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How Should Fans Feel About Newcastle United?

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England — As he walked out of the tunnel and onto the field at St. James’ Park, Eddie Howe paused for a beat. Much of the time, Newcastle United’s manager makes a conscious effort to maintain the distance between himself and the effects of his work. It is a natural instinct, a self-defense mechanism.

But for once, Howe could not stop himself from taking in the tableau. All around him, the steep banks of seats were filled with striped black-and-white flags. In the Gallowgate, the grandstand that serves as the stadium’s heart and lungs, there were banners for heroes current and past.

“A lot of the time, you do separate yourself from some of the feeling around the city,” Howe reflected a couple of hours later. “But it’s good to get an idea of what it means. The view of the stadium, all of the scarves and the flags: It is an incredible place to play.”

In recent years, that has not always been the case. For more than a decade, as it bristled under the unpopular and at times deliberately provocative ownership of the British sportswear tycoon Mike Ashley, St. James’ Park stewed in melancholy and resentment and despair.

The contrast, these days, is stark. Newcastle has the distinct air of a club going places: possibly to Europe, and the Champions League, by the end of the season; and, more immediately, to Wembley, to face Manchester United in Sunday’s league cup final.

On the bitingly cold night in January when Howe’s team confirmed its place in that showpiece, the club unveiled to the crowd Anthony Gordon, a winger acquired from Everton for more than $45 million a couple of days earlier. Clutching a Newcastle scarf and blinking under the floodlights, he seemed just a little taken aback by the fervor of his greeting.

“All we saw was relegation,” Manager Eddie Howe said of the club he took over in November 2021. It now sits in fifth place.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Gordon is just the latest in a string of a dozen or so new signings added to the squad at considerable expense in the past year, but that recruitment drive is not the only explanation for Newcastle’s rise.

Howe has also reinvented or repurposed many of the players he found when he first arrived: Joelinton, a misfiring forward turned into an all-action midfielder; Sean Longstaff, an academy product given a second chance; and, most spectacularly, Miguel Almirón, an eager but mercurial winger who suddenly, on either side of the World Cup, decided to be the Premier League’s deadliest finisher.

That all have flourished, unexpectedly, under Howe has burnished Newcastle’s underdog sheen, one that fits neatly with the club’s and the city’s sense of itself. There is something inherently romantic about the restoration of Newcastle. In one light, it is a rare and precious feel-good story for English soccer. The problem is that, in another, it really isn’t.

Revitalized

Every couple of minutes, Bill Corcoran has to put the brakes on his train of thought to engage another fan wanting to throw a some coins or a folded bank note into his collection bucket. A volunteer for Newcastle’s West End Foodbank, Corcoran greets them all like old friends.

He chews the fat with each of them about the evening’s game. Only lowly Southampton, bottom of the Premier League and on the verge of firing its coach for the second time this season, stood in between Newcastle and Wembley. Most of the fans, though, seem suspicious of this state of affairs. A twist, they assume, is coming. Loving a team and trusting it are very different things.

In between, without missing a beat, Corcoran returns to the subject at hand. Or, rather, subjects: At various points, he sweeps in the Tasmanian genocide of the 1820s, the relative merits of freeing Julian Assange, the Irish famine and the history of the Mikasa, a 20th-century Japanese battleship. This is not traditional pregame chatter.

It is, though, indicative of the strange intellectual territory Newcastle’s fans have found themselves occupying over the last 18 months, ever since their club was purchased by a consortium fronted by the British financier Amanda Staveley and her husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, but backed largely by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s enormous sovereign wealth fund.

Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of the Public Investment Fund, has been a regular guest in the owners’ box at Newcastle.Credit…Fayez Nureldine/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The deal itself was wreathed in controversy. The Premier League blocked the sale, at first, on the grounds of suspected Saudi involvement in the piracy of its broadcast rights. It only allowed it to go through after it had received “binding assurances” that the P.I.F. was a distinct entity from the Saudi state. (Last week, in a legal dispute over the P.I.F.-backed LIV Golf series, the fund claimed “sovereign immunity” in front of a federal judge in California.)

The deal’s eventual approval drew thousands of fans to St. James’ Park in celebration. A smattering waved Saudi flags. A handful wore traditional Saudi dress. The effect was jarring and disorienting: a brutal, repressive autocracy being greeted as liberators from the hated regime of Sports Direct.

Since then, the club’s owners have delivered everything the fans could have asked. Howe was appointed as manager. Newcastle has twice broken its transfer record to acquire a new star. It spent more money in last year’s January transfer window than any other club on earth. A team that had been languishing at the foot of the Premier League table has, in the blink of an eye, become a contender.

The effect has reverberated beyond the confines of the stadium. “There is a real buzz in the air,” said Stephen Patterson, the chief executive of NE1, which represents the interests of 1,400 businesses across Newcastle’s downtown. “The success has spilled out of the club and into the city itself.”

In part, that is to do with a slate of major infrastructure projects getting underway in a city — and a region — that has long felt both underappreciated and underfunded by England’s political and financial power center in London. “The skyline is evidence of investor confidence,” Patterson said. “I’ve never known so much public and private investment in the city.”

The soccer team, though, has acted as an accelerant. “It has de-risked a lot of projects,” said Rachel Anderson, the assistant director of policy at the North East England Chamber of Commerce. “Developments that have sat on ice for a long time have come online. The takeover has acted as a catalyst. It makes it easier to raise financing or to greenlight a project.”

“There is a real buzz in the air,” a business executive in Newcastle said. “The success has spilled out of the club and into the city itself.”Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That “buzz in the air,” though, has come at a cost. The P.I.F.-led takeover of Newcastle has been condemned by a host of human rights organizations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, FairSquare.

Democracy for the Arab World Now, a group launched by colleagues and friends of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, said that allowing the takeover to go through normalized “a dictator who literally goes around butchering journalists.” Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, said before the deal was announced that she was “horrified” at the prospect of Saudi ownership of an English club.

In the same time frame that its team and its city have started to soar, Newcastle has been turned into a cipher for the dangers of sportswashing, accused of being nothing but an attempt by the Saudi state to “distract from serious human rights violations,” as Amnesty put it. Inside Newcastle, the club’s new reality still feels a little like a dream. Outside, it has been cast as something far darker.

Moral Arbiters

The day the takeover went through, Charlotte Robson was invited onto a prominent national radio show to discuss the meaning and merit of Newcastle’s new ownership. At one point, she remembers, another member of the panel bemoaned that the club’s fans had allowed it to happen. “It really struck me,” said Robson, a board member of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust. “Because I don’t remember us being given much of a say.”

It would be wrong to suggest there has been a uniform response among Newcastle’s fans to their new reality, beyond the fact that absolutely nobody misses Mike Ashley. At times, as the initial celebrations suggested, there have been some who are happy to embrace the links to Saudi Arabia, or at least the iconography of that connection.

For many, though, it has been a more complex, considered process. Robson herself would ideally like to see the club owned — at least in part — by the fans. She does not equate being a Newcastle fan with being a “supporter of the nation state of Saudi Arabia.”

Striker Chris Wood, acquired last January, in Newcastle’s alternate jersey, which critics gleefully noted is in the colors of the Saudi flag.Credit…Ed Sykes/Action Images, via Reuters

She has, though, been able to take pleasure in the club’s rise. “The fact that the majority owners are not especially visible is important,” she said. “That’s been helpful for a lot of fans trying to dissociate the club from the ownership.”

So, too, has the nature of the team. The club’s spending has been considerable, but hardly wanton by the bloated standards of the Premier League. What she calls the “redemption story” of the more long-serving members of the squad, meanwhile, has made it feel more organic. “Almirón was signed by Rafa Benítez, three managers ago,” Robson notes. “You can point to the coaching staff and say it’s because of them.”

Her instinct, though, is largely that many fans resent the idea that it should fall on them to act as “moral arbiters” for the game, when nobody in a position of power — the Premier League, UEFA, the British government — is prepared to do the same.

“The league has a policy dating back years of letting potentially unscrupulous actors in,” she said. “The average fan is a bit put out that it’s apparently their job to object, when all they want to do is watch their team.”

That, certainly, is where Corcoran falls on the spectrum. Despite his unprompted disquisition on the many and varied failings of British and American foreign policy, 1820-2023, he insisted he has not had to “persuade himself” to accept the ethical legitimacy of Saudi ownership.

All he has seen so far, he said, has been encouraging: The owners have pledged to match whatever donations to the food bank he and his fellow volunteers can raise on matchdays. There have been no edicts passed that contravene his sense of what Newcastle United should represent.

St. James’ Park, which stewed in resentment under its former owner, now bounces with life again on matchdays.Credit…Lee Smith/Action Images Via Reuters

“If they asked us to compromise our morals, we would be the first to protest,” he said. “Newcastle is about being inclusive, being welcoming, open to everybody, and those values will not change. It is not worth being a great team if it comes at the cost of being ourselves.”

Not everyone has been able to make that sort of accommodation. “There is no glory in success obtained like this,” said John Hird, a member of NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing, a lobbying group set up in the aftermath of the takeover.

Though a vast majority of fans have “respected our right to protest,” Hird said, his group has been regularly falsely smeared — particularly online — as some sort of sleeper cell composed of Sunderland fans, seeking to effect the destruction of Newcastle’s impending golden age.

In reality, its aims are a little more modest. Hird said he would like to see the city’s lawmakers, as well as larger, more established fan groups, “make good on their promise to be a critical friend to the Saudi owners.” He would encourage those fans won over by the benefits of the takeover “at least to speak up on human rights.”

Though its numbers are small — “we accept we are a minority,” Hird said — the group has done what it can to make its voice heard, staging protests outside St. James’ Park and, last week, delivering a letter to Eddie Howe on behalf of the family of a dissident imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.

Thus far, though, it has been lost in the clamor generated by Newcastle’s ascent. Every train south is booked this weekend. St. James’ Park is an “incredible” place to play once more. Newcastle has the air of a club going places. Most fans do not see it as their job to stop and think about how it got there.

Credit…Lee Smith/Action Images, via Reuters

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