Sunday, 10 October 2021

The sale of Newcastle United - my football club - has officially gone through, and NUFC is now under the ownership of a consortium led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. 

Many people, myself included, have condemned this move and asked how it can possibly have been allowed to go ahead. Surely, our great sport has to be about more than just money? It certainly is to me, and so many Toon fans have been left facing a moral dilemma. 

St James Park is fully sold out for the next match - something that never once happened under the ownership of Mike Ashley, but I can't judge the fans who are supporting the club but not the owners - they are so desperate for change and for investment in their club. I want these things too, but Newcastle United means too much for me to simply accept it being used to wash over the crimes of a monster.

This club is about so much more than money or success - it's about the local people - and my people cannot look away as our new owner commits genocide against the Yemeni people. We must raise our voices and call for an end to Saudi atrocities because we are so much better than this. You see, football, by bringing people together, is first and foremost about our shared humanity...

Newcastle United has been part of my life since I was a small child.

I remember my mother's boyfriend coming into our bedroom when I was seven years old and my brother was five, and asking which football team we supported.

"Nottingham Forest," I whispered and he looked at me, confused.

"Why would you support Nottingham Forest?" he asked.

"Because that's where my Dad lives," I replied.

It was then he explained that we don't live in Nottingham, that people who were born and raised around here support Newcastle United, that it's in our blood, and from that moment, Newcastle United was my club. 

I quickly learned how the sport of football, and our local club, brought working class people together. Whether that was heading off to the match or gathering to watch in a crowded pub or talking about the result at work or school the day after, football was a focal point of our lives. Matches were something to look forward to. The team was something to rally behind. NUFC generated a level of excitement and passion among fans that was truly legendary. The club was part of us. We were the club.

I remember walking through Newcastle city centre at 7 years old in my green and yellow Newcastle United away shirt in the middle of winter. It was freezing cold, maybe -2 °C, but was I going to complain about the cold? Hell no! We are geordies and whining was not something we did - there were men walking around shirtless, for goodness sake!

We would cram into the Strawberry Pub before the match and I would be utterly dwarfed by the rowdy crowd, sipping froth from my step-father's beer. (I think it was customary to give kids a taste of beer at an early age. We were taught football and beer go together!)

To a tiny 7 year old, The Strawberry was intimidating as hell. I'd be squashed against the bar and none of the patrons seemed the slightest bit concerned about my well-being. I would tolerate their yelling and swearing while I stood muted for maybe two hours. These men were mostly the northern social conservative stereotype of 1990 that politicians believe is representative of northerners today. (It isn't.)

And it's fair to say that while these men were fun and likeable in their own gruff way, I would sometimes hear some rather unpleasant views. There was much to dislike, but plenty to love too, and one thing that shone through was this idea of working class solidarity that football helped to reinforce.

While the experience could, on the surface, seem rather nightmarish, it really wasn't. I felt in those moments I was learning to be a man, and when we left the pub and marched up the road to our magnificent stadium, I was truly in awe. This was the time before the modern St James' Park with the huge cantilever stand, but to a small boy, it was still a magnificent sight.

The beauty of St James' Park back then was you didn't need an expensive ticket to gain entry, because the club was very much about working people. You could simply turn up on the day and pay £4.50 for an adult and £3.50 for a child and you were inside. And if you've never experienced a live football match in one of the old stands which are now rightly banned for safety reasons, you will never understand what that was like. 

The intensity of the atmosphere made it seem like we were entering a seething collosseum to watch gladiators go to war. When we chanted, my neck hairs would stand on end. When the crowd roared, I could feel it inside my bones. When they got excited and charged forward, I was crushed against the concrete barrier, and honestly, I don't know how my rib-cage withstood several dozen bodies pressing against me, but it somehow did. 

The experience was daunting but exhilarating. From the old Gallowgate stand, I could barely see the tiny figures at the other end of the pitch, but the match wasn't something I witnessed so much as felt. And when I heard the cheers from the far end of the stadium, that was often my first indication a goal had been scored, and that was a feeling like no other. It's an experience that just can't be replicated when you're watching on a TV screen at home.

So, yeah, back then this football club was ours, and it mattered

I remember Kevin Keegan coming in to replace Ossie Ardiles and giving us our incredible promotion season. There was no better man-manager than Kevin Keegan - he turned us into English football's great entertainers, and winning wasn't enough for us, we had to win the right way. I remember the epic encounters with Liverpool when we were on the wrong end of 4-3 defeats in incredible games, and people would say we might win more, if we played more defensively, but we wouldn't have had it any other way. 

And we came so close to winning the league the proper way.

Kevin Keegan's outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson in 1996 will live forever in the memory of every Newcastle United fan who witnessed it. The man understood us and he understood what the club meant to the local people and this is why we adored him. The same goes for the late, great Sir Bobby Robson who became manager a few years later. These were men who lit up the city, who knew that when the football team was doing well, the geordies came alive, because working class people, who really didn't have much, needed this in their lives.

Our club was special. And while we never won trophies during these magical periods, we repeatedly came so close, and those memories, those cup finals and second place league finishes are moments every NUFC fan cherishes, in spite of our heartbreak.

It all fell apart for us when Mike Ashley took over the club in 2007. 

Many football fans across the country had expressed concern for some time about the capitalisation of our great sport, about how it was moving away from its socialist ethos, about how it became more about exploiting working people than representing them, but up until that point, NUFC fans could say their chairmen had, despite their faults, been local men who shared a genuine love for the club and invested in it. They wanted success and were in the sport mostly for the right reasons.

But now our club was in the hands of Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct, someone who appeared to be the worst kind of capitalist and who had no connection to the local area. It felt like our club had been hijacked. And for years, we put up with dreadful managerial appointments and our best players being sold for huge sums without that money being reinvested. (Andy Carroll, anyone?) The club was no longer a credible force and this was entirely down to the way it was run. 

Kevin Keegan had a short-lived return to the club in 2008 and was promised a huge transfer budget, only for the boardroom to openly mock him, the moment he showed interest in any quality player he was told we could afford. Those bastards humiliated a local legend and that was unforgiveable. 

Kevin Keegan was forced out, and he made it abundantly clear, the club would never go anywhere under the ownership of Mike Ashley. From that moment, us fans were simply biding our time, desperately waiting for Ashley to sell the club he'd ruined and let us rebuild, and now it has finally happened.

We have new owners who are indicating they will invest in the club and turn it into a credible force, once again. We should be ecstatic, and yet the biggest investor, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is, by all accounts, a tyrant. We are told this is a man who carved a journalist into pieces for embarrassing him. We are told he is one of the worst human rights abusers on Earth. And now our club could be on the verge of greatness, but any success would be purchased with blood money and used simply as reputational management for a brutal dictator.

The thought is horrifying.

We have not won a major trophy since the Fair's Cup (now the UEFA cup) in 1969. We have not won a domestic trophy since the FA Cup in 1955, during the era of the great Jackie Milburn, the legendary striker known affectionately to fans as "Wor Jackie". 

By God, we so desperately want this football club to succeed, but to succeed in this way? From me, it would be a hard no.

I can honestly say the period I've most enjoyed football in recent years was when Newcastle United was relegated, not because I enjoyed the idea of relegation - that was horrible - but for a brief time, the game was not about the mindless accumulation of wealth, and during that period, the club felt like it was back in the hands of the fans. That period emphasised football is not simply about winning, it is first and foremost about community, about humanity, and in my mind, it is not worth sacrificing our values for success.