‘Not a lot we can do about human rights’: Newcastle fans cheer takeover

Saudi-led buyout of Premier League club delights almost all supporters despite criticism of deal from human rights groups

Some left work early and others skipped school. They gathered around a statue of their idol, the late Sir Bobby Robson, and when the news was confirmed they burst into song, beers flying, tears flowing.

The £300m Saudi-led buyout of Newcastle United has delighted almost all supporters of a once proud club that has drifted aimlessly for years.

“The club is the heartbeat of the city and it’s basically been on a life-support system for a decade if not more,” said Paul Loraine, 47, outside St James’ Park on Thursday, where fans hung a banner declaring “We don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries”.

The takeover is one of the most controversial in English football history, prompting widespread criticism from human rights groups andthrusting this ailing north-east club into the geopolitical spotlight.

But when confirmation of the deal broke at about 5.15pm, cans of lager went soaring into the air and flares were hurled skywards.

More from St James’, seconds after the news came through pic.twitter.com/j2XxG0eJVP

— Josh Halliday (@JoshHalliday) October 7, 2021

“My two grandsons are 30 now, they come here and they’ve never seen them win anything. The hurt on these big lads’ faces, it breaks your heart,” said Jean Sproul, 80, a lifelong fan who remembers drinking out of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup when Newcastle won the European competition in 1969.

The motto “more than a club” has been adopted by teams around the world but few would doubt Geordies’ devotion to St James’ Park. Loyalty does not buy silverware, however, and there has been little to celebrate under the increasingly unpopular ownership of Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct billionaire who bought the club in 2007.

“This makes your whole week. If you get beat you’re going to have a terrible week. The last 14 years have been horrendous,” said Allen O’Connell, 28, with his three-year-old daughter Millie, standing beneath the Gallowgate stand on Thursday.

“As fans there’s not a lot we can do about the human rights stuff,” said Loraine. “We’re all wearing clothes borne out of sweatshops in countries with human rights issues. The moral compass is always a strange one in times like this. As fans, especially as downtrodden as ours, you’ve got to be allowed to enjoy a bit of hope, and that’s the priority today, not about human rights issues. Hope for the club, hope for the area.”

Newcastle’s 52,000-capacity stadium looms large in the centre of the city. Streets away live some of the poorest families in England. Half of the children in the area – nearly 10,000 – are living in poverty. Two miles away is one of the busiest food banks in England, distributing 19,000 emergency parcels to local families last year.

A banner outside St James’ Park on Thursday
A banner outside St James’ Park on Thursday. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Newcastle is a city yearning for investment. City leaders, although cautious not to be drawn on Saudi Arabia’s record, hope the Gulf state’s involvement will pump billions into the area in the same way as Manchester City’s takeover by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour has done in that city since 2008 (although some communities near the Etihad remain desperately poor).

“Football is nigh on a religion here and it’s one of the key things about the identity of the city,” said Mark Middling, a senior lecturer in accounting at Northumbria University who specialises in financial transparency in football. “If the Saudis were to emulate what’s gone on in Manchester then I think that would be very welcomed.”

Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle city council, said: “This is a momentous day in the history of the club and our city. Football is such a vital part of Newcastle’s identity and St James’ Park is, for many, the literal and metaphorical beating heart of the city. The prospect of successes on the pitch once more gives us all something to hope for.”

Many of those celebrating outside the ground were too young to remember the Robson era, let alone the pre-Ashley one. One shirtless lad of about 14 yelled: “This is the best day of my whole life!”

Beneath Robson’s statue, fans demanded to know why the same opprobrium had not been directed at Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, which is owned by groups from Qatar.

“The World Cup next year is going to be in Qatar and that’s one of the worst places in the world [for human rights] – so why should Newcastle United be affected by the human rights side of it?” said Ray Sproul, 80, who still attends games home and away. “Man City have had their owners for years and no one’s shouting and screaming at them. We’re just interested in football. We’re ordinary football supporters and that’s it.”

Middling said Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was “concerning”, but he said blocking the takeover on those terms would have smacked of double standards. “The UK still sells arms to Saudi Arabia and has business arrangements within the country. If you’re going to trade with Saudi Arabia, to turn around and say they can’t own one of our football clubs would be a bit hypocritical.”


Josh Halliday North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
29 arrested as Newcastle fans clash with police after Sunderland defeat
Ugly scenes in Newcastle city centre cast further shadow over English football after Wembley violence by Millwall fans

James Riach

14, Apr, 2013 @6:40 PM

Article image
Wonga's Newcastle United link has high interest rate – for wrong reasons
Zoe Williams finds that opposition is widespread to the payday loans company's sponsorship of the Premier League football club

Zoe Williams

12, Oct, 2012 @6:35 PM

Article image
Jailed Saudi aid worker’s sister hits out at Newcastle takeover
Sentence of 20 years for alleged critic of regime was upheld a day before controversial football deal was sealed

Michael Savage

09, Oct, 2021 @3:14 PM

Article image
Tyne-Wear derby 'idiot' rioters caught in the act on CCTV
Northumbria police are scouring CCTV footage from Newcastle city centre cameras after the violence that broke out following Sunderland's victory at St James' Park

Nigel Bunyan

15, Apr, 2013 @6:30 PM

Article image
‘This wasn’t just me’: doctor who helped save Newcastle fan hailed as hero
A hospital doctor who performed CPR on a stricken Newcastle United fan has admitted that hearing thousands of Gallowgate end fans chanting ‘hero’ was one of the best moments of his life

Mark Brown North of England correspondent

18, Oct, 2021 @1:13 PM

Alan Pardew pays tribute to Newcastle United fans killed in MH17 flight - video

Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew pays tribute to two fans killed on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, saying the club will look to honour their memory this season

22, Jul, 2014 @9:19 AM

Article image
Jonás Gutiérrez wins case against Newcastle over cancer treatment
Tribunal rules football club discriminated against midfielder by stopping his selection to avoid extending contract

Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent

14, Apr, 2016 @5:32 PM

Article image
Saudi-backed Newcastle takeover as much about status as sportswashing
Riyadh will hope acquisition can not only improve kingdom’s image but also serve as a highly conspicuous display of wealth

Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

07, Oct, 2021 @6:41 PM

Article image
Newcastle fan pulled from Sunderland sex assault jury over prejudice
Juror confessed he could not give David Blake from Sunderland a fair trial after Newcastle's recent 3-0 defeat by rivals

Helen Pidd, norther editor, and agencies

19, Apr, 2013 @5:45 PM

Article image
Saudi takeover of Newcastle leaves human rights to fog on the Tyne | David Conn
Premier League allowing deal shows money and international reputation laundering can trump concerns about the regime

David Conn

08, Oct, 2021 @7:00 AM