What a few weeks it has been since the takeover. I don’t recall a point in my lifetime when this football club was in the news so much or had the media spotlight shined so fiercely on it. The sheer volume of content being written and produced about Newcastle is almost impossible to consume. It isn’t just football content, events which previously have belonged in the realms of global geopolitics are now crossing over into sport. Normally the sorts of thing you see reported about halfway through Newsnight, are being reported on and directly linked to Newcastle United. Much like how Derby County became “Frank Lampard’s Derby County”, it seems that Saudi Arabia is now the official epithet to the Newcastle United. “Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle United” are being intrinsically linked to the actions and belief system of a nation state. This instinctively feels unfair, but unfortunately that is the price you pay when the club you support are effectively owned by a State. This is the toll, the tax, that we will pay whilst the club is 80% owned by the PIF (and let’s not pretend to believe the separation nonsense). Some might see it as worth it, especially if it brings success and a better football club. personally, I don’t.
Reactions to the takeover from the national press (significantly different from editorial line in the local press), from other fans and from the public have been unsurprising. They have put an intense focus on the actions of the Saudi state and they range from asking direct questions of the PL as to why the takeover was allowed, to our sponsors as to why they continue to sponsor NUFC or in some cases just actively cheering the (rather likely) scenario that we will be relegated this season.
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— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) October 17, 2021
Firstly, and I want to be absolutely clear on this, they are correct in their reporting, protests and criticism. In most cases it isn’t an attack on the club or the fans, this isn’t really about Newcastle United at all, this is about people expressing their abhorrence at a regime which commits horrific acts.
Secondly, I appreciate how difficult a lot of it is to hear for fans. Natural instinct is to defend the club you support from criticism. It makes it even more difficult when you consider the double standards and hypocrisy of some of those doing the accusing. It is hard to see Oliver Holt, a man who owes his living to a newspaper which exists to preach intolerance, hate and division, smugly taking the moral high ground on the topic. But he is able to, because what he is saying in his writing about our Saudi owners is correct (except the bit he made up about a Newcastle fan reporting the Palace banner).
I’ve also found some of the reporting troubling in how it has sought to generalise and present a caricature of Newcastle fans. An article in the Guardian by Paul MacInnes, for example, talks about “a horde of the Toon Army” marching to the Selhurst Park “lined up” behind a Saudi flag. It is disingenuous at best, however there is no denying that a small minority of our fans continue to dress up as Saudis, to carry Saudi flags etc. It’s not my job to tell other fans what to do but I find it all a bit bewildering and have to question what they think they’re achieving. Their behaviour is being held up as the image of Newcastle fans and reflects on all of us.
And then there is the reaction of other fans. Football is inherently tribal, football fans rarely need a new stick with which to beat opposition fans but the takeover has given an entire forest of ammunition for our opponents fans. At the Palace game you could hear the songs and you could see the banner (which was excellent except the confusing inclusion of a penguin)and we should expect it to be echoed at every game we play. Some of the criticism has been ridiculous (Sunderland fans confusing a picture of a Tyneside amusement park for a Mosque etc), but equally the vast majority of the criticismis rooted in the absolute truth that our owners are really awful people who do really awful things.We need to acknowledge that and accept the criticism.
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— Alex Hurst (@tfalex1892) November 1, 2021
How we, as a fanbase, respond in the face of overwhelming antipathy to “Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle United” is important. As Alex Hurst pointed out, it has created a siege mentality amongst our fans, and I see many on social media, in comment sections online and interviews pushing back at the criticism being lobbed our way. And I get it, I really do, we are fans who love our football club and will defend it from criticism and attacks from others. I find myself doing it at times, even when I can see I am being irrational in my arguments.
However, what I also see is the risk that our fans, in either ignoring or reacting to criticism of the new owners, are effectively acting precisely in the way that a sports-washing nation state wants us to. You become part of the problem. Every time you respond to someone talking about Suheil al-Jameel by pointing out offences in other countries by other parties, you are doing what the Saudi states wants you to. Every time you turn up at a match dressed up as a Saudi or carrying a Saudi flag, other than looking like a bit of a prat, you are trivialising and normalising their actions. Every time you respond to the Crystal Palace banner by pointing out their owners’ connections to PIF money, you are deflecting from the important and truthful message of that banner.
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) November 1, 2021
So what is the right approach? I won’t pretend to be any better equipped than anyone else to know the answer to this, so I can only answer from my own perspective. For me, it comes with acknowledging and accepting the reality of what Newcastle United is right now. To accept that our new owners are not good people and that the club, and football generally, would be better without them and their like. To not argue against the criticism but actively embrace it, whoever it is from. To know that, even if it comes from a position of bad faith, it is still valid.
But also, and this is crucial, to know that when you look beyond the new owners and the horrendous circus of blood and gold that they bring with them, there still remains a club which we all fell in love with, and won’t stop loving until the end. As we did for the last 14 years, you can still love that club without supporting those who own and run it. Support the team, hate the regime.