Newcastle’s Route to the Top

With vast sums of money now accessible to Newcastle United, Oli Coates reflects on the recent takeover of the club.

Local heroes or dire straits?

Every time they play at their St James’ Park home, Newcastle United walk out to a tune called Going Home. This is the theme from British film Local Hero, for which Mark Knopfler wrote and produced the soundtrack.

The Dire Straits frontman is a lifelong Newcastle fan, but the question must be asked whether the music icon is still comfortable with his debut solo single still being so closely linked to his local club. For while the takeover of the Magpies by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) was predominantly greeted with unbridled glee on Tyneside, not everyone is quite so overjoyed at what is another perceived attempt at sportswashing.

The unfettered joy among the majority of Newcastle supporters was in no small part down to the fact that Mike Ashley’s toxic 14-year reign at the club was finally over. Yet while fans consistently directed their vitriol at the Sports Direct owner and his purported lack of investment, nobody can accuse Ashley of buying Newcastle to cleanse the severely damaged reputation of a country linked to horrific human rights abuses and the murder of a dissident journalist.

The Premier League ratified PIF’s £300m takeover following “legally binding assurances” that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia won’t be in control of Newcastle United – despite the fact that PIF is a sovereign investment fund whose governor is Yasir Al-Rumayyan, a close ally of Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And that until recently, six of PIF’s other seven board members were government ministers.

Amanda Staveley, who led the consortium that also includes her husband and fellow PCP Capital Partners director Mehrdad Ghodoussi, as well as the Reuben brothers, has said: “Human rights we take very seriously, but our partner is PIF, not the Saudi state. The separation issue has been resolved. It’s not sportswashing. It’s investment.”

Yet football clubs make for notoriously risky – and often poor – investments for those looking to turn a profit. Especially when clubs are flailing in the Premier League relegation zone and in real danger of dropping down to the far less financially rewarding Championship, as Newcastle were when this takeover was completed.

The value of investing in a football club often comes with the prestige linked to being involved with one of the biggest and most marketable brands on the planet. For a club like Newcastle, it’s going to take many hundreds of millions to transform the club from relegation fodder to title contenders. Indeed, the outlay will likely have to go well beyond the billion pound mark to turn them into an English superclub.

Manchester City have spent an eye-watering £1.8bn since Abu Dhabi royal Sheikh Mansour bought the club in 2008. That astonishing investment has brought 13 major trophies so far, transforming the Citizens from middling also-rans who’d been in the third tier of English football less than a decade before, to a European superpower who reached their first Champions League final last year.

Despite the glory on the pitch, that investment has yielded little in terms of financial returns for the Abu Dhabi United Group. The returns haven’t been about profit but prestige. A route into the Western world via the Premier League’s gilded corridors for a regime long associated with human rights abuses of their own. Sportswashing, if you will.

Apart from Leicester City’s miraculous triumph in 2015-16, every club that has won the Premier League since Mansour bought City has spent more than £1bn from the day of the takeover. The total number of trophies won by each club correlates directly with their outlay.

The pathway to success is clear; spend as much money as you possibly can. This isn’t always a foolproof method of course. You only have to cast your eye over to Ligue 1 and Paris Saint-Germain to see that.

The French giants have failed to land Europe’s biggest prize, the Champions League, while Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and company also failed to even win the Ligue 1 title last season. Despite adding the likes of Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos and Achraf Hakimi to their ranks last summer, the Parisians still cannot break their continental curse.

Domestic success should be a near guarantee now for PSG. Chelsea, on the other hand, are far from a sure thing for the Premier League title, but have won the Champions League twice in the last decade. The Blues’ rise to prominence is based on the £2.1bn spent since Roman Abramovich pitched up in 2003.

The Russian’s takeover of the west London club was also a form of sportswashing, protecting the oligarch in the wake of the carve-up of wealth witnessed at the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There was little by way of intense scrutiny back in 2003, with Abramovich’s reign ended by the UK government’s sanctions following Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine.

Have Chelsea fans ever cared about where their wealth came from? Not on the face of it. The club have enjoyed a period of unprecedented success over the last two decades, while fans took it upon themselves to chant Abramovich’s name during a tribute to Ukraine soon after war broke out and the sanctions on their owner were announced.

This goes a long way to show how warped priorities become not only in football, but also life in general, when the prospect of power and success is dangled in front of people. On the whole, Newcastle’s supporters have decided to turn a blind eye to the off-field controversy in the hope they can see a winning team once more at St James’ Park.

And their club have been doing their utmost behind the scenes to give themselves the best chance of flexing their sizeable newfound muscles in both the short and long term. Others may be attempting to raise the drawbridge and stop Newcastle splashing the cash, but the Magpies are fighting tooth and nail to prevent newer, more stringent spending caps from coming in.

And their club has already shelled out nearly £90m under the new owners, sinking their teeth deep into the transfer market during the January window to ensure they don’t lose their top-flight status in what would’ve been an immediate hammer blow to the new regime.

That appears to have worked. The question now is whether Newcastle are going to be able to continue spending and rise to the top of English and European football.

European adventures so far away

As Newcastle readjust their goals ahead of the 2022-23 season and set their sights on Europe, Oli Coates recalls the Magpies’ last foray into the Champions League.

It’s exactly 10 years since Newcastle United last qualified for Europe. In only their second season back in the Premier League following a year in the Championship, Alan Pardew led the Magpies to a fifth-placed finish in 2011-12.

That brought Europa League football to St James’ Park the following campaign, but you need to go back nearly another decade to find Newcastle’s last foray into the Champions League proper. The Magpies failed to get through the qualifiers in 2003-04, the season after they made it to the second group stage in the main competition.

Iconic manager Sir Bobby Robson guided Newcastle to fourth place in the Premier League in 2001-02. After coming through a qualifier against Zeljeznicar Sarajevo 5-0 on aggregate, the Magpies went on to lose their first three group games of the competition proper.

Newcastle didn’t even score a single goal in losing to Dynamo Kyiv, Feyenoord and Juventus, but then secured a memorable 1-0 home victory over Italian giants Juve on match day four to spark a remarkable revival.

They followed that up with a 2-1 home win against Dynamo, before a last-minute Craig Bellamy winner away to Feyenoord in their final game sent them through to the second group stage.

Newcastle were handed an even tougher draw against Barcelona, Inter and Bayer Leverkusen. They still made a decent fist of it though and managed to finish third with seven points from their six games, predominantly due to a pair of 3-1 victories over Leverkusen, the second of those featuring an Alan Shearer hat-trick.

The English striker would also grab a brace in their next game, a 2-2 draw against Inter at San Siro, but it wasn’t enough to haul them back into contention for the knockouts. A 2-0 defeat at home to Barcelona in the final match remains Newcastle’s last appearance in the Champions League proper.

Money for nothing

State ownership is often bemoaned by many in football. Oli Coates takes a look at the reasons why.

Football has always been a money game. The haves and the have-nots. But never has competition in European football been so intrinsically linked to a club’s bank balance. The dawn of the Champions League and Premier League era has been heralded for the perceived improvement of the game as a whole, but it’s been to the huge detriment of countless clubs and leagues across the continent too.

The money has poured in, with state ownership causing huge damage to European football and putting even greater distance between the haves and have-nots. For many, the two main culprits are Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

The reason for this is that these two clubs have inflated football’s financial market beyond most people’s wildest imaginations. The Abu Dhabi United Group’s takeover of City in 2008 was a watershed moment for European football, instantly catapulting the Premier League also-rans into a different stratosphere in terms of spending potential.

Three years later, Qatar followed Abu Dhabi into European football, as Qatar Sports Investments purchased Ligue 1 outfit PSG. The ensuing years have been scarcely believable in terms of numbers.

Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris in 2017 cost PSG an eye-popping sum just short of £200m, while Kylian Mbappe also came to the Parc des Princes in the same summer, initially on loan but subsequently for a fee almost as vast.

The ripples of distortion caused by those transfers in particular, as well as City’s lavish spending on talents both great and not very good, are still being felt. It cost City £100m to prise Jack Grealish from Aston Villa last summer. The likes of Philippe Coutinho, Joao Felix, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele have all moved for north of £100m too.
Everywhere you look, huge sums are being spent on players. Many clubs have gone bust or are reeling from over-expenditure, including Barcelona who had to let Lionel Messi leave for free last year.

Love or hate them, financial fair play measures are surely the only way to protect football as a whole. Forget that City and PSG are still yet to win the Champions League. Indeed, forget the elite clubs at the top of the game altogether. There’s much more at stake than that.

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