
Staveley’s interview—and indeed, any that she’s given since—sought to quash doubts about the ethics of the takeover. Staveley has been involved in Middle Eastern business since the mid-2000s, and was involved in brokering the deal that saw Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of Manchester City in 2008.
Staveley has always maintained that the Saudi consortium, which made Newcastle United by far the world’s richest club, is very separate from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself. Concerns were raised right from minute one of a potential deal being mentioned, such is the nation’s egregious human rights record. On Thursday 10 March, Newcastle came from behind to beat Southampton, thanks to goals from the first two marquee signings of the Saudi era: £25m purchase Chris Wood and £40m man Bruno Guimarães. Two days later, as the Magpies travelled down to face Chelsea, the Saudi government beheaded 81 people in a single day—a stark juxtaposition of the Saudi state’s dealings.
As the final motions of the deal went through in early October of last year, all 19 of the Magpies’ Premier League rivals demanded an emergency meeting with the Premier League, where they expressed their acute concerns about the morality (or lack thereof) of a potential deal between PIF and the club.
One could just about tenuously argue that it’s no wonder the other 19 felt action was required. PIF are worth a reported £700bn. That makes Newcastle’s wealth a potential 30 times greater than the next-richest Premier League club, Mansour’s Manchester City. And City thrashed Newcastle 5–0 last weekend. Just think of the beat Newcastle could become with pockets that deep.
But the clubs were not merely trying to palm off a takeover that had the potential to change the course of English club football history. They were also rightly questioning whether such a takeover is even remotely ethical. Amnesty International asked the same question. The Premier League said PIF passed their “fit and proper persons to take over a club” test. A great many people and clubs couldn’t see how on Earth they had.
In that first interview, Staveley was asked about Newcastle’s struggling manager Steve Bruce. “Obviously, we’re very supportive of Steve,” she assured. 13 days later, Bruce was sacked. He was replaced by the fresh-faced former Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe—a very capable coach, but hardly the battle-hardened, experienced coach they were expected to want as the man to steer the ship on its maiden voyage.
Howe and Newcastle have excelled. Maybe that’s no surprise. They spent more than £91m in January, in their first window under their new ownership—ownership which Staveley has described euphemistically as offering “patient capital.” In came the likes of England World Cup semi-finalist Kieran Trippier, Burnley talisman and New Zealand striker Chris Wood, and the Brazilian midfielder Bruno Guimarães. Guimarães was the French Ligue 1’s best creator in the first half of the season, flying at Lyon before Newcastle waved their “patient capital” around impatiently to secure his services.
Am I allowed to be just a tiny bit impressed by Newcastle United? They say money can’t buy you happiness, but Mike Ashley had caused life at St James’ Park to rust over in recent years. In the long-term, it’s likely that PIF’s extraordinary wealth, which makes Newcastle easily the richest club in the world, will make Newcastle one of the best teams in England. So perhaps it will buy happiness. But what’s been so impressive about them in the second half of this season is how well the players already at the club have risen.
They’ve played like they have something to prove, and, of course, they do. Staveley won’t say anything, but the lofty ambitions of the club’s new owners means many would likely have been hurried out the door this summer if they hadn’t turned a corner and turned on the style. But so many have. Misfiring striker Joelinton has gone from Premier League laughing stock to unexpected midfield revelation. Jonjo Shelvey has raised his levels to match where he was at when lining up alongside Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard for Roy Hodgson’s England. Winger Jacob Murphy and Slovakian goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka have excelled too. Allan Saint-Maximin has been, well, Allan Saint-Maximin—dizzyingly talented; beholder of hope for the black and white.
Newcastle United have won ten of their last 16 matches—and in that time, they’ve had the misfortune of facing Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. Eddie Howe has done a superb job assembling a well-balanced XI from a strange hodgepodge of foreign stars and honest homegrown players. Yes, I can be impressed by Newcastle United… on the pitch, at least.
Off the pitch, we must be wise to what this is. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman heads PIF. Make no mistake: this is sportswashing. This is Saudi Arabia jumping at the chance to join Qatar and the UAE in owning an historic European football club. This is Saudi Arabia buying a piece of the West in order to better its relations and its international reputation, and to distract from its atrocities back home. Newcastle United are gradually going to become one of the greatest clubs on Earth. It is our job to make sure that doesn’t legitimise the Saudi government’s most appalling stances, nor its most appalling actions.