‘Announce Mbappe’: How Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United has left long-suffering supporter dreaming of happier days
NEWSCASTLE: It has been a strange few days for Newcastle United, a football club that has been in the strange days business for as long as I can remember.
I am still trying to process things, but at this point all I can tell you is this: As a Newcastle fan of 35 years, I began the week negotiating the usual numbness associated with defeat and ended it supporting the richest football club in the world.
Would legendary Italian manager Antonio Conte like to live in the plush Newcastle suburb of Jesmond, or prefer to stay in the city center and imbibe the culture when he becomes manager? That would be a question for another day.
When the takeover came it was as swift as it was unexpected. At least as swift and unexpected as anything can be that has rumbled on for 18 months. To me the $410 million deal to buy the club by a consortium consisting of PCP Capital Partners, Reuben Brothers, and the Saudi Public Investment Fund was dead in the water, dragged into the icy depths of Premier League testing by issues of directorial separation and broadcasting rights.
So, imagine my surprise last week when it all suddenly went through and I found myself subconsciously writing the words, “announce (footballer Kylian) Mbappe” on my Twitter feed. What can I say? Football is an unpredictable mistress.
Of course, now is the time for dreaming if you are a Newcastle United fan. We dream better than most because we have had little else to do for the past 52 years (the last time we won a major trophy).
To the uninitiated, supporting this team is not really something you choose to do. It is a gift of birth or comes by dint of location. It sounds cliche, but just as the stadium dominates the skyline of the city, so too does the football club the hearts and minds of the people. What happens here matters, and in a part of England so often deprived, a successful football team has the potential to make a difference.
For years I wore our lack of success like some sort of badge of honor. Anybody can follow Real Madrid, but you try sitting in the pouring rain watching your distinctly average team struggle to break down even the weakest of opposition. Then come back and do it all again, home and away, year-on-year. It might well be the football equivalent of self-flagellation, but I am fiercely proud to support this club and to stand with the thousands who have done the same for decades without any real reward.
I do, incidentally, consider myself to be a lucky Newcastle fan. I was there for the first transformative takeover in 1992, when local businessman Sir John Hall rescued the club from years of austerity. Languishing in the old second division (now Championship), Hall’s first big appointment was Kevin Keegan as manager. I remember the delirious excitement of it all, even though I could not quite fathom what supporting a winning football team might actually mean.
What followed were four-and-a-half swashbuckling seasons where Newcastle went from near certainties for relegation (again) to title challengers in the English top flight. It was an era when we became known as The Entertainers, of “don’t worry if they score three ’cos we’ll score four,” and it was glorious.
Even post-Keegan there was Tino Asprilla’s cartwheeling hattrick against Barcelona and Sir Bobby Robson’s pure passion for the black and white cause, Champions League adventures and big money signings. We still did not win anything, of course, but at least it was fun.
Then came Sports Direct supremo Mike Ashley and a second buyout of the club that was … less exciting, shall we say?
In truth, I have felt a disconnection with my club for some time. But then 14 years of neglect will do that for you. The public relations gaffs, the questionable signings, and the sole aim of protecting an asset in the Premier League were just the finer details. When the end came, Newcastle United had almost been ground into dust, sandblasted by a lack of investment, care, and intent. A club whose major asset had always been its most loyal of supporters was seeing them leave in their droves, heartbreakingly cutting a cord that stretched generations.
But then, just as you think you are out, they pull you back in. A new set of custodians that make us, in balance-sheet terms at least at this point, the most powerful football club on the planet. I will level with you, it is discombobulating.
At this point we should probably discuss expectations. While supporters of other clubs often labor under the misapprehension that we expect to play for league titles and Champions League spots (an expectation that literally no Newcastle fan has, incidentally), I am willing to play it cool in terms of what we can achieve going forward.
Quite frankly, I imagine that constant success would be utterly overrated. Just stare into the half-glazed eyes of a Manchester City fan winning the Carabao Cup for the 18th time and tell me that is not true.
Anyway, football is not really about trophies, is it? It is about hope and pride. It is about the excitement that maybe this will be your day. That is a basic commodity Newcastle fans have been deprived of for 14 years.
It is worth remembering that the new owners have stated an intent to become part of the community at Newcastle. This is not just about success on the pitch, but also the long-term, wider regeneration of the area. In a place where more than 10,000 children live in poverty and that has one of the busiest food banks in England just two miles away from the stadium, the takeover of this football club has the power to change lives in more ways than one.
What happens next is anybody’s guess. But for the moment, Newcastle United supporters have earned the right to dream again. Maybe, just maybe, it is our turn to taste success?
Now, announce Mbappe.