In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot the supposedly central figure never actually turns up. As time passes, one character reassures another that Godot’s eventual arrival will bring salvation but, still, nothing happens and no one appears.
Newcastle fans know the feeling. They have been sitting by the phone that never rings and standing with their noses pressed against the windowpane, staring at a stubbornly empty street, for far too long now.
By the time of football’s restart this week St James’ Park was supposed to be home to England’s wealthiest club and Tyneside a magnet to the world’s most talented players. Instead Mike Ashley remains Newcastle’s extremely reluctant owner and the club’s £300m takeover by a largely Saudi Arabian-funded consortium still awaits Premier League approval.
Given that it was all supposed to be rubber-stamped weeks ago, many Newcastle supporters, already fed up of 13 years of Ashley’s largely dismal regime, are close to despair. Newcastle’s opening “restart” game at home against Sheffield United on Sunday had been hyped as the Riyadh derby but it seems only the visitors will be under Saudi control.
As the Premier League ponders the takeover – something it has been doing for almost three months – Steve Bruce’s team are in limbo. Many of the club’s backroom staff, ticket-office personnel included, remain furloughed after Ashley apparently left the determination of their futures to the prospective new owners.
The latter consortium are an eclectic bunch. While the billionaire Reuben brothers and the financier Amanda Staveley hope to become minority stakeholders, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is earmarked for an 80%, controlling, holding.
Tynesiders concerned about the kingdom’s appalling human rights record and Jamal Khashoggi’s murder have been offered no window into PIF’s world because of the opaque nature of Saudi business and society. Their attention has instead turned to the £80m donation the Reuben Foundation made to Oxford University last week and the slow-burn soap opera of Staveley’s £1.6bn high-court battle with Barclays.
Such distractions aside, Newcastle fans are becoming increasingly anxious about more modest sums. Among the assorted consequences of the takeover‑induced hiatus is the club’s position as the only member of football’s top tier not to have pledged to refund season-ticket holders unable to attend the 2019‑20 campaign’s outstanding home fixtures now games are behind closed doors.
It is a shabby way to operate and depressingly emblematic of Ashley’s tenure but, even though the Premier League is set to make a welcome intervention to resolve the problem, the current paralysis is not entirely the retail tycoon’s fault.
Lee Charnley, Newcastle’s chief executive, had expected to have departed St James’ Park by now but, instead, he remains tasked with helming one of the most prolonged “handovers” in the game’s history. Although a spirit of cordial co-operation exists between Charnley, Staveley and co, certain decisions are complicated by the need for consultation between all parties.
Last month Bruce appeared so confident the takeover was imminent that he spoke publicly of welcoming the new owners before backing himself to see off potential managerial rivals including Rafael Benítez and Mauricio Pochettino.
Now, though, the feeling that it might all fall through permeates the air at Newcastle’s suburban training ground. Supporters suddenly fear the team’s current 35-point tally may not be sufficient to stave off relegation. The first three league fixtures – at home against Sheffield United, Aston Villa and away at Bournemouth – look freighted with worry.
Should Bruce continue the experiment with the more expansive 4-2-3-1 system he road-tested before lockdown, or revert to Benítez’s old safety-first 3-4-3? The excitement that once surrounded a looming FA Cup quarter-final at home against Manchester City has diminished considerably.
With the sale’s completion seemingly stuck Ashley, who has exchanged contracts and collected a £17m non-refundable deposit, will demand clarification from the Premier League this week. Numerous jobs in his high-street chains could hinge on the answer but it appears he did not bargain for being drawn into the ongoing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Given the narrow parameters of its owners’ and directors’ test, the Premier League’s biggest resultant headache is broadcast piracy. With Saudi Arabia accused of illicitly streaming transmissions from Qatar’s beIN Sports via the illegal beoutQ platform, the league’s intellectual property lawyers and forensic accountants must decide whether there is a legal separation between the Saudi government and PIF. Significantly, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, is PIF’s chairman.
Moreover beIN has a three-year £500m overseas rights deal with the Premier League, running until 2022. A World Trade Organisation report on the piracy issue expected to be highly critical of Saudi Arabia is due for publication on Tuesday.
Although the WTO traditionally sidesteps geopolitical conflict, the Premier League chief executive, Richard Masters, cannot. While Qatar and its slick PR machine has inundated his organisation with a barrage of deeply concerning documentation about Ashley’s proposed successor, the UK has strong business, diplomatic and intelligence ties with Saudi.
Although careful to appear detached, the British government has made encouraging noises about the takeover, telling human rights groups there are grounds for cautious optimism regarding social reform and modernisation in the kingdom.
The Premier League’s delay in the decision making feels increasingly cruel to Newcastle and their supporters.