In Newcastle, songs drown out tough questions

NEWCASTLE, England – In the shadow of St. James’s Park, a man in a flowing white thobe stood in a chair outside the Shearer Bar, conduct...


NEWCASTLE, England – In the shadow of St. James’s Park, a man in a flowing white thobe stood in a chair outside the Shearer Bar, conducting a swinging choir. He’s gone through all the most recent issues of Newcastle United’s songbook: the one about being richer than Manchester City, the one that questions the identity of Paris Saint-Germain, the one that simply says, ” Saudi Mags ”.

As their voices echoed along Strawberry Place, strengthening as more took to the air, a group of men in kaffiyeh approached. One had a Saudi flag draped over his shoulders. Another carried two portraits: one of King Salman, head of the Saudi royal family, and the other of Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto ruler of the country.

Instantly, the songs mingled without a chord to a cheer: It was assumed – though never really established – that the man with the portrait was a true Saudi, rather than a local cosplay version. The choir members wanted a handshake, a photo. Some mimed by prostrating themselves in thanks. And then, pints of plastic beer in hand, they resumed singing, louder and more jubilant than before.

It was, in a sense, the day it all became real. The takeover of Newcastle by a consortium dominated by the Public Investment Fund – the sovereign wealth fund of the Saudi state, of which Mohammed bin Salman is the chairman – has more than a week, but, until Sunday, something remained that ‘existed only in the abstract.

It was a press release. It was a staged video of financier Amanda Staveley and her husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, two minority partners in the deal who had been named – or named themselves – as its public faces, awkwardly meet the players at the club’s training center. It was something that had happened on paper and in the newspapers, but not yet in the flesh.

It wasn’t until the first game of the New Era that that could change. Not because Newcastle, suddenly, would be a particularly good team: the players would still be limited, the workforce fragile, the manager still unpopular, the standings still more than a little worrying after a 3-2 defeat against Tottenham.

That would change as Staveley, Ghodoussi and, in particular, Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of the PIF and new president of Newcastle, would be present at St. James’s Park. Only then would this new future, the one that fans of the club have been waiting for for more than a decade, would shift from the theoretical to the tangible.

This is the great skill of football, of course, its ability to bend, twist and adapt to any new reality. There is no story line too weird to fold into its fast-paced infinite script, no limit to the willful suspension of disbelief, no line in the sand, no beyond the pale.

The biggest club in the world implodes because of its pride? Write it down. A multi-year plot to change the face of sport that is destroyed in 48 hours? Just an ordinary Tuesday. One of the biggest investment funds in the world buys a club which employs Joelinton to restore the image of a repressive autocracy? Fine, Why not?

There is a capacity for adaptation that comes with the absence of a moral compass. Not only can football tolerate almost any twist, no matter how unlikely, but it can also do it in a matter of hours, turning what could have been unthinkable into what always has been done in the span of a game. 90 minutes. How else could nation states use the Premier League as a middle ground for their geopolitical strategies.

And yet in St. James’s Park on Sunday afternoon, even as a reality, it was impossible to escape the strangeness of the whole scene. There were the children, outside, with their homemade headdresses. There were the teenagers with the Saudi flag on their shoulders. There were the men in robes, adulation for their new owners in the form of cultural appropriation.

Then, strangest of all, as Newcastle’s oldest and most ailing fans in the Gallowgate End unfurled a banner of defiance – citing local singer Jimmy Nail and his description of the city as a ‘mighty city’ – the public address of the stadium the system intervened and asked the stadium to reserve a “warm welcome to Geordie” to al-Rumayyan.

As one, fans stood up and turned to the directors’ stand, clapping and clapping for 20, 30 seconds. Newcastle have always romanticized their heroes, perhaps more than most: it’s a club that still carries memories of Jackie Milburn, Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer on its lips.

There is a banner, hanging from a railing in the stadium’s east stand, which features a quote and image from another of those heroes: Bobby Robson, a beloved former manager. A club, it runs, “it’s the noise, it’s the passion, the feeling of belonging”.

This is exactly what Saudi Arabia bought with Newcastle. This is exactly why he bought Newcastle: so that his emissary can receive the kind of welcome that Shearer or Keegan can get barely a week after his association with the club.

There was, in the end, only one element that remained familiar and reassuring: the game itself. Newcastle took the lead after less than two minutes, St. James’s Park melting into utter chaos, before slowly, surely disappearing.

Tottenham Hotspur, supposedly just party guests of their host, scored three times in a delayed first half after a fan collapsed in the stadium’s east stand. The players had to seek help from Newcastle’s medical staff when it became clear the situation was serious. The ventilator has been transferred to a hospital, it was announced.

There was little in the mood for glee after that. The stadium went silent, almost contemplative, only waking up to demand that manager Steve Bruce be immediately fired. There are limits, it seems, even to Newcastle’s sentimentality. It was Bruce’s 1000th game as a manager. He is from Newcastle and supported the team as a child.

On Sunday, his Magpies were booed off the field. It has happened a lot here over the last few years. This is what fans hope to escape; it was the ability of the new group of owners to offer a different future that has persuaded some to disguise themselves, and many others to turn a blind eye to why, exactly, Saudi Arabia might want to buy a team of Premier League football. They are happy to be Saudi mags, now, to tolerate any weirdness in the hope of a richer and better reality.



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