A new era begins for Newcastle United on Sunday when the team host Tottenham Hotspur. The ownership is not the only thing that has changed since the Saudi Arabian-funded takeover was rubber-stamped by the Premier League last week. The perception of the club has been altered irrevocably.
Hostility is in the air. It may not be noticeable at St James’ Park against Spurs while the leaving party for Mike Ashley is in full swing, but the hangover will kick in pretty quickly. Across the top flight, teams are eager to inflict pain on Tyneside’s nouveau riche.
Tottenham are keen to ensure Newcastle’s next epoch begins with a defeat. No one 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 the worst footballing nightmare for Liverpool’s John W Henry. The unhappiness is palpable around the country.
At a stroke, Newcastle have joined Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain as the sporting arms of Gulf states. They can expect the sort of 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. Fans were still locked out of the stadia and the season’s end was round the corner. Summer cooled tempers. It will not be that way for Newcastle.
Leeds United players wore ‘Earn it’ T-shirts when they played Liverpool in a show of contempt for Anfield’s Super League pretensions. A similar mindset exists about Newcastle. It is one thing having money, it is quite another to break into the sport’s elite. Nothing would give the rest of the Premier League more satisfaction than Newcastle failing to do so.
Every opposition side will up their game. The Super League renegades can largely cope with being in the firing line. They have squads filled with top-class players. Overnight, Newcastle became one of the teams people love to beat. Unfortunately for the new owners, the dressing-room lacks quality and they could, if things go badly, still be staring at a relegation fight.
The transfer window is 13 long league games away from opening. Steve Bruce will likely be gone by Sunday but finding a standout manager is proving difficult. While Amanda Staveley, who is the face of the consortium and the person running the club from day-to-day, has had time to plan for the long term because of the delay enforced by the Premier League, the speed with which the situation changed last week meant that little short-term preparation was possible.
Some of the names bandied about to replace Bruce are not realistic. Frank Lampard has never appeared to be a viable contender. Finding the right man is not so easy at this stage of the season.
The takeover has upped the ante. Every Premier League match is difficult, but games against Newcastle will now have an extra edge.
The frustration for Staveley and those around her is that it is 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 silence of the Premier League and the FA on the takeover is unedifying. There is nothing in the rules that forbids a nation’s government from buying a club and the Premier League’s assertion that they have legal assurances that there is a clear distinction between the Saudi state and its sovereign wealth fund make no sense.
Staveley was desperate to get into St James’ Park, but the timing could hardly be worse. Had the consortium been allowed to take control during the summer when players and managers were available, the team’s immediate prognosis would have been very different.
The Premier League’s behaviour continues to be opaque. Their communication even with other football bodies has been poor. Normally, when there are questions about takeovers and the potential for promotion or relegation, discussions between leagues is ongoing. Yet even when Newcastle were just three points above the drop zone in February, the English Football League (EFL) heard nothing.
That points to a dysfunction in the way the game is run, especially as there was the outside prospect of Newcastle becoming the EFL’s problem. Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review of football governance is likely to address situations like this by recommending an independent regulator. The lesson of this entire episode is that the game needs to be forced into transparency.
What is clear is that Newcastle are a long way from where their owners want them to be and a tough few months stretch in front of the team. The new era will echo the old one for some time. Results may be harder to come by than cash.