Waiting is part of being a follower of Newcastle United. Fifty years of waiting for a trophy passed by on June 1, the anniversary of the club winning the old European Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Anyone that remembers the last domestic trophy, the FA Cup in 1955, is unlikely to be much younger than 70.
This summer, though, the waiting has been far more frenzied. Rafa Benitez’s contract expires on July 1, just as pre-season training is to begin. Thursday saw the Premier League fixture list for 2019-20 released and about the only certainty for fans is that Arsenal will be visiting St James’ Park on August 11. Beyond that, nothing whatsoever is clear.
Mike Ashley, the owner, has spent early summer concentrating on his wider business interests, becoming involved in the collapse of the Debenhams department store chain that has cost his Sports Direct empire £150m so far.
And meanwhile, his ownership of Newcastle remains in limbo. Last month, the Bin Zayed Group stepped into the light, the idea of Arab ownership setting the Toon Army into a reverie where their club might become the new Manchester City. The rumour that Sheikh Khalid bin Zayed Al Nahyan was a cousin of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, City’s sugar daddy only exacerbated the fantasy.
That was swiftly played down, and there was initial confusion over whether the source of funds would be from Abu Dhabi or Dubai. The latter appears to be the case, though the providence of any deal remains in the lap of the gods. “All good” is the latest word from the Bin Zayed Group, according to sources spoken to by the Newcastle Chronicle. There is an insistence that the Premier League have received documents to that end.
Meanwhile, the registering of a new UK company by the Sheikh has also raised hackles. There is end in sight of the austere reality of the Ashley regime, in control of the club for 12 years now. St James’ will no longer be an advertising hub for his Sports Direct empire, and perhaps the club might stop shopping in the low end of the market.
The notes of caution must begin here. Sheikh Khaled was last year linked with a buyout of Liverpool that would have cost £2 billion. Discussions did take place, but with Liverpool’s owners determined not to sell. And amidst all that, the Sheikh was looking for investment assistance in getting the deal done; perhaps his pockets are not quite as deep as the Abu Dhabi riches that swell Sheikh Mansour’s spending power.
When Peter Kenyon, the former Manchester United CEO, made a bid for the club six months ago, he was unable to raise the £300m cash that Ashley wanted, and the same happened to a consortium led by Amanda Staveley that was linked with a takeover as recently as February, after 18 months of dalliance. Ashley is an operator who deals in hard cash rather than promises. Until that demand is met, then there is no deal to be made.
“I don’t have that ability to write a cheque for £200m,” he said in August 2017. “I would have to sell the Sports Direct shares to fund that.” The implication was clear; the football club is way down the priority list.
But should the deal be completed, then what happens next? Any discussion of Newcastle United in a world without Ashley will include phrases like “unlocked potential”, “one-club city” and “loyal fanbase”. All three cannot be dismissed, and recall the early-mid-90s halcyon era when the club was the challenger to Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Kevin Keegan had the city dreaming.
For a Newcastle fan of a certain age, these are the good times they want to roll around again.
How possible might that be?
Manchester City have an 11-year head start in the conversion of a moribund, middling club into the best team in the country, envied around the world. Chelsea have had 16 years of delivering success through Russian-funded chaos, while Liverpool have regenerated and United and Arsenal are the “old money” of the Premier League era. Tottenham’s success has come as a result of the uneasy alliance of Mauricio Pochettino and Daniel Levy, a coach capable of improving players alongside an executive who has delivered the club into a new home while, somehow, retaining the club’s trajectory.
Crashing that cartel looks a tough ask, even if Benitez is given Real Madrid-style funds to spend. As Manchester City found, the road is far longer than simply splurging on the best players available in the market. For the best players to want to join, a certain credibility has to be achieved. Recent football history has included clubs like Malaga and Anzhi Makhachkala, flush with cash one minute, the rug pulled the next. They ended up being a Klondike gold rush for agents rather than trophies.
What Newcastle have the potential to become, though, is English football’s answer to Marseille or Napoli, clubs in port cities who become regional powerhouses within their leagues. Both those clubs are dwarfed by the financial might of their country’s billionaires, PSG and Juventus, but have competed with them, fired by their fan-base and picking up successes along the way.
For many fans, ridding the club of Ashley would be like winning a trophy in itself but there are other issues to consider. Manchester City’s followers have found themselves in the invidious position of having to explain away the activities of Abu Dhabi, of which Sheikh Mansour is a leading member of the royal family. Sheikh Khaled is not as high up in Dubai high society, but he nevertheless hails from an Emirate also decried for its human rights record and treatment of the migrant workers who built the city into futuristic skyline it is now.
Globalisation has brought an extra layer for fans to negotiate, a moral maze. Is swapping Ashley, whose businesses operate “zero hours” contracts, for someone associated with the Middle East’s problematic geopolitical issues a case of frying pan into the fire? Or will a wash of new players and the removal of Sports Direct hoardings be enough for fans?
The changes in the game since the 1990’s mean the club can never return to the days when Sir John Hall, the architect of the Keegan era, dreamed of a team of Geordies competing for the title, but it can perhaps return to a sense of excitement, of competing rather than surviving. And for once, the uncertainties and the waiting game can come to an end.