From despair to hope: 2021 was a year like no other for Newcastle United fans

Analysis From despair to hope: 2021 was a year like no other for Newcastle United fans
There are a lot of lazy stereotypes about Newcastle fans that often get bandied about as fact. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 30 December 2021

From despair to hope: 2021 was a year like no other for Newcastle United fans

From despair to hope: 2021 was a year like no other for Newcastle United fans
  • After the depressing Mike Ashley era, the Saudi-backed takeover has ensured a sense of positivity is coursing through the city, the club and the fans

There has been a small debate among certain sections of the Newcastle United fanbase this season about just how old the famous club that wear black and white in the North East of England are.

Do we mark anniversaries based on the older parent club, Stanley FC, founded in 1881? Or its merger with Newcastle West End in 1892 which created the club we know today, Newcastle United?

Whichever way you look at it, I think everyone will agree that 2021 marks one of the most significant years in the club’s history and in time could even be seen as the most important year of its existence.

As what you may call a rather proactive fan, I’ve spent most of the last 14 years, eight of them as an expat in Dubai, actively and vocally trying to promote change from the previous Mike Ashley ownership. As founder of the supporter's club, founding and interim chair of the Supporter's Trust, fanzine and newspaper writer, radio show host and currently YouTube broadcaster on the NUFC Matters channel, I’ve pushed for change in every possible way I can.

Finally, this year, it finally paid off, for all Newcastle fans.

After three years of attempts, resistance from football authorities, broadcast companies and anyone else who felt that they could chip in their two pennies’ worth, the consortium of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, Amanda Staveley's PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers — well-known property magnates in the UK who have a vested interest in Newcastle — finally took control of the club.

It hasn’t been easy.

The PIF has shown amazing resilience and patience to get the club. It was also not without legal action taken by the previous owner to force through the sale. Complex, and at times controversial, but in October 2021 the deal was signed, sealed and done.

Relief. Joy. Delirium. You can name any positive emotion you like. They all came to pass for all supporters of the club. There were literal celebrations in the streets. Under previous owner, Mike Ashley, we were a ghost ship of a club. Simply existing. Happy to survive and without ambition, the club had become a soulless vacuum, devoid of hope, dysfunctional and joyless. The mood swing since the takeover is palpable in every way you can measure.

Returning home to Newcastle for the recent holiday period I was able to see and feel first hand just how everything has changed in terms of mood, hope and more. The atmosphere in the city pre-match is something akin to the early 1990s and the Kevin Keegan “entertainers” years. Yet here we are, languishing at the bottom of the table, a genuine mountain to climb. But there is belief. Belief that in the PIF’s investment we have a springboard to better days. Belief that the consortium that has come together can provide the leadership and decisions to keep our status and build an exciting future. Belief in new manager Eddie Howe and the squad seemingly buying into his methods, personified by Brazilian Joelinton who looks like a whole new player.

It feels like we’ve been backed into a corner and between dubious VAR decisions, petulant comments in the press from so-called football writers and sniping from fans of other clubs, there is also a growing feeling of us against the world. And you know that may just be the kind of feeling that will help galvanize us all, the club, ownership, team, manager and fans, to do something amazing in the New Year and something spectacular in the years ahead.

There are a lot of lazy stereotypes about Newcastle fans that often get bandied about as fact when they couldn’t be further from the truth. Apparently we’re expectant, demanding, and have ideas above our station. For supporters of a club without a domestic trophy since 1955 or any competition win since the 1969 Inter Cities Fairs Cup, that always was a strange thing to say.

The reality is far from the truth. We want a club to be proud of, a team that gives 100 percent. We want hope and ambition, the desire to bloody the nose of the great and good and compete on a level playing field. With the investment of the PIF, we have gone from a club with no hope, no owner investment for 10 years and only $9.5 million in capital expenditure in that period (less than some League One clubs) to a reinvigorated sleeping giant, ready to rise. Hope has returned along with joy and the ability to dream again.

For a set of fans with supposedly “unreal expectations,” the ecstatic social media celebrations when the stadium’s windows were washed go some way to explain just how low the Ashley years had brought the bar and drained us all of so many of the simple pleasures that football can bring.

Now, all that has changed. We can dream big again.

One thing that stands out for me is the potential for growth. For NUFC as a club on the world stage. For Newcastle and its people as investment opportunities open up into the region. For PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers. For the PIF opening its portfolio to a truly global stage and for fans of Newcastle United, old and new, who in a small way can play their part in Saudi’s Vision 2030.

One thing is for sure — as anyone who knows Geordies would tell you — we won’t be a silent partner in any of this for sure.

From depressing lows to incredible highs, 2021 will be remembered as year like no other for Newcastle as a city, the North East of England as a region and for Newcastle United, the shining beacon that we look to as expats and the club we support through thick and thin.

For a so-called “small club in the North of England” we’ve made quite a lot of noise in the last quarter of 2021. And we’ve only just started.

Saudi Olympic hero Tarek Hamdi takes karate gold at Islamic Solidarity Games

Saudi Olympic hero Tarek Hamdi takes karate gold at Islamic Solidarity Games
Updated 26 min 40 sec ago

Saudi Olympic hero Tarek Hamdi takes karate gold at Islamic Solidarity Games

Saudi Olympic hero Tarek Hamdi takes karate gold at Islamic Solidarity Games
  • After winning a silver medal at Tokyo 2020, Hamdi took top spot in the +84kg kumite category in Konya

RIYADH: Saudi Olympic silver medalist Tarek Hamdi has claimed karate gold at the Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey.

He defeated Ismailov Qurban of Azerbaijan 10-4 in the final on Thursday night to take first place in the +84 kg kumite category.

Prince Fahd bin Jalawi, vice president of the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee and head of the Kingdom’s delegation in Konya, watched the victory and congratulated Hamdi on his latest triumph.

Hamdi reached the final by beating Sen Fateh of Turkey 2-0 in the semi-final. Earlier in the day, the Saudi Olympic hero kicked off his campaign at the fifth Islamic Solidarity Games by overcoming Tunisia’s Ahmad Khader through a technical knockout. He followed that up with a 2-0 victory over Khalid Hassanain of Qatar in the quarter-final.

Last year, Hamdi came within seconds of winning gold at the delayed Tokyo 2020 games but had to settle for silver after he was disqualified for a kick to the head of Iranian opponent Sajad Ganjzadeh in the final.

Ramla Ali puts on boxing clinic with Saudi girls ahead of historic bout in Jeddah

Ramla Ali puts on boxing clinic with Saudi girls ahead of historic bout in Jeddah
Updated 18 August 2022

Ramla Ali puts on boxing clinic with Saudi girls ahead of historic bout in Jeddah

Ramla Ali puts on boxing clinic with Saudi girls ahead of historic bout in Jeddah
  • The Somali-English fighter will take on Crystal Nova Garcia at the Rage on the Red Sea on Saturday

JEDDAH: Ramla Ali held a boxing session for girls and women in Jeddah on Thursday ahead of her history-making bout against Crystal Nova Garcia at the Rage on the Red Sea this Saturday.

It will not be the first time Ali makes history, having become the first English Muslim fighter to claim an amateur title in her country, and she will etch her name into the record books alongside her opponent as they become the first females to fight professionally in Saudi Arabia.

Since Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. headlined the Clash of the Dunes in 2019, there has been a 150 percent uptake in female sports participation across the Kingdom.

Boxing as a whole has seen a 300 percent jump in Saudis taking up the sport, and the Saudi Arabian Boxing Federation is aiming to get 500,000 people involved in the sport over the next four years.

The increased interest in the sport and the governing body’s mission were in evidence at Jeddah’s Waad Academy, where Ali conducted a 45-minute training session with local coaches and Saudi girls and women between the ages of 15 and 30 from government-funded and private clubs across the country.

“The organizers inviting me to compete and allowing this fight to go ahead really shows you the cultural shift in the landscape that is happening in the region. I hope myself and my opponent, as well as the full card competing in Saudi Arabia, inspires future generations. It’s been wonderful to spend time with this group of girls today and I hope they truly believe their ambition is limitless.”

Alongside Ali was Rasha Al-Khamis, the country’s first certified female boxer and boxing coach, as well as a part-time footballer, Guinness World Records-holder and current vice president of the Saudi Arabian Boxing Federation.

Al-Khamis herself has inspired women from all over the country and is hoping that Ali’s presence both at Waad Academy and at the Rage on the Red Sea will lead to even more of her countrywomen giving boxing — or any other sport for that matter — a go.

“Training programs are very important, not only for the athletes but to develop coaches and referees; the more we have the more competitions can be organized, which helps to identify promising talent,” Al-Khamis said. “We are constantly in the process of providing more training and increasing the number of competitions nationally and regionally, as well as looking into more programs that pave the way for future athletes.

“It’s so exciting to see the growing interest in the sport, especially following some of the incredible boxing spectacles we have, like this week’s Rage on the Red Sea.”

Saudi Arabian Boxing Federation President Abdullah Al-Harbi and CEO Amr Abdel Binhassan also oversaw the clinic, alongside Matchroom Sport Chairman Eddie Hearn.

Rage on the Red Sea is at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena in Jeddah on Saturday, with Joshua looking to recapture his heavyweight world titles from Oleksandr Usyk at the top of the billing.

As well as Ali versus Nova Garcia delivering a first for boxing in Saudi Arabia, local boxer Ziyad Almaayouf will become the first professional fighter from his country to feature on a major international card.

Impact of Indian-led T20 franchise cricket leads to splits among sport administrators

Impact of Indian-led T20 franchise cricket leads to splits among sport administrators
Updated 16 min 23 sec ago

Impact of Indian-led T20 franchise cricket leads to splits among sport administrators

Impact of Indian-led T20 franchise cricket leads to splits among sport administrators
  • With leading players making their own decisions about when, where and in which format they play, Test and One Day International cricket could suffer

Noise from the debate over the impact of T20 franchise cricket on the sport’s future is becoming difficult to drown out. Former Indian cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar has suggested that opposition to the format and its Indian-led dynamic is tantamount to sour grapes. In a thinly disguised dig at English and Australian administrators, he pronounced that Indian administrators are better equipped to look after the interests of Indian cricket than those who are perceived to be trying to interfere with it.

At first sight, this may appear to be an overreaction and a veiled criticism of the way that cricket used to be ordered. As discussed in previous columns, professional cricket is being disrupted before our eyes. Its future landscape is beginning to shape up, with T20 franchise cricket recognized as the disrupter-in-chief. Gavaskar advises that administrators in other countries should focus on looking after their own interests. This is becoming increasingly difficult to do now that leading players are making decisions about when, where and in which format they will ply their trade. Added to this mix is the possibility that they will be able to choose to which employer — national board, regional board, franchiser — they contract their services.

There is much speculation about who and what will be the casualties of the disruption. Some argue that it will be One Day International (50 over) cricket, while others say that it spells the decline of Test match cricket.

Domestic cricket structures may well experience shake-ups. In England, for example, counties which host neither Test matches nor T20 franchises are likely to struggle, both financially and in terms of their ability to attract top players.

Cricket’s economics have been altered substantially by T20 franchises. A dominant proportion of income for national Boards in India, Australia and England used to be generated at Test matches through ticket sales, at ground sales, sponsorships and media rights. The Indian Premier League has changed that dynamic to the point where the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) no longer relies on Test match income. Nevertheless, it remains an advocate of Test match cricket and knows that other countries depend on Tests with India to generate much-needed income. This gives the BCCI significant advantage in the corridors of power in international cricket.

Despite Australia and England having their own short format franchise tournaments, it is Test matches which continue to generate a sizable proportion of their income. In England’s case, this is as much as two-thirds. On Wednesday, England and South Africa began a three-match Test series at Lords. Ticket prices range widely according to the day of play, location of seat in the ground and age of spectator, with under-16s receiving a discounted price. At the top end of the scale a seat costs £160 ($193) for the first day and £70 at the bottom end of the range. Seats with restricted views are offered in a range of £100 down to £45. Tickets for Day Four are on offer in a range of £140 to £50 and a mere £5 for Day Five.

The owner of Lords, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), was the subject of much criticism earlier in the season over an England Test match against New Zealand. This coincided with celebrations to commemorate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and public holidays to encourage people to celebrate, accordingly. It is rumored that several days before the match started that at least 16,000 tickets remained unsold, mainly priced at more than £100. The ground has an official capacity of 31,000. The MCC blamed the public holidays for the lower-than-expected demand. Observers of cricket were sure that a combination of high ticket prices and a cost-of-living crisis in the UK had caused the drop in demand. The MCC has long appeared to take the view that it has captive market for one of the great sporting events of the English summer and can price accordingly. Perhaps this view is going to be limited in future to matches against Australia and India, although it appeared to be a full house on Wednesday against South Africa, before the rain came to disperse spectators.

A day at a Test match when the weather is good and six hours cricket are played means that a ticket priced at £120 averages out at £20 per hour. Arguably, this is fair value. The price of a member’s ticket to watch Arsenal vs. Manchester City, for example, lies in a range of £69 to £99, equivalent to £46 or £66 per hour. A price of a ticket to watch a Hundred match at Lords starts at £40 for an adult, is £5 for under-16s and free for those aged under-six. One match lasts for two and a half hours. The English Cricket Board, in its reliance on its income from Test matches, is caught up in a dilemma. Fear of a decline in Test match cricket has led it to seek to spread its risk by introducing an additional income stream, the Hundred, now being played simultaneously with the Tests against South Africa.

Set against this dilemma is a clear-cut situation. On Aug. 27, in T20 format, the Asia Cup will begin in the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, with a capacity of up to 30,000 spectators, equivalent to Lords. Ticket prices start at AED 30-75 ($8-$20), rising to AED 250 depending on the match and seat type. The first batch of tickets went on sale online on Aug. 15. Those for the India vs. Pakistan match sold out within one hour.

Gavaskar’s advice is founded on some obvious trends in the game. The BCCI now generates about 70 percent of cricket’s global income. It has monetized and mobilized its massive support base. Indian franchise interests are set to add to this dominance. Although the International Cricket Council sets schedules of ever-increasing intensity for its members, India and its collaborators control the future direction of world cricket. Money, media casters and advertisers are the face of the game, with the boards in thrall.

Whole world is watching, says Prince Khaled ahead of Rage on the Red Sea

Whole world is watching, says Prince Khaled ahead of Rage on the Red Sea
Updated 18 August 2022

Whole world is watching, says Prince Khaled ahead of Rage on the Red Sea

Whole world is watching, says Prince Khaled ahead of Rage on the Red Sea
  • Organizers and fighters speak to international media ahead of heavyweight title clash in Jeddah on Saturday

JEDDAH: “The whole world will be watching” Ukrainian world champion Oleksandr Usyk defend his title against Britain’s Anthony Joshua in a fight billed as the “Rage on the Red Sea,” Prince Khalid bin Abdulaziz, chairman of Skill Challenge Entertainment, said.

Prince Khalid was speaking during the press conference at Shangri-La Hotel in Jeddah ahead of the Aug. 20 showdown, with the two main headliners and other boxers from the card also giving their views on the event.

“The whole world will be watching,” he said, referring to the heavyweight bout. “It is a huge milestone for Saudi Arabia and sports in the Kingdom.”

Prince Khalid added: “I want Saudi Arabia to be on the boxing map and to empower the people of our country. We want to get involved more in female boxing and, hopefully, we will have Saudi women fighting and representing the nation in the future.”

During the press conference Usyk and Joshua declared themselves ready for the fight, and acknowledged the enthusiastic atmosphere and the hospitality they have experienced in Saudi Arabia.

Joshua will be hoping it is the second time he regains the heavyweight championship in the Kingdom, having beaten Andy Ruiz Jr. in Riyadh in December 2019.

“I am grateful to everyone in Saudi Arabia for their support and hospitality. I am grateful to my team for training me in an excellent way. We raised the level of training and improved the mental focus by being disciplined enough to achieve the goals that I have for myself. What drives me is my passion for competition and always improving above all. Attaining success is my first goal and not the belts.”

Usyk, meanwhile is fighting as much for the Ukrainian people as he is for himself.

“Physically, we are ready for this game and have spent a lot of time on training. There is a great atmosphere and spirit here in the Kingdom which keeps motivating us. I am really thankful to the Saudi people for their hospitality and warm welcome and hope to come to the Kingdom more frequently,” he said.

Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz, spokesperson for Skill Challenge Entertainment, said: “We are very proud that boxing in Saudi Arabia continues to grow its profile, (allowing us) to host this global event which would have not have been achieved without the support of our wise leadership and the efforts of the Ministry of Sports as well as the tireless work of the Saudi Boxing Federation.”

Speaking to Arab News, he added: ” I hope this event turns out to be successful and Saudi Arabia becomes a destination for other international sports events, alongside boxing.”

Abdullah Ahmed Al-Harbi, president of the Saudi Arabian Boxing Federation, said: “It’s great to see the ecosystem of boxing coming to life in the Kingdom and I hope this (event) turns out to be one of the best we will ever witness in the coming years. It doesn’t get bigger than this world heavyweight championship, as it features five different belts and we wish all the luck to the boxers.”

He also looked forward to the undercard, in particular the first female pro fighters to appear on an international professional card in Saudi Arabia.

“This surely is a historic boxing event not only for the Kingdom but also for the world, and I am very glad to be a part of it,” Al-Harbi said.

“The beauty of this event is that it is the second one in the Kingdom, after the first was held in Diriyah Season in Riyadh, and from then we have seen a big transformation and the growth in amateur boxing,” he said.

“We now have almost 24 clubs and more than 700 boxers. Besides, we have an Olympic event that is featuring 300 boxers in Jeddah. We are (seeing) mass participation within the sport, and we look forward to inspiring more people to participate after this event.”

Commenting on Ziyad Al-Maayouf, the first professional fighter to represent Saudi Arabia, Al-Harbi said: “We are all behind him and support him as he becomes the first Saudi pro boxer to fight in his home country. He will surely inspire a new generation of amateurs to turn pro and help them aim to compete on a higher level.”

Al-Maayouf, who will face Mexico’s Jose Alatorre on Saturday, said he has been overwhelmed by the support he has received and feels a little under the pressure with all eyes on him.

“I definitely feel the pressure,” he said. “It is something that you are going to feel in anything you do that’s important. But there are always two roads to take once you have the pressure. It’s either you enjoy every minute and make the best of it and let it not worry you, or not have fun and let it become an obstacle. I chose the first, to turn the pressure into something good. I am very excited to fight in front of my people and I know, no matter what, they are behind me and I really appreciate that.”

During the Rage on the Red Sea undercard press conference, the other boxers — Zhang Zhilei, Filip Hrgovic, Callum Smith, Mathieu Bauderlique, Badou Jack, Andrew Tabiti, Rashed Belhasa, Bader Samreen, Ramla Ali and Crystal Garcia Nova — all revealed their delight at taking part in the event.

“I and my opponent will be making history together and along the way, we are going to inspire loads of girls to not only take up boxing, but also participate in any kinds of sports. It’s a great feeling to know the fact that I will be inspiring many other women,” Ali said.

Her opponent, Garcia Nova, sent out a message that boxing is for everybody and that there should be no gender discrimination.

“If women want to learn boxing or they want to do something else on their own, then they should go ahead as this will give them a better attitude and (chance) to defend themselves against anybody.”

Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield said he could not split the two fighters in the main event.

“Everyone has their favorites to go on and win the title, but I am neutral, ” he said. “I believe both Usyk and Joshua have to be at their best and give the fans a good fight.”

Top grapplers expected as jiu-jitsu tour returns to Abu Dhabi

Top grapplers expected as jiu-jitsu tour returns to Abu Dhabi
Updated 18 August 2022

Top grapplers expected as jiu-jitsu tour returns to Abu Dhabi

Top grapplers expected as jiu-jitsu tour returns to Abu Dhabi
  • The two-day competition will take place Sept. 3-4 at the arena in Zayed Sports City

ABU DHABI: Some of the world’s top grapplers return to Abu Dhabi next month for the AJP Tour UAE National Pro championship.

This has been confirmed by the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation and the Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Pro. Open to all nationalities, the two-day competition will take place Sept. 3 to 4 at the Jiu-Jitsu Arena.

The opening day will start with the teens, youth, and masters’ categories, while day two will feature amateur and professional contests. With the tournament included in the annual classification of AJP Tour rankings points, the championship takes on added importance. First place in each category will receive 1,000 rating points, making it key for international players, their global classification, and advancement on the annual rankings ladder.

Fahad Al-Shamsi, the UAEJJF secretary general, said: “The AJP Tour UAE National Pro is one of the most important tournaments on the calendar, attracting great local and international participation. It also tends to highlight emerging young talents as they start their professional career journeys and is an important tributary to the national team as it heightens the level of local athletes.

“This year’s tournament comes at an ideal time, enabling players to prepare for key international tournaments, including the Jiu-Jitsu World Championship in October and the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship in November. The tournament will gather a group of the strongest competitors representing countries that have a strong history in the sport, such as Brazil, Colombia, UAE, Kazakhstan, Italy, France, Angola, Sweden, and others.”

Tariq Al-Bahri, general manager of AJP, said his organization’s cooperation with the UAEJJF was proving mutually beneficial, resulting in an increased number of events, higher standards, and enormous success in terms of participation numbers, both regionally and worldwide.

“The UAE National Pro is a local event with international standards and is attracting a great turnout from the brightest talents around the world,” he said. “The players are eagerly awaiting the tournament as it is considered one of the most important organized by the league as part of the 2022 calendar. Abu Dhabi continues to work to consolidate its leadership as the global capital of jiu-jitsu by organizing and hosting the largest and most important tournaments in the world.

“The AJP organizes around 100 annual championships in various capitals and cities around the world, attracting the participation of elite champions and professionals, reflecting the UAE capital’s role in developing the sport across the globe.”