On Sunday, Newcastle United fans will rise early, that excitable match-day knot occupying stomachs across Tyneside, and 50,000 will march on St James’ Park to witness the post-Mike Ashley era begin.
But for many, the discomfort runs deeper than apprehension over a journey into the football unknown. Last week’s takeover saw 80% of the club’s shares acquired by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. True, the Premier League said it had received “legally binding” assurances that the Saudi state would not run the football club. But Saudi involvement has, quite rightly, brought enhanced scrutiny of the country’s human rights failings.
Now, a confession: I will be taking my seat in the Strawberry Corner on Sunday. And had I been in the north-east, I would likely have joined the thousands merrily popping cans on Barrack Road until late last Thursday night.
It was a celebration. Unashamedly so. A city releasing a collective guttural roar of relief. Under Ashley the cathedral on the hill – our cathedral on the hill – had become less place of worship, more discount inconvenience store. Matchday ruined by the match. A fanbase disunited, verging on civil war.
Then it all changed, literally overnight. People wanted to feel it, and do so together. United. But those celebrations do not amount to tacit approval of the new ownership. When Newcastle fans talk of suffering, it is in a football context. It’s not measured against the plight of other clubs, and certainly isn’t comparable to the acts of an abusive, discriminatory government.
Stephen is a season-ticket holder in the East Stand and has watched Newcastle since 1999. “I felt like a little kid at Christmas, if I’m honest,” he says. “But I also felt a bit hypocritical. Previously I said I would find it uncomfortable but actually I was shocked by how positive I felt at the thought that Mike Ashley was going. I didn’t expect to feel as good as I did in that moment.”
His dis-ease is far from unique. The club’s supporters’ trust and fanzines such as True Faith have been inundated with media requests. And many have spoken eloquently on the human rights aspects. But is it right to ask football supporters to be moral arbiters? “For me, that should be taken up with the Premier League,” says Stephen. “And with Mike Ashley, who sold to them, and with the government for allowing football clubs to be dealt with in this manner.” It’s a position many Newcastle fans hold.
But plenty from the outside feel strongly that fans should walk away. And a portion – albeit seemingly a minority – agree. Take David, a match-goer since 1976. He has held a season ticket sporadically and lives in Scotland. “I still love the beautiful game but I won’t set foot in St James’ Park while PIF are there,” he explains.
Instead, he will watch Troon in the West of Scotland Football League and follow Sutton United from afar. “Initially, I thought I could empathise with supporters that were excited, that said they felt conflicted but could separate the potential the investment could bring to the club from the horrific regime. But after a week of reading social media, I’m finding it harder to accept that people I believed were intelligent and fair-minded really give a damn about anything other than winning football games.”
I can relate to David’s view. Like him, I love Newcastle United. And like him, I am sickened by the thought that someone could potentially lose their life for taking an alternative view, by discrimination, by mistreatment and the infliction of suffering on the grounds of sexuality or gender.
What I’m grappling with is whether the two are inextricably linked, or whether there are degrees of separation. And if there are, where on the spectrum do I sit?
Is it idealistic still to believe that a football club is not title to land or a name on the Companies House register? It wasn’t for my great-grandfather. He turned up at my grandparents’ house every other Friday for an “impromptu” visit, his eyes sparkling mischievously. He knew my grandpa cared little for the game and would not be using his engineering firm’s season tickets.
For him, like for Sir Bobby Robson, it was about “… the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city”. That cannot ever be sold; it never belongs to anyone. If that’s true, why was Ashley so problematic? Because people can impact on those feelings, and he sucked away the joy.
Back when my great-grandad watched Newcastle football was as football should be; 11 of them, versus 11 of us. Escapism from work, from the world, from life’s troubles. All paused for 90 minutes. Far from everything meaningful was something that meant so much. The world has changed but can that stay the same? Or am I just trying to hoodwink myself?
There has been plenty of whataboutery. I’m not into that. Someone doing X in the past is not mitigation for someone else doing Y now. Society does not progress that way. David puts it succinctly: “‘That’s the way of the world, that’s how football is now’ doesn’t work for me. Try to be better than that, don’t just join the party and think things will get better.”
But there are thousands trying to find a middle ground between joining that party and shunning the club. There is much I cannot control, including my feelings. But I can control how I process them; how I react; what I do next. I’ve spoken to many others who expressed discomfort about the inclusion of Saudi flags on social media handles, and of the wearing of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman masks. It’s within my control to call that out. It’s within my control to continue to be aware, to scrutinise, to not just blindly follow the money.
But please don’t make demands when you can’t truly know how you would react. No one has walked a mile in a Newcastle fan’s shoes; I, like thousands of others, am just taking the first steps. I don’t have the answers. I’m still working out the questions. I love Newcastle United. I abhor human rights abuse. But not everything is that black and white.