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07th Oct 2021

Would you welcome a despotic regime to your club if it meant Champions League football?

Wayne Farry

As Mike Ashley and his bottomless Sports Direct mug depart the North East, Newcastle fans must make peace with the reality of their new owners

Mike Ashley’s reign as owner of Newcastle United has finally come to an end. The owner of Sports Direct, a proponent and user of zero hour contracts, has been consistently criticised for his ownership. During his tenure, one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs became a shell of its former self – at the expense of both supporters and the local area.

That pain, felt by tens of thousands of Magpies fans – many of whom took the difficult decision to walk away from the club with which their lives had been intertwined – should not be understated, nor ignored.

It is most likely why almost 94 percent of the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust members said in a recent survey that they support the takeover of the club by a hugely wealthy Saudi Arabian-backed investment fund.

This theory is confirmed by Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust member Charlotte Robson, who acknowledges the genuine concerns over their new owners.

“Your normal Newcastle fan just wants to go to the football and enjoy it again,” she tells JOE. “It’s an interesting and difficult question and I will continue to use my small Newcastle platform to talk about it.”

It is a crucial factor when we see the joy expressed by those same fans at the news that the Public Investment Fund (PIF) have assumed ownership of the club which it has been trying to acquire for more than a year.

For those who do not know, PIF is a Saudi sovereign investment fund which was established in 1971 with the express purpose of financing support for projects of strategic significance to the Saudi economy. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal said that PIF may be “the least transparent sovereign wealth fund in the world”.

Some have sought to downplay the links between PIF and the Saudi state itself, an impossible task when the chairman of the fund is the crown prince himself, Mohammed bin-Salman, the man alleged to have ordered the assassination of journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime, was invited to the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey. He accepted the invitation, before being murdered and dismembered by agents of the Saudi state, the same state that executed 184 people in 2019, according to a report by Amnesty International.

It is the same state that punishes acts of homosexuality or cross-dressing with fines, public whipping, beatings, chemical castrations, imprisonment up to life, the death penalty and torture.

Amnesty’s UK chief executive, Sacha Deshmukh has condemned the takeover as “a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football”. While Hatice Cengiz – Khashoggi’s fiancee – has told Telegraph Sport that she is shocked that the Premier League are seemingly willing to let Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman “wash his reputation, and sully the name of sports”.

Newcastle United fans are entitled to feel delight at the end of the Ashley era. It’s not on them that the sad capitalist truth of it is there are few groups wealthy enough to buy a Premier League football club, and that even fewer of those groups are run by people with a clean track record.

It is the responsibility of the Premier League itself to vet these kinds of parties and prevent them from entering the top tier of English football. History, as well as their statement today that they have “received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club”, are evidence of that.

But what Newcastle United fans do have control over is how they respond to such a group assuming control of their club. It is on them to work out whether they are willing to make peace with the fact that they are welcoming a despotic regime into their club.

For some, there will of course be a personal conflict, and it is personal when the football club you love is involved. Those people are entitled to continue or resume their support of the club, and to return to St. James’ Park to cheer on the players on the pitch.

But it is the fanfare, the Saudi flags in Twitter bios, and the pictures of MBS in profile photos, as well as the rejection of any form of criticism as some kind of propaganda, that asks the question of just what football fans are willing to turn a blind eye to in the name of future success on the pitch.

Newcastle fans might have described themselves as feeling “tortured” under Mike Ashley, but that simply can’t be equated to the actual, physical torture handed down to the Saudi population by the club’s new owners.

No amount of mental gymnastics can change that fact, nor can the nauseating whataboutery regarding the equally awful ownership of Man City and PSG by Abu Dhabi and Qatar respectively.

And so fans must make a decision. Turn away from the club with the same disgust so many expressed for Mike Ashley, or decide that you are comfortable with the fact that you’re giving your money and your support to a despotic regime that just so happened to identify your club as the ideal vehicle to try and launder its reputation.

It is an unenviable path to walk, but one that modern football has made unavoidable.