The Newcastle United owners are looking into ways of increasing the club’s profitability – so they’re considering leaving St. James’ Park for a brand-new stadium outside the city centre. St. James’, a ground as old as the club itself, (dating back to the club’s formation from the unification of the two clubs ‘West End’ and ‘Newcastle East End’, hence ‘United’) lies at the very core of what the clubs stands for. However, the beloved stadium may be cast aside in the name of profitability and VIP hospitality.
Following Mike Ashley’s £305 million sale, Saudi Arabia’s ‘Public Investment Fund’ (PIF) secured 80% ownership of the club, alongside businesswoman Amanda Staveley and investor Jamie Reuben who share the remaining 20%. Implementing a leading backroom executive group, as well as astutely appointing Eddie Howe as manager, it is hard to dispute that PIF have had a sterling beginning to life as owners – in stark contrast to many other ambitious takeovers of recent years.
However, quite clearly, the Saudi Arabian investors are deeply controversial.
Constantly embroiled in human rights abuse issues, their successful passing of the Premier League’s ‘fit-and-proper-person test’ is – quite frankly – ridiculous, establishing abundant claims that the test is “no longer fit for purpose”
Human rights groups far and wide canvassed against the Saudi Arabian government (to which PIF is unequivocally, if unofficially, intrinsically connected) as sports-washing its image on the global stage.
Importantly, with nigh on unlimited financial resources, the PIF are less concerned with stealing the profits from Newcastle United FC – like the end of Ashley’s reign – but rather more focused on increasing their wider reputation. This goes hand in hand with the incredible Saudi government spending on the Saudi Pro League which has exploded out of nowhere in the last few years, attracting superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, and could potentially take the European dominance of football, over to the Middle East.
What’s more, Newcastle United have been staggeringly excellent since the takeover – Al-Rumayyan and Staveley have proved a brilliant combination, exemplifying thriftiness, astuteness of transfers, and willingness to act. Whereas many clubs with sudden mountainous influxes of cash have thrown huge sums of money at mediocre players to encourage a ‘fast-track’ to success, Newcastle have adopted a more deliberate, steady approach. This has vastly contradicted ideas of over-enthusiastic exuberance many believed we might see from ‘the Kingdom’s new toy’.
Where was the Chelsea-esque pure transfer decadence, with 14 signings in their first season? Where was the huge player gamble, such as Manchester City’s Robinho? In place of madness and impatience there is simply calculation and reservation. This antithesis to the 14 years of stagnation under Ashley saw an astounding, instantaneous turnaround in their fortunes in their first season at the club: going from 20th – winless after 14 matches and toying with the idea of an embarrassing relegation – to a safe mid-table finish.
Two years on, Newcastle have played Champions League football at the San Siro and Parc des Princes, after finishing in a spectacular fourth position in the new owners’ first full season. Eddie Howe’s side did narrowly fail to progress in Europe this year, yet nonetheless performed admirably in the incredibly difficult Group F, dubbed the ‘group of death’. Despite a plethora of injuries in the last few months, Newcastle are certainly emerging as one of the giants of the English game. As Chelsea owner, Todd Boehly put it: “with Newcastle’s takeover, the top six will undoubtedly become the top seven”.
With this stellar start, however, the PIF group are looking to maximise the club’s profitability. Chief executive, Darren Eales, recently addressed 1,000 supporters at a conference in St. James’ Park, admitting the club are investigating options for the future
What is key is the owners’ relationship with the supporters. Fans are fickle. As long as Newcastle are winning on the pitch, protests will be non-existent or minor. However, Al-Rumayyan and Staveley realise the significance of being backed by the black-and-white faithful. Therefore, Newcastle United members have recently been asked a questionnaire as to whether St. James’ Park should remain.
The questionnaire has not been publicly released, but the final question about “a hypothetical brand-new Newcastle stadium” has become widespread news. In an indiscreetly superficial manner, supporters were urged to imagine the new stadium being in the same place as St. James’ Park – with possible answers ranging from ‘Strongly agree’ to ‘Strongly disagree’.
This is hugely manipulative by the executive board. St. James’ Park is in the centre of Newcastle, and is integral to the one-club city. Commanding fans to imagine a stadium built on top of St. James’ is absurd – so whilst it is important not to take a questionnaire out of all proportion, this could be an indication of the dictatorial, hegemonic attitude of Al-Rumayyan and the PIF group.
Even head coach, Eddie Howe, has had his say. Working underneath dangerously controversial owners must be a difficult task – Pep Guardiola (Manchester City) and Luis Enrique (PSG) perhaps experience similar levels of discomfort – but the general rule in this crazy modern era of football is to keep quiet. Say nothing.
However, Howe has clearly decided this is a hill to die on: “I wouldn’t want to see the stadium move out of the city, it would lose something … It’s the heartbeat of the city … Those are my own personal feelings, that might be different to what the club thinks.”
“The whole concept is to look at the art of the possible”, explained Darren Eales, the Newcastle chief executive. Of course, with the financial heft of owners he has above him, anything is possible. But will it come at the expense of the Newcastle people? And will it take their heartbeat and soul with it?