Given that their club sits one off the bottom of the Premier League table, with a mere three points from their seven matches so far this season, there was an extraordinary optimism being generated among supporters of Newcastle United on Thursday. It was only a matter of weeks, some suggested, before Kylian Mbappe would be committing his future to St James’ Park.
That idea was delivered with irony and humour, but the smiles on the faces of a majority of Newcastle loyalists were real. They are based on the sound judgement that the change of ownership of one of football’s great institutions will be a game-changer - not just for their club, not just for English football, but for the global sport.
The long-delayed purchase of Newcastle by a consortium in which the Saudi Arabia-backed Public Investment Fund has the largest stake was approved by the Premier League, previous obstacles concerning broadcast rights having been overcome. The club’s current owner, Mike Ashley, a willing seller, at a price a little over £300 million ($408.5m).
The departure of the unpopular Ashley is the principal source of joy for Newcastle followers, who associate his 14-year period in charge with low ambition and a level of investment well below their perception of the club’s stature.
By most measures of the size of the club’s fanbase, Newcastle ought to be in the top third, at least, of the Premier League season after season. But St James’ Park, the seventh biggest stadium in English club football, has in the Ashley era known only one season that finished in the upper half of the top division and two that ended in relegation.
The Saudi-led consortium certainly have no plans for Championship football, and although they were briefing, ahead of the takeover, that there is no intention to pour hundreds of millions suddenly into a player transfer budget, that caution is partly designed to guard against being regarded as pushovers in the next two or three transfer windows.
Serious new investors from the Gulf often find the price-tags on players assume an extra premium when they first enter European club football. It happened to Paris Saint-Germain after they came under Qatari ownership. Manchester City learned to recognise big mark-ups when they made bids for players in the years immediately after the Abu Dhabi-led transformation of City.
PSG and City are the precedents that enthuse Newcastle fans, but there are very important distinctions. Newcastle’s purchase has been more complicated, and more resisted than those two were.
Sources at the Premier League say that the main difficulty in approving a takeover that was first put to Ashley in early 2020 concerned Saudi Arabia’s ban on the Qatar-based broadcaster beIN Sports within its territory. BeIN Sports holds valuable rights to English top division football and had accused Saudi Arabia of backing illegal streaming of Premier League, and other matches.
The Saudi ban on BeIN Sports has now been lifted and the Saudi authorities undertaken a crackdown on ‘pirate’ streaming. It is understood an agreement is close for BeIN Sports to be compensated for lost revenues from Saudi Arabia.
The Premier League were also persuaded by written assurances that the Saudi Arabian state would not interfere in the running of the club. "The Premier League has now received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United,” the Premier League said in a statement. “All parties are pleased to have concluded this process.”
The resources of PIF, with its estimated assets of €430 billion, are what excite Newcastle supporters and a Premier League ever eager to consolidate its position as the most popular domestic league in the world. English football’s established hierarchy, and a top four of heavyweights that comprises City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, would certainly regard Newcastle in a new light as competitors.
The current manager, Steve Bruce, may be as concerned as he is stimulated by the idea of a change of owner. Bruce has spent much of his long, varied career managing in the division below the Premier League and much of his two years and counting with Newcastle battling the threat of possible relegation, while frequently criticised for conservative tactics.
New owners do not always instantly bring in a new head coach. But new owners with spending power always want to give a strong first impression that they intend the fans to be well entertained.