Last week Mike Ashley sold Newcastle United for £300m to a consortium led by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund. In an instant, it became the richest club in the world.
To Newcastle fans, the news was cause for unconfined joy – the end to more than a decade of misery under an owner they reviled, and the prospect of the club they love being catapulted to the Premier League’s top tier. But the news that the Premier League had allowed the deal – and concluded that the Public Investment Fund was not under the control of Saudi Arabia or its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman – drew a very different response from those with no loyalty to the club. To critics of the deal, it is an egregious example of sportswashing – the increasingly common phenomenon whereby individuals, organisations or nations seek to put a shine on their reputation by association with a beloved sport – and confirmation that the Premier League is morally bankrupt.
In this episode presented by Nosheen Iqbal, producer Joshua Kelly heads to St James’ Park to document fans’ responses to the deal – and introduces us to Wallace Wilson, a longtime Newcastle fan who gave up his season ticket and stopped attending games in protest at the Mike Ashley era. Wilson describes his relief at the end of the Ashley era and why he believes that the poisonous relationship between owner and fans – and the corresponding failings of the team – were damaging for the football club and the city alike.
We also hear from David Conn, an investigative journalist at the Guardian who has written extensively about football’s relationship with money, who sets out the curious circumstances of the Premier League’s agreement to allow the deal to go through, and why a broadcasting rights row appears to have had more influence over their decision than a mountain of evidence of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia – or the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Conn reflects on the limits of the league’s owners and directors test, widely known as the “fit and proper persons test”, and considers how the new buyers will seek to capitalise on the club’s relationship with the fans and its status in the Premier League. And he asks whether there is any chance that English football will ever escape the grip of the vast commercial interests that appear bound to dictate its future.
You can also read David Conn’s recent article, Saudi takeover of Newcastle leaves human rights to fog on the Tyne, or listen to a previous episode of Today in Focus about the Ashley era.
Support The Guardian
The Guardian is editorially independent.
And we want to keep our journalism open and accessible to all.
But we increasingly need our readers to fund our work.