A new era begins for Newcastle United on Sunday when the team host Tottenham Hotspur. Ownership isn’t the only thing that has changed since the Saudi Arabia-funded acquisition was approved by the Premier League last week. The perception of the association has changed irrevocably.
Hostility is in the air. It may not stand out against Spurs at St. James’ Park while Mike Ashley’s farewell party is in full swing, but the hangover will kick in pretty quickly. Throughout the major leagues, teams strive to inflict pain on Tyneside new-rich.
Tottenham want to make sure that Newcastle’s next era begins with defeat. Nobody in the Premier League fears the impact of Saudi money more than Daniel Levy. The Spurs chairman is not alone in his concern. The entry of the Desert Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund into the domestic game is Liverpool’s worst football nightmare for John W Henry. The dissatisfaction is palpable across the country.
In one fell swoop, Newcastle joined Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain as the sporting arms of the Gulf States. You can expect the reaction the so-called “Big Six” received after the failed Super League adventure in April.
Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, City and Spurs were lucky with timing when the European breakaway competition collapsed. The fans were still locked out of the stadiums and the end of the season was just around the corner. Summer chilled minds. It won’t be like that for Newcastle.
Leeds United players wore earn it t-shirts when they played against Liverpool to despise Anfield’s Super League claims. There is a similar mindset about Newcastle. It’s one thing to have money, quite another to break into the sport’s elite. Nothing would bring the rest of the Premier League more joy than Newcastle not to.
Every opposing team will improve their game. The Super League renegades largely manage to be in the line of fire. You have squads with top-class players. Overnight, Newcastle became one of the teams people love to beat. Unfortunately, the new owners lack quality in the locker room and if things go bad they could still stare at the relegation battle.
The transfer window is 13 long league games until the opening. Steve Bruce will likely be gone by Sunday, but it is proving difficult to find an outstanding manager. While Amanda Staveley, the face of the consortium and the day-to-day person who runs the club, had time to plan for the long term due to the delay imposed by the Premier League, the situation changed quickly last week meant little short-term preparation was possible.
Some of the names intended to replace Bruce are not realistic. Frank Lampard never seemed like a viable contender. Finding the right man is not that easy at this stage of the season.
The takeover increased the stakes. Any Premier League game is difficult, but games against Newcastle will now have an added advantage.
The frustration for Staveley and those around it is that it is becoming increasingly clear that the only objection to Saudi involvement was the kingdom’s treatment of beIN Sport, the league’s broadcast partner in the region. The Premier League and FA’s silence on the takeover is not edifying. There is nothing in the rules that prohibits a country’s government from buying a club, and the Premier League’s claim that it has legal assurances that there is a clear distinction between the Saudi state and its sovereign wealth fund makes no sense.
Staveley was dying to go to St. James’ Park, but the timing couldn’t be worse. Had the consortium been allowed to take control during the summer when players and managers were available, the team’s immediate forecast would have been very different.
The behavior of the Premier League remains opaque. Your communication, even with other football associations, was poor. When there are questions about takeovers and opportunities for promotion or relegation, there are usually inter-league discussions. But even when Newcastle was only three points above the drop zone in February, the English Football League (EFL) heard nothing.
This suggests a dysfunction in the way the game is run, especially given the outward prospect of Newcastle becoming a problem for the EFL. Tracey Crouch’s fan-led football governance review is likely to address situations like this through the recommendation of an independent regulator. The lesson of this entire episode is that the game must be forced to be transparent.
What is clear is that Newcastle is far from where their owners want them and the team have tough months ahead of them. The new era will mirror the old one for some time. Results may be harder to come by than cash.