by Michael Martin | 30th May 2020

I love football writing. In fact it’s my favourite kind of writing. Or should I say reading? That probably doesn’t make me much of an intellectual and that’s because I’m not one nor have any pretensions to be one. Or probably the mental capacity! No probably about it, I don’t. But I do like football writing and some of my favourite books have football as their central subject.

There’s nothing better than good football journalism. The problem with it is there isn’t very much of it about. I can’t imagine there is anything more disappointing than getting a sought after gig as a football journalist and discovering your job is to sit in front of  a lap-top all day looking for stories to cut and paste into your own articles to create website traffic to generate advertising revenue to keep shareholders happy. Who went to see a careers adviser with an ambition to create click-bait? It must be completely soul-destroying!

The problem is there is far too much football coverage. There are people employed to trawl the net looking for stuff to tart up and put on sites. We see it every day and I can’t be the only one to ask – they’re not really making a “story” out of that are they? But they do and we see the most banal pieces of minutiae pimped into a story which frequently fails to live up to the headline. Its a click-bait con-trick. 

I can’t even say it’s a tabloid press thing because there are once great fanzines doing it, the regional press does it as routine and shite football sites that do nothing to improve your life do it too.

So, it gives me great pleasure to point to three articles in the mainstream press this week to have at last taken the coverage about Newcastle United’s mooted takeover into a dimension worthy of praise.

The first is a second piece from Sean Ingle in The Guardian – click here  I say that not because Sean’s piece made for the kind of takeover reading I was looking forward to. I’d rather be reading stuff detailing the takeover was complete and that #CANS was trending all over the Black & White planet.

Sean’s piece wasn’t what we wanted to read but it is (like his earlier article) important for us to digest and consider. This piece comes along with a big sharpened pin, circling our takeover balloon and whilst not completely bursting it, considerably deflates it.

Sean Ingle is a good journalist. He uses proper substantial evidence to stand up his articles and on Tuesday night references a WTO report detailing a pretty damning conclusion on TV piracy which if not completely derailing the Saudi backed takeover, certainly gives cause for pause and reflection.

Part of that reflection should be the lines Sean has included on two occasions now referring t the submission of false information to the PL. Is that accidental or instructive? I don’t know but I don’t believe in coincidences. Where would Sean get that kind of nod from? It can only be the Premier League. 

Throughout this saga, parts of the press have repeatedly parroted the line “No Red Flags”. Well, here is one and it’s rather large.

The problem for a large swathe of the press coverage of the takeover has been too keen a readiness to accept the coverage from well-regarded journalists as gospel and for the lesser lights of the media to brainlessly cut and paste it. Thereafter it becomes the received wisdom. It creates a false expectation. 

Journalists might insert the catch-all get out of jail lines “I understand” … “reports claim” and all of that palaver but the truth is very few people, despite the numbers working in the football media  are producing original coverage. So much of it is straightforward plagiarism of content and frequently ideas. The fanzine movement has been shamelessly plundered in this regard. Sean Ingle is producing substantial pieces of journalism no matter how jarring it is to read. Give me the ugly truth rather than a beautiful lie every time. 

I have read confident predictions of a club takeover now three times and guess what? It still hasn’t happened. The problem is it is, so far as I can see it, the buying side casting a spell over some journalists to the point where their briefings have become unquestioned.

Neil Custis of The S*n has predicted the takeover will be completed on 1/Jun/20. That was said, I would suspect, on the back of a briefing from the buyers side and assurances about No Red Flags. That all changed on Tuesday night.

But still, I’ve read reports subsequent to Ingle’s Tuesday night kick in the nuts suggest it never happened and off they go again parroting the “buyers side are confident” etc. Then there are other news items linking United to all manner of stellar names which is a lot of nonsense until or if the takeover happens. Clicks matter more than the truth. 

I have grave reservations about the leaks coming out of the PL and/or their purpose in providing Ingle with this gen (which I do not doubt comes from Qatar but that’s not the journalist’s issue). Sean has found an inside track on a wholly different narrative about how the Owners & Directors Test is progressing and it is materially different to the one trotted out courtesy of briefings from the buyers side which punts the line everything is hunky dory. I think we can say, the press who have predicted the takeover would be completed by the end of April, the middle of May, that it was imminent a fortnight ago have placed rather too much faith in what they have been told by the buyers’ side. I would guess the Neil Custis prediction in The S*n of a takeover completed on 1/Jun/20 won’t happen either. Obviously, I would love to be proven spectacularly wrong.

Here’s a thing too, Richard Keys in his role as Qatari diplomatic emissary and PR mouth-piece claimed last week that the UK government was putting pressure on the Premier League to pass the United takeover. Now Keys is an oft ridiculed figure and not one taken seriously normally. But in this regard I have a mind to believe him. My next question though is how does he know? I doubt seriously the UK government would give him a heads up but such are the relationships between BeIN (Qatar) and the Premier League it can only come from the latter. Again, I find it impossible not to be perturbed about the objectivity of the Premier League. There are far too many lucrative commercial ties between the PL and the Saudis greatest international opponent (Qatar) for comfort. At the risk of repeating ad nausea, Qatar is hosting the World Cup on the back of industrial levels of corruption which reached to the top of FIFA. It would be naive to ignore the potential here in regard to the Premier League. 

The second piece which I think is valuable if a little overdue in all of this was again provided by The Guardian, courtesy of Louise Taylor.

Louise has provided much needed context to the current complexities of United’s Saudi backed takeover by at last referencing the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Click here

This is the real story of the Newcastle United takeover where TV piracy, human rights etc have been weaponised by one side to attack the other and attempt to halt Saudi’s entry into football. That is not to diminish the genuine concerns raised by Amnesty International or the grief of Jamal Khashoggi’s bereaved fiancé.

As Louise correctly identifies, Newcastle United is in the middle of a proxy war between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Neither state is particularly worthy of praise but it is only the Qataris who have bribed their way to hosting a World Cup in 2022 and via BeIN own the TV rights for the Premier League for which they have furnished the PL with £500m over three years.

I do not doubt the relationships which exist between the Premier League and BeIN (Qatar) are as strong as they are between SKY and BT. I do question the probity of the PL given this relationship and their interest in taking money from Qatar, a fierce opponent of Saudi interests, including efforts to takeover Newcastle United FC.

Well done to Louise in this regard and I hope this informs the commentary around this takeover. Someone might need to manage my expectations of that I guess.

The third piece I think represents a gradual awakening for the press is that provided by one of the good lads, Simon Bird of The Mirror. Click here

In this article, Simon points out that the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is part of a piece and it represents an entry point into a global sport. But it is only an entry point and a platform for the Saudis to bid for the TV rights currently held by the Qataris (BeIN). That is something I have no doubt the Qataris are fully aware and pretty keen to prevent.

There is an unquestioned narrative that the purpose of the Saudi-funded takeover of United is designed for the purposes of sports-washing, a distraction from KSA’s less than savoury reputation and all of that might be true. But it doesn’t tell the whole tale.

Listen to the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund Managing Director Yasir al-Rumayyan discuss the plans for strategic direction and it is clearly economic growth. Thus whilst we can’t dismiss the impact of sports-washing and all of that, the takeover of Newcastle United is only a small part in a strategic growth plan to add economic strength to KSA in a post-oil world.

Again well done to Simon Bird for adding that to part of the narrative!

So then, how’s the takeover going? Who can say? Not me. I was as guilty as many for considering the mood music was moving towards a successful conclusion but it quite clearly wasn’t as quickly as we were being told it would.

Who to listen to in order to understand what is happening? Certainly not those who have been punting the all-is-well-no-red-flags-its-imminent line. Or embarrassing blow-hards on social media desperate to carve some niche as ITK Toon Army grandees but succeed in making themselves only figures of derision by the less gullible.  

We’ve heard “No Red Flags” and takeover on course patter too often now. I’m frankly a bit tired of it all. First of June? Aye, okay mate. Tell me when it’s done.

We’re going to just wait and shut out all the noise.

Keep On, Keepin’ On ..

MICHAEL MARTIN