OLIVER HOLT: Newcastle’s takeover has underlined that the Premier League only care about money

It is an illuminating comment on the Premier League and its unabashed worship of money that when a purveyor of pre-meditated murder, mass executions, state-sponsored misogyny and widespread oppression of LGBT rights rides into Newcastle United with blood still dripping from a bone-saw, English football’s top flight rolls out a red carpet for him and scoops up the drops of black gold that leak on it as he passes.

The hated Mike Ashley is gone and it is hard to begrudge Newcastle fans their rejoicing that they are rid of the cruel mix of joylessness and hopelessness that their former owner inflicted on the club for too long. Ashley was a tin-pot football dictator who cheapened everything he touched at a great club, made his dough and got out. The game will not mourn his exit.

But it is a strange kind of deliverance when your liberator is a leader in a despotic Saudi Arabian regime notorious for its human rights abuses and a rather unpleasant predilection for dismembering its critics. The switch from Sports Direct to the Saudi Public Investment Fund is not so much robbing Peter to pay Paul as robbing Peter to cut Paul’s hand clean off.

This isn’t about Newcastle fans. Alan Shearer was right when he said they had nothing to do with who bought the club and he was also right to say their support should not be blind. 

‘We owe it to ourselves and the wider world to listen to the evidence about human rights abuses in Saudi,’ he wrote in his column for The Athletic, ‘to educate ourselves and know what we’re getting into.

Newcastle’s Saudi takeover has underlined that the Premier League only cares about money

Magpies fans rightly rejoiced after being liberated of the widely unpopular tyrant Mike Ashley

Magpies fans rightly rejoiced after being liberated of the widely unpopular tyrant Mike Ashley

‘Football puts us in difficult positions. And it can make hypocrites of us, too. It seems to me that ethical issues have not played a huge part in Newcastle’s takeover. Should they be a fundamental strand of the owners’ and directors’ test? Perhaps they should and perhaps the whole system of governance and ownership needs reform to reflect that.’

Newcastle fans are hardly alone in English football in not caring where the money comes from if it means that there is a chance their long trophy drought could soon be over. I don’t blame them for that. But it was hard not to feel queasy at the sight of some broadcasters greeting the news of the sale as if they, too, had hit the jackpot, even taking delivery of cans of beer in tribute to a fans’ hashtag.

I am sorry if this is a digression but these were so-called journalists toasting the arrival of Mohammed bin Salman at Newcastle United as if he were a noble knight on a white steed, toasting a man who had ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist and dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in cold blood.

However, Ashley has been replaced by a leader in a despotic regime notorious for its human rights abuses

However, Ashley has been replaced by a leader in a despotic regime notorious for its human rights abuses

The red carpet was rolled out for Newcastle's new owners despite its human rights abuses

The red carpet was rolled out for Newcastle’s new owners despite its human rights abuses

MBS, as he is called by his acolytes, sent a hit squad to an embassy to murder Khashoggi and cut his body up and wrap it in plastic bags. Fans can celebrate the arrival of the Saudis if they want. When journalists do it, it makes my stomach turn. It’s just a thought but a little respect for the memory of Khashoggi might be nice amid the rejoicing at the arrival of all that lovely lolly.

The whataboutery that has come with the sale has been wearying, too. It’s as pathetic as it is predictable. ‘What about the fact that the British government sells arms to the Saudis?’ That’s a particularly funny one because selling arms to the Saudis so they can bomb Yemen into the ground is a shameful part of British foreign policy and always has been. Selling arms to the Saudis is wrong. Selling Newcastle to the Saudis is wrong.

‘What about the fact we write messages on Twitter and order rides home on Uber and the Saudis have investments in them, too?’ That’s also funny. Insulting people on Twitter and climbing into the back seat of an Uber doesn’t do anything to cleanse the image of a repressive regime. Allowing them to buy one of our best-loved football clubs and use it as a vehicle for the most egregious example of sports- washing we have seen so far does exactly that.

Newcastle fans are right to celebrate Ashley's exit but the behaviour of some broadcasters and journalists has been unsettling

Newcastle fans are right to celebrate Ashley’s exit but the behaviour of some broadcasters and journalists has been unsettling

‘What about the fact that Manchester City and PSG are also effectively state-owned?’ Maybe you might want to ask City fans about that because they will be quick to tell you they have been regularly criticised for their association with Abu Dhabi and that many critics have said their achievements are tainted by it. And the regime in the UAE may not conform to our ideas of liberalism and tolerance but it looks like Haight-Ashbury compared to Saudi Arabia.

And my favourite, in the increasingly desperate charges of hypocrisy levelled at any journalist who has the temerity to object to the sale of one of our best-loved football institutions to an organisation headed by a man who was found to have ordered a grisly assassination, is this: ‘What about the fact journalists went to Riyadh to watch Anthony Joshua fight Andy Ruiz Jr?’

I hate to break this to you but reporting on things is what journalists do and now and again that means leaving England to do it. Travelling to a country does not imply support for its regime. If a journalist goes to watch a football match in Brazil, it doesn’t mean he’s an apologist for Jair Bolsonaro. I went to the US Masters a couple of years ago. It didn’t mean I was engaging in tacit support for Donald Trump.

The whataboutery has also been wearying, such as comparisons with PSG (L) and Man City (R)

The whataboutery has also been wearying, such as comparisons with PSG (L) and Man City (R)

Eddie Hearn and Anthony Joshua were asked tough questions about fighting in Saudi Arabia

Eddie Hearn and Anthony Joshua were asked tough questions about fighting in Saudi Arabia

So, sure, plenty of sports journalists went to Riyadh in December 2019 for Joshua-Ruiz 2. And the good journalists asked uncomfortable questions of Joshua and Eddie Hearn about why Joshua was fighting there and used it as an opportunity to criticise the Saudi regime and shine a light on some of its injustices. Some journalists went to the place where they hold public executions, known as Chop Chop Square, but there were no executions that week. It wouldn’t have looked good.

Hearn was honest about why they were in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis paid more than anyone else. Simple. He and Joshua had to reconcile themselves to that decision just as Newcastle fans will have to reconcile themselves to the fact that their club has been bought with blood money and that it is owned by a regime that is opposed to much of what we hold dear in this country.

And maybe in time they will come to realise that even though they have got rid of Ashley, that does not mean they have got their club back. They are further away, sadly, from getting their club back now than they were last week. They may soon have better players but that won’t mean they have got their club back, either. They never actually lost it anyway, but that is a different argument.

Maybe in time Newcastle fans will realise they are further away from getting their club back

Maybe in time Newcastle fans will realise they are further away from getting their club back

Newcastle deserve success and I hope that they are applauded for their football like City

Newcastle deserve success and I hope that they are applauded for their football like City

Despite what we know about the regime that now owns them, I hope Newcastle do rise up the league. I hope they start challenging for honours. Newcastle is a great city and I’ve always considered going to games at St James’s Park a privilege. It is, and will remain, one of the most evocative arenas in British sport.

Some people scoff at the idea that a particular set of fans deserve success but I hope it comes their way and I hope they at least get to watch wonderful football just as Manchester City fans have been able to watch the wonderful football brought to them by Pep Guardiola and the Abu Dhabi owners who have financed their resurgence.

And I hope they are applauded for their football. And that we reach a point — as many of us have done with Manchester City — where we are able to separate the beauty of what we see on the pitch and the worth of the staff who work for the club from the regime that owns it. There will always be a caveat to Newcastle’s success but I suspect their supporters won’t care too much about that.

But this episode has showcased that there are no core beliefs in the top flight besides money. Pictured: Richard Masters, Chief Executive of Premier League

But this episode has showcased that there are no core beliefs in the top flight besides money. Pictured: Richard Masters, Chief Executive of Premier League

At least the sale to Saudi Arabia has underlined once and for all that the Premier League cares only about money. There are no core beliefs other than money. There are no principles other than money. Like Gordon Gekko’s Wall Street, it is a place where greed is good. Murderers are welcome if they are rich enough.

Remember that the next time they try one of their Rainbow Laces campaigns, by the way. Knowing what they know about Saudi Arabia’s attitude to LGBT rights, maybe the Premier League won’t have the nerve. But if they do, remember it is just for show. Remember it is just a commercial move. They don’t actually care about LGBT rights. If they did, they wouldn’t allow Saudi Arabia to own a club. It’s the money, stupid.

We knew all this anyway. It is just that some moments illuminate things more brightly. It was like that when the Big Six English clubs tried to break away to a European Super League. We saw the people who run those clubs for what they were in that moment.

The moral high ground in English top-flight football was submerged a long time ago. In the Premier League, no one is innocent but now Saudi Arabia has been allowed to join the club, we are at least at liberty to say that some are less innocent than others.

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