Mon. May 16th, 2022

By Alistair Magowan

BBC Sport

If you see #cans trending on social media in the next 48 hours, it is Newcastle United fans who will be responsible.

The hashtag is a reflection of their joy, and getting the beer cans in, as a £300m Saudi Arabian-backed takeover bid has finally reached a conclusion.

The fact it has now happened after 18 months is a complete shock, too. Last week supporters were celebrating when they learned of a January arbitration date.

Now one of the most complicated takeovers in the league’s history is over, fans can dream of a brighter future. It will be a future without owner Mike Ashley and one in which the club can compete with Europe’s biggest teams thanks to the billions the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) can provide.

There are many issues still to resolve, however. How will Saudi Arabia’s human rights record reflect on the club? Will the Premier League explain how it came to a resolution with the consortium? How much money will Newcastle have to spend? And what of manager Steve Bruce?

For a fanbase and club which has lurched from one drama to another in the past two years, at least there is now a blank page.

How did the takeover happen?

No-one was expecting the takeover to be completed this week.

The best anyone could have hoped for was January 2022, when arbitration between the consortium, led by financier Amanda Staveley, was scheduled in an attempt to settle a row with the Premier League about who would have control at the club.

The Saudi state has been accused of human rights abuses and was recently embroiled in a copyright row, which would have made it tricky for the takeover to go through based on the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test.

So what the consortium needed to do was prove that the Kingdom’s PIF, which would provide 80% of the money for the takeover, was separate to the state. Difficult, perhaps, when the ruling leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also listed as PIF’s chair.

But with legal assurances provided, that has happened. It is understood there will be consequences if those agreements are broken. The consortium can also demonstrate how PIF already invests in companies, including the McLaren F1 team, without state control.

The precursor to news of the takeover going through on Wednesday was Qatar broadcaster beIN Sports saying it had resolved its dispute about Premier League football matches being broadcast illegally in Saudi Arabia.

By proving there is separation between the Saudi state and PIF that issue becomes immaterial. But after claims that beIN had pressured the Premier League into blocking the takeover, the timing was interesting nonetheless.

How have fans reacted?

There is no doubt the vast majority of fans are celebrating the Saudi Arabian-led takeover, no matter the potential distractions that come with it.

A Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust (NUST) survey said this week that 93.8% of its members were in favour, down from 97% last year, and owner Ashley is told to “get out of our club” at nearly every match.

The situation has become toxic this season. Newcastle are winless, second bottom in the Premier League and the same fans’ survey said 94% want Bruce to leave “in the best interests of the club”.

The takeover, they hope, will wash away their pain. PIF’s assets of £250bn dwarfs the wealth of Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi owners and Paris St-Germain’s Qatari owners, and can conjure up images of signing the likes of French World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe or recruiting Antonio Conte as a replacement for Bruce.

“Fans are absolutely delighted that the disastrous 14-year reign of Ashley is almost over,” says Greg Tomlinson of NUST. “They are looking forward to having hope and belief in their football club for the first time in many years.

“We don’t demand that the club is winning trophies next season. We just want growth and a football club that gets better. Fans have been beaten into the ground.”

How will Newcastle manage human rights concerns?

Despite the Premier League’s insistence that PIF is separate from the Saudi state, human rights organisations and campaigners still believe the connection is clear.

Amnesty International has urged the Premier League to change its owners’ and directors’ test “to address human rights issues”.

Its UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said: “Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football.

“Saudi ownership of St James’ Park was always as much about image management for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government as it was about football.”

Other campaigners have told the BBC that the issue will not go away, even though the takeover is complete.

Lina al-Hathloul, whose sister Loujain was held in prison for protesting about women’s right to drive, says protests could occur at St James’ Park, which would “embarrass” Saudi Arabia.

Tomlinson says: “Clubs are bought and sold at the highest level by billionaires and sovereign states, and we have not had a say in that. But as a supporters’ organisation we will always support inclusion and be against discrimination and abuse of human rights.

“We will use our influence to effect change where we can.”

Managing the public relations of a Saudi Arabian-backed takeover will be a key item in the consortium’s in-tray, and will likely continue long after the deal is completed.

But the country has already shown its capacity to handle those issues when hosting fights for British heavyweight Anthony Joshua, the Spanish Super Cup and an F1 grand prix set for 2023.

What vision do the new owners have?

Backed by the wealth of PIF, the consortium is also made up of Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners and British property investors the Reuben Brothers, who are also billionaires, so there is no shortage of money.

Staveley, who is from Yorkshire, has spoken in the past of her admiration for Manchester City, having been involved in the Abu Dhabi takeover 13 years ago. But she has also previously urged caution about lavish spending, preferring to highlight how City’s owners have invested in the city of Manchester.

So there is hope from locals that the Newcastle owners follow a similar template.

From a club perspective, one of the first items on the 48-year-old’s agenda will be overhauling the structure of the club and improving its communications with supporters.

Ashley is rarely heard from, and any communication from senior figures often comes in the form of statements from managing director Lee Charnley, who is Bruce’s go-to man when it comes to transfers.

But there is no chief executive tasked with running the club, there is no director of football and Bruce is the public figure who has to face weekly questions about everything from legal cases to lack of funds for players, which led to huge frustration in the summer.

What now for Bruce?

Bruce, a Newcastle fan himself, says he “only wants what’s best for the club, and if that means a takeover, then great”.

But with the new owners seeking to establish a bond with supporters, the 60-year-old’s position will be under serious threat. Without any ability to sign players until January, a new big-name manager would signify their intent.

Staveley praised former Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez when she first made her move for the club in 2018. But the Spaniard has made a fine start with Everton this season. Other fans have said they would like former Juventus, Italy and Chelsea manager Conte, who is available.

Other managers on the market include former Chelsea boss Frank Lampard and former Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Current coach Graeme Jones could also work as an interim replacement.

After a poor start to the Premier League season, the most important objective will be maintaining the club’s top-flight status.

But for a lot of fans the future suddenly looks brighter.

By Nwosu Chizoba David

Nwosu Chizoba David is a soccer lover and writer. He is a graduate of Biological Sciences, presently teaching in a secondary in Lagos.

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