“Any U-turn by the @premierleague is due to the persistence and determination of #NUFC fans to expose their anti-competitive and unaccountable behaviour, rather than changes in media rights!” tweeted Chi Onwurah, whose official title is Member of Parliament for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central.
Ms Onwurah is a St James’ Park regular - she was there for Leeds United’s recent visit - who has worked hard to fight her constituents’ corner on it but this takeover has everything to do with media rights, and by extension money. The timing of a deal headed by Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund after 18 months of stalling (and Newcastle claimed outright rejection) could not have been more blatant if it danced naked through the Bigg Market screaming “Look at me!”
Beyond fans and their MPs, two main groups objected: Amnesty International because it would make the league “a patsy” to country whose horrendous human rights record Ms Onwurah once highlighted in the Commons, and beIN Sports, one of the Premier League’s biggest customers, who objected to being ripped off by Saudi Arabia allowing pirate coverage of games it pays to show.
Two valid arguments, one moral, one commercial. The deal went through not much more than 24 hours after one was settled. Can you guess which?
How hard football should seek the moral high ground is debatable. Is it for the Premier League to be the conscience of a country whose royal family meets regularly with that of a despicable regime and does not seem embarrassed about selling £15bn of arms and services from BAE Systems alone to Saudi Arabia from 2015 to 2020?
The Premier League tries to have a conscience, but only a bit of one. It has an owners and directors test ostensibly to keep shady characters and those who cannot afford to own English clubs out, but did not stop overthrown Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra buying Manchester City when he needed a bolthole and a distraction from investigations into multi-million-pound land purchases. He sold up a month before being sentenced in absentia to two years in jail for corruption, far from the only foreign businessman suspected of seeing an English club as a good way to avoid heat back home.
The Football League version could not stop Massimo Cellino buying Leeds. The twice-convicted criminal being investigated over attempted embezzlement and fraudulent misrepresentation was not barred from being a director – and club owner – until a year after being deemed “fit and proper”, and only for the few months until his legal slate was wiped clean.
So if the rights and wrongs are irrelevant, what are the realities? An investment fund with more than £500m at its disposal has bought a football club with a large and passionate fanbase but a trophy cabinet not topped up with anything worth showing off since 1969.
Few league tables are as shaped by money as the Premier League’s, which is why Newcastle fans are getting excited about a deal many had written off. It only guarantees more obscene spending from threatened rivals, but tips the long-term odds in their favour. Ashley’s absence and the removal of Sports Direct signs plastered all over the city’s cathedral on the hill will make it a far less toxic place – even more so when Steve Bruce makes way for a more glamorous manager.
Money talks in the Premier League. Morals are for losers.