NEWCASTLE: Magpies supporters give their assessment after 22 months of PIF ownership
It barely takes a scratching of the surface to realize that Newcastle United and the ownership model headed up by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia are a match made in heaven.
A fan base starved of any hope and ambition for so long, but one with optimism knowing no bounds, aligned itself with a sovereign wealth fund determined to be the best and most successful bar none. The years of Mike Ashley, the Magpies’ previous owner, taught fans patience, how to value even the smallest breadcrumb of success. It also showed them what footballing poverty felt like, the type that sucks at the soul — and it was not one they relished or wanted for future generations of mini Magpies.
Ashley never fought for anything, apart from his own profit margins. He had little to no care for the club’s past — tossing aside club legends like Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan. Shearer, the Premier League’s and Newcastle United’s record goalscorer, saw his name torn down from the stadium walls, Keegan said he was lied to then forced out. Shearer’s statue was even moved outside the St. James’ Park footprint. PIF fixed that, moving it back inside where it now has pride of place at the world famous Gallowgate End. The name of the former England striker was also added to a restaurant in the same part of the stadium.
Ashley, who remarkably still has a corporate box at the ground, brought questionable sponsorship to the club’s door in the shape of payday loan company Wonga, degraded from the club’s historic links back to the 1990s with Adidas and even attempted to change the name of the stadium. That might well come again in time, but the sums, fans are sure, will this time add up and improve the football club’s lot both on and off the pitch.
Footballing wise, Ashley oversaw two relegations from the Premier League, something not seen on Tyneside since the 1980s. The appointments to key positions left a lot to be desired and the signings and decisions that followed had stark consequences. Newcastle felt very much like a selling club, losing stars to middle ranking top flight clubs and hoovering up their own recruits from the bargain basement. While Newcastle had, for some time, lost the shine of its trophy-laden first 60 to 80 years in existence, the 10 under Ashley were like nothing ever experienced by anyone with black and white running through their veins.
Bringing that all into focus, it is easy to see why PIF knew that not only did it have a bargain on its hands — buying Newcastle United for about three times the amount of a world class midfielder — but also it had a captive audience, yearning for progress of any sort.
That does not mean PIF has taken advantage of that privilege. In fact, since the $400 million purchase of the great footballing bastion of England’s north east, it has systematically moved to undo a lot of the bad work done by the previous incumbent and looked to move things on even more rapidly on the park.
The appointment of workaholic Eddie Howe has been arguably the most crucial call PIF has made since October 2021. In fact, it was its first major one, after sacking Steve Bruce. Champions League football, not seen at St. James’ since 2004, is back and that is largely down to the recruitment of sporting director Dan Ashworth, the astute leadership of husband and wide duo Amanda Staveley and Mehrdad Ghodoussi, flanked by Jamie Reuben, and the raw coaching ability of Howe.
Ticketing overhauls have not come without pain, but were much needed. Plans to increase the capacity of the stadium are already afoot, so too is a new purpose-built training ground. Not resting on its laurels, PIF has spent $12 million on the current facility and improved the matchday experience for many.
In light of all that, we asked four Newcastle United fans from different backgrounds for their opinions on the first 22 months of PIF on Tyneside and what they expect for the future.
We spoke to journalist and fan Charlie Bennett, whose work at the Newcastle Chronicle puts him in a prime position to gauge opinion; a leader of the alternative fan movement against Ashley, Toon for Change, Joe Moore; prominent social media figure Ben, who runs Mouth of the Tyne on X; and Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust board member and Loaded Mag podcaster, Pete Davey.
Has the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United exceeded your expectations? And if so, how?
Charlie Bennett: Judging by last season, absolutely. PIF took an initial risk when buying Newcastle, as staying up was a huge obstacle to overcome. But few expected Champions League football and a Wembley final in the first full season post-takeover. Admittedly, a stuttering Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham made life easier but Eddie Howe still had to seize the opportunity and he did exactly that. Those three clubs will be stronger this time around but Newcastle have given themselves an excellent platform to build from just 22 months after PIF’s arrival.
Joe Moore: The takeover has far exceeded our expectations and the success so far has been unbelievable. To achieve a top four finish and a cup final, although not the result we wanted, in the first full season is beyond the dreams of even the most staunch Newcastle United supporter. Our aims for last season were to consolidate on the previous season relegation escape and a cup run. Next season the minimum expectation will be more European football. That is a mark of how far we have came as a club in such a short space of time.
Mouth of the Tyne: For me, the Saudi takeover of NUFC has not necessarily exceeded expectations but been everything that we knew it would be. The early promises have been kept and the club has addressed issues such as player recruitment, management and other executive positions, seating, ticketing, etc. It’s a marathon not a sprint but we’re on track and, truthfully, with Champions League qualification already in the bag, probably ahead of schedule.
Pete Davey: 100 percent, yes! What our owners have done has been life-changing in so many ways. They have given a city and a football club a new lease of life. The name and stature of the club is growing by the day, everybody now is talking about Newcastle United. We couldn’t be prouder of every single one of the players, including of course Eddie Howe and the coaching staff.
Is the strategy everything you expected or has it been different?
Charlie Bennett: To give Saudi readers insight into pre-takeover life, Newcastle had one man, Lee Charnley, spinning several plates and the club was run poorly. Fast forward to the present and Newcastle are a slick, oiled machine with roles designated across the boardroom. Transfers are not how everybody expected. Signing superstar names threatened to make the club a circus but incomings have been measured.
Joe Moore: The strategy from the club has been what was expected because it is what they told us they would do. Communication has been one of the most impressive points from the owners and they have stuck to their word. Commercial growth was always going to have a crucial factor given the previous decade of stagnation so it has been great to see new partners come on board such as Sela, Noon, STC and more. As we continue to grow, more partners will join the journey which will help to accelerate the project and expand our FFP limits. As fans we can sit back and enjoy the journey because we know those at the club will be doing everything they can in their power to make us successful.
Mouth of the Tyne: The ownership strategy/model probably has been different to what I initially expected pre-takeover, in the sense that there has been no moves for global superstars in the bracket of Lionel Messi, etc. The current strategy of signing players in the next category down has been a joy to behold. We aim to sign players who are young, ambitious and have talent but who also aren’t fully developed to their maximum potential.
Pete Davey: I would say so. Unlike other takeovers there is a lot more restrictions to what they would like to do, so a lot of things will be a process. On the playing side, we have been smart but competitive with recruitment, I expected this. However, Dan Ashworth and (CEO) Darren Eales coming in have been crucial to the sustainability of the club. Superb recruitment in my opinion. Other elements like the new training ground and stadium expansions were always going to be long term projects.
What next for PIF-led NUFC?
Charlie Bennett: Competing in Europe poses a fresh challenge. While Yasir Al-Rumayyan told NUFC TV he anticipated a cup final and Champions League football so soon into PIF’s tenure, not many fans did. A top six finish while avoiding Champions League embarrassment would be a decent campaign, anything beyond that is a bonus. My biggest fear is Eddie Howe potentially becoming a victim of his own success. Should Newcastle hit a wobble, which will inevitably come at some point, they need to back, rather than sack, their man.
Joe Moore: More of the same. The bar has been set now and that will be the difficult part moving forward. Clubs around us will be improving themselves so we need to keep moving forward in all areas to make sure we take advantage of the fantastic season we had last year and the jump start it gave to the project. Further investment will be made into the playing squad and infrastructure and we’ll also see further investment in our academy and younger players with one eye on the UEFA Youth League next season.
Mouth of the Tyne: We want to be in the Champions League every season and to one day, hopefully, win it. As Eddie Howe said last season: “We’re not here to be liked, we’re here to compete.” This has become the club mantra now. We came so close to winning a cup last season, the objective has to be to go one step further and win our first silverware of the new era of Newcastle United. The takeover has given the whole club, region and fan base a new lease of life and we can’t wait to see where the journey will take us.
Pete Davey: It’s simple, Newcastle United to continue to compete at the top end of the footballing pyramid and eventually bring home a trophy to the best fans in the world. It’s clear our owners want to be the best and make this club the best in the world, so buying players that are committed to the journey, investing in the long-term future of this club.