Disclaimer right off the bat, I worked in Saudi Arabia for two years. I enjoyed most of my time there and found the country beautiful, the people very decent and the wealth gap quite large. I was there from 2001-3 and watched the 11th of September attack in New York less than a week after my arrival from the relative safety of my compound. Afghanistan and Iraq happened while I was in the Kingdom. Not much makes Saudi Arabia united, however blatant, Western hypocrisy did. And there isn’t a more hypocritical realm than English media reporting on their beloved national game.
Newcastle United = Bad
I’ve seen the sneering snobbery directed at England’s North East since childhood. The London Fleet Street ridicules the region as subtly as a kick to the groin. Mike Ashley not only has dodgy business practices, but they have continued through the recent ill-advised reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. He has as many question marks on him as Jim Carrey’s Riddler, which makes him an ideal candidate to own a football club in the UK.
His saga of trying to off-load the club has dragged on for years. We read and hear the usual “fans deserve better” from commentators who when the mic is dead laugh at Newcastle’s lot in life. I had this on a radio show where the host did a full 180 degree turn from saying, “It’s a shame what they’re going through, here’s hoping it’ll improve as they really deserve better….”. During the break he went on to call the club a “train wreck”, their fans “a bunch of mongs” and Newcastle “a complete dump”. Back after the break we moved to Champions League football and how impressive RB Leipzig were.
When news of a Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle United broke, there was widespread condemnation of Mike Ashley and football. Some very well meaning folks got involved, like Nicholas McGeehan, who has actual skin in the game. The Grand Dames of English sportswriting lined up to spit on the very thought of a Saudi takeover of an English club. Now in fairness many were sniffy about other Arab figures owning clubs, they even might throw a mention at a Russian or two. Yet they also know what side their pay-packet is buttered on.
Now that Newcastle have released the real reason why the Saudi bid failed there will be joy gained in some quarters. The Premier League will claim a higher moral ground and fanboys and girls with laptops, with their keyboard warriors in tow, will join the temporary screeching. The narrative will be guided to “we did right by football” and that the nasty, voracious Saudis were kept out of the soiled mud of English football. All the while forgetting that Saudi roots run deep in English football, and are blithely ignored for the sake of convenience.
Sheffield United – Good
I was delighted to see Sheffield United keep pace with the moneybags clubs and their multinational owners. They were giving runs to Irish players and giving renewed hopes to the Irish national side. US-owned Liverpool had won the league in October. Emirati-owned Man City were just happy to be there on their cycle off their season. US-owned Man United had Ole on the bus, Russian-owned Chelsea were frankly delighted with Lampard, Thai-owned Leicester were flattering to deceive, tax-exile owned Spurs just deceived. Chinese-owned and football agent operated Wolves existed, the third US-owned outfit, Arsenal, rebuilt and finally little Sheffield United made the Brexiteers and anti-leavers unite. Bulldog spirit, an English manager who could well be the next England boss and as of September 9th only three non-Irish or UK of 29 first team player, and those three are virtual neighbours – French, Dutch and Norwegian.
Hold on, who owns the club? No, surely not. Not Saudi Arabia?! I mean, sure we can overlook Liverpool’s American owners dodgy US club. The Boston Red Sox most recently got hammered for “heinous” sign stealing cheating in 2018. On top of a history of doping – from the start of Fenway Group’s tenure when Boston broke the curse of the Bambino right through to domestic abuser Steven Wright getting an 80-game ban in 2019. We can grit our teeth and say Man City are well run, or that there are three Chinese owned clubs. A lot of media allies will ensure that they hang onto their Chinese made Huawei and Apple mobile phones.
So back to the Saudi issue. Naturally anyone writing for the Independent is being brave in questioning Newcastle, and of course by having a pop at Manchester City’s Arab owners is in step with regular Saudi policy. But the silence on Sheffield United is deafening. It was no secret that the former Al-Hilal owner was in charge of the club, given his battle to get control. I admit I was surprised to learn it, which speaks to my interest in the Byzantine corruption of English football.
Prince Abdullah was on Talksport chatting transfers and the club’s ambitions, though I’ve yet to see a single condemnation of his ownership of plucky Sheffield. I too was taken in by the “miracle” language and I’m sure his highness will be delighted to know he hired the greatest miracle worker since Jesus. And that miracle extends to making sure there isn’t a jot written or a word spoken in opposition to a Saudi owning one of English football’s oldest and most storied clubs.
Only four of the English Premier League’s clubs are majority-owned by British citizens. Regardless of whether they’re tax exiles or not, they’re still pretty much local and acceptable. Shahid Khan at Fulham has had some dubious practices exposed by Craig Kline, the Glazers at Manchester United are beyond redemption, Farhad Moshiri at Everton has question marks but the Blue side of the Mersey desperately need success. The Egyptian-US owned Aston Villa are never more than minutes from disaster, the Italian rule at Leeds has storms ahead and the Russian regime at Chelsea has been well documented at this point. Crystal Palace are an Anglo-American harmless bauble.
So apart from the porn peddlers at West Ham, the “solid” English owned clubs in Brighton and Burnley, there’s only one other British and more importantly English owned club – Newcastle United. The club many hoped would unseat Manchester United but imploded and exploded simultaneously. The area that is ridiculed by sniffy media and talking heads. The club with a history but precious little future. A club “who deserves success”, or so we are told by a patronising chorus in the media gallery. So is it fear of losing another piece of the septic isle to a foreign carpetbagger? Or that a better buyer, even an American, or Chinese, could yet come in? Or an Asian dictator? Or Russian oligarch who got rich off the misery of millions? And why the lack of balance in the tales of the two Uniteds? I asked one of the loudest voices in the Newcastle – Saudi takeover saga to explain in an interview today.
“I couldn’t care less who owns Newcastle, of course it feels wrong, it is wrong, that a sovereign wealth fund comes in and buys it. It’s sportswashing, pure and simple.”
So why then, I asked, is it not equal umbrage for Sheffield United?
“I only learned of the involvement what, the year before last. Lots of us did, you did. Why no outcry? From my side, it’s pointless. He’s settled in, not lashed in money, kept it stable, grew them bit by bit. You have to respect that I guess.”
Yes, we do. So a note to any bloodstained wannabe club owners. Make sure to buy clubs when they’re on a downward spiral. Invest steadily and grow gradually. Don’t get above your station and whatever you do, don’t do it quickly. No big investments or transfer moves. And most important of all, keep it quiet until you’re a season into the Premier League, then we can’t backtrack on the nice things we said. In any case, football fans don’t care if the devil herself comes up from Hades to take over. So long as she can guarantee a cup run, mid-table safety and European football in a few years time.