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How the PIF will build a second Mecca on Tyneside

The astonishment is still ricocheting around football. Lying nineteenth in the Premier League, without a major trophy in almost half a century, Newcastle’s big name manager and signings are still yet to arrive.

Fourteen Premier League clubs have foreign ownership of some capacity. Newcastle earlier this season became the fifteenth in one sense, the second in another. What’s novel is this is the most controversial takeover of a top flight English club yet.

This weekend’s game between City and Newcastle will take on all manner of names going forward; the petro derby, the UAE derby. They are the palatable examples, before considering the human rights records of both of the club’s owners and respective nations. One might be worse than the other, but it’s not unfair to mention them in the same breath.

Gone are the days of factory owners playing town benefactor for the football club. It’s all conglomerates, gridiron teams, investment arms, petro-billionaires and states. Since the takeover, Newcastle fans have been in a state of celebration, and who can deny them? Years of torment under Mike Ashley and the cockney mafia have come to an end. Then out came the tea towels.

The similarities with City’s story are apparent. One less than desirable owner selling to another and the quality and robustness of the owners and director’s test brought under question. The communal response this time round is much different.

When the Abu Dhabi Group bought out Thaksin Shinawatra (the latter, former Thai PM, enough to expose the weaknesses of the owners test) the deal was barely challenged or criticised, bar murmurs of an imbalanced financial playing field. City, typical City, weren’t regarded as a threat. An audacious but failed bid to land Kaka soon after had football laughing at the blue half of Manchester.

A five to midnight deal to sign Robinho turned heads, but the Brazilian’s impact wasn’t sustained. Coincidentally, Newcastle’s first statement signing could be another out favour wide forward from Real Madrid, Eden Hazard.

City’s takeover was met with intrigue. Chelsea were the only galactico assembling show in town, and as luck would have it City’s first game after the take over, Robinho’s debut, saw the London side visit the Etihad.

Abu Dhabi’s arrival was welcomed as someone to topple the latest duopoly; United down the road along with Chelsea and their ‘bought’ success, as some believed it was.

The buzz of a 5.30 kick off was soon dampened as Chelsea ran out 3-1 winners, and as a City fan it was a reality check.

The conversation at the time of City’s deal was more tilted around FFP than human rights. If someone wants to parachute in, buy a club, spend their own money in a sustainable way (Sheikh Mansour’s investment is written off as opposed to the Glazer’s leveraging of Manchester United) then why can’t they? Why can’t that happen to my club or yours?

Selling a club’s soul

in the years since, City have changed for better and worse. The trophy cabinet is no longer dusty, and chants of ‘buy your club and burn it down’ on away days along with a yellow submarine-esque ‘City’s going down with a million in the bank’ felt fun for a while.

But football is a community, and success, achieved a certain way, can make one a pariah over time. It’s the price you pay. The arrogance loses its shine quickly.

Someone has to win, but during City’s journey they’ve bought an A League club for a pittance (changed its identity, then sold on one of its players, Aaron Mooy, for profit) and only just escaped financial sanctions due to charges being time barred.

What the Saudi PIF will do with Newcastle remains to be seen, but accusations of sports washing have been levelled at them constantly so far.

It’s easy for a football fan to insulate themselves from all the noise when this happens to their club - City fans supported the club before their takeover, and Newcastle fans are no different. Something in their DNA or their bloodline isn’t going to change because someone else owns the team they’ve followed since days in nappies.

When the identity changes though, as it will, it is a conflicting place to be. In 13 successful years, City Football Group have done little wrong in managing City - the academy is becoming a crown in its own right; Phil Foden the current jewel. But every change made is quid pro quo. City are the only club permitted to sign school boys from anywhere in the country, such are the facilities and their capabilities of supporting the off field education of it’s players.

Back in November released youth player Jeremy Wiston’s suicide drew attention once again - do City care enough about their academy products?

The acquisitions and creations of clubs around the globe (City have stakes in 11 teams now, one of them 44% owned by Pep Guadiola’s brother) allows Abu Dhabi to promote it’s brands on a global platform; Etihad Airways, Etisalat communications amongst others. This isn’t the purpose of a football club.

Since City’s takeover in 2008, ADUG have amassed over a billion pounds of Mancunian real estate (much of that pertaining to club assets, as well as affordable rental housing in conjunction with the council).

The fact is, it’s not just a football club anymore. And as Geordgies swarm around the PIF’s second mekkah of St James Park, there will be a fine line between how they develop and exploit the city around it.

Has the game truly gone now?

It’s well documented the PIF takeover was slated back in 2020 for completion, but obstacle after obstacle derailed the deal. Press focus drew attention to human rights issues; The Guardian ran a podcast last year on concerns in the gulf state and most of Fleet Street highlighted the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish embassy.

In addition to this, a dispute around streaming of Premier League games rumbled on. Qatar owned BeIN sports (anchored by Richard Keys, close friend of PL chairman Garry Hoffman) own the rights to showing top flight football in the UAE. With this the geo-political issues come to light with a Yemeni population of just under 30 million at the heart of it and a football club that’s over a century old being dragged into the mess.

The Yemen conflict is effectively the Cold War of the middle east. On one side WHO, backed by Russia, Iran….on the other Saudi Arabia backed by the US and the UK, benefactors of a £4.7m arms and trade deal.

The Premier League, being cheated out of TV revenue and their local distribution partner compromised, the UK government were called upon to intervene.

When the initial story broke in April last year, the UK government met the news with cautious optimism, giving a benefit of the doubt to a nation showing its more progressive side with reforms for women, the workplace and justice system, not to hinder its lucrative trade opportunities with the Saudi regime.

Amnesty International, and the UK House of Lords argue otherwise, with the Upper House finding the UK’s arms deal on the wrong side of right.

In short the mess being created is worse than what you’d spill on your geordie jumper if you tried eating pease pudding whilst holding the cutlery with your elbows.

If a takeover can stall because of a streaming dispute what does this say about the value of the game? If the government won’t take a stand so they can protect an arms deal that as a consequence has contributed to 12,000 civilian deaths, what sort of example does this set for football fans where their club is taken over by such suitors?

The money doesn’t just talk. It has spoken.

Where to next for Newcastle?

The Tyne Bridge took three years to build, and PIF’s vision for Newcastle will likely take longer to come to fruition. Much like City, their targets list for both the dug out and on the pitch are humbler than where they’d like to aim. Unai Emery was a preferred option, in the end settling for Eddie Howe. Howe, who has been out of work since Bournemouth were relegated, has never finished higher than ninth.

That being said, he is meticulous, so much so he lifted the Cherries up the ladder progressively. and if he can get Newcastle to May sitting 17th or higher, the building can really begin. The reality is, no-one wants to be the first and be viewed as a sell out. Howe can perhaps be forgiven - the job is arguably at or above his station, even if Newcastle languish at the wrong end of the table with one win since the takeover.

From there on in, much like City, expect Premier League cannibalism first, before heading back towards European Cup participation and recruiting at a higher quality again.

Their first foray into the Champions League came almost 25 years ago. A few seasons prior Kevin Keegan told us he’d “love it if we beat them.” Them back then was Manchester United, and despite the Toon’s flair brand of football, Keegan’s wishes never came true.

The them has changed though; in the last ten years City and Chelsea have won 18 of the 30 domestic honours available. They are the country's best funded clubs. Newcastle couldn’t beat them in the past, so with PIF’s riches, they will likely join them instead.

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