AN ALTERNATIVE VOICE
A platform for a different view on the ownership of NUFC is much-needed. Unfortunately, neither the Supporters Trust, nor True Faith can provide it.
Written by Andrew Page
Long ago, back in January 2008, Michael Martin, then the Editor of what until this month was the only Newcastle United fanzine, True Faith, used his platform to share his thoughts on reports that some Liverpool fans were hoping for a change in their club’s ownership.
“The most hilarious thing is they want some Arabs to take over at Anfield. Is this the club of Shankly and Paisley? Jesus!” he wrote. 
But it seems that nearly 15 years later, he doesn’t hold his own club in anything like the same regard. No longer the editor of True Faith, he still writes a regular column for the fanzine’s now well-established website. Recently he successfully applied for a position on the board of Newcastle United Supporter’s Trust, a post he has held before.
He has strongly backed the Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United ever since it was first mooted as a serious proposition in January 2020, when he wrote that: “The Saudis, like Abu Dhabi and Qatar, are keen on improving a reputation seriously compromised by medieval social policy, topping troublesome journalists in their Embassies and bombing the fuck out of the Yemen.
“They are said to be keen on a bit of modernising of their image, and football is felt to be one way of doing that. Nice. That works for us.” 
And then later in April 2020, when it seemed that the takeover was set to be completed at any moment, he defended Newcastle fans from what he perceived as media criticism: “We’ve also heard some coverage related to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. No person of conscience would seriously overlook this.
“However, we the supporters of Newcastle United, being teed up by journalists to object to the takeover, really matter here. All about the empty headlines and clicks to satisfy their bosses.
“We don’t have a say. Just like we didn’t have a say when Prince Charles attended the funeral of King Abdullah of the House of Saud with the Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015.” 
But when the takeover stalled a few months later, Martin’s belief in the power of fans to effect change was fully restored, as he urged fans to engage with the Newcastle United Supporters Trust to protest against the Premier League: “If we are going to respond to Staveley’s call for supporters to do something now, then it has to be properly convened.
“The Newcastle United Supporters Trust should lead this … Let’s wait for the next steps but in the meantime let us be under no illusions, the Premier League is compromised, potentially corrupt and the enemy of us all. Sign the petition but let’s get ready to do more and join the Newcastle United Supporters Trust.” 
By the time the takeover was completed, the Supporters Trust membership had risen to approximately 13,000 members, and it is probably the second largest Trust in the UK. The petition promoted by Martin included the following lines:
“Mohammed Bin Salman, who is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is an ally of the UK government and royal family, [and] has been integral in supporting the UK with the outbreak of Covid-19 along with reforming the KSA policies on human rights.” 
Despite containing that abysmal propaganda, the petition was signed by 130,000 people and was one of the most headline grabbing aspects of the fan-led pro takeover protests, which, if nothing else, proved that Newcastle fans remain more than capable of organizing around the question of ownership should they want to.
When the takeover was completed, new part-owner Amanda Staveley thanked supporters: “You are the best fans in the whole world and we wouldn’t be here without your patience and persistence.” 
So perhaps fans can hold some influence over these matters after all.
Although Michael Martin still writes his regular column in the fanzine, he is no longer True Faith’s Editor – that role now falls to Alex Hurst. Hurst is also on the board of the Supporters Trust, and was recently its Chair. He is regularly contacted by the media to give a fan’s perspective on events at Newcastle United.
In May 2020, in a BBC report headlined ‘Fans vow to raise Saudi issues despite support for deal’, Hurst was quoted telling fans that “we exist to be a critical friend of the club, and hold them to account.”
Supporters Trust board member Greg Tomlinson added: “It’s not impossible to be excited about Mike Ashley’s departure and still feel concerned about the [human rights] issues” 
But the previous month, Hurst had told The Observer: “the involvement of Saudi Arabian wealth in the takeover is not a concern right now.” 
And in May 2020, he told the Guardian Football Weekly podcast that: “I wish we had a say in who Mike Ashley sold the club to, but we don’t.” He went on to say: “the vast majority of fans will look at this from a purely football perspective and think ... I’m going to judge them by what they do at Newcastle United. The other stuff isn’t relevant to me.
“People listening might think that’s awful and abhorrent, but that’s how the vast majority of fans view things, and I don’t have a problem with that.” 
Which does make you question how determined Hurst and the Supporters Trust were to act as a critical friend holding the club to account.
While Amanda Staveley and her husband Merhdad Ghoudoussi have been the face of the takeover, they only own a 10% stake in the club.
The real decision-making power lies with new club chairman Yasser Al Rumayyan, who also holds a far more significant role as the governor of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), which must make him one of the most powerful men in Saudi Arabia. Al Rumayyan has recounted how he was personally selected by Mohammed Bin Salman for the job. PIF now hold an 80% stake in the club.
When the takeover was completed, Tomlinson, who was then the chair of the Supporter’s Trust, decided to write an open letter to the new owners, beginning: “Dear His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Amanda, and Jamie, Welcome to Newcastle United!” 
The following paragraphs made no mention of war, man-made famine, arms deals, executions, murder, oppression or any of the other issues you’d expect a concerned fan or critical friend to raise when addressing the bagman for a despotic regime like Saudi Arabia.
Around the same time Tomlinson drafted his letter, Hurst was recording the True Faith podcast, which usually goes out to between 5,000 and 10,000 fans each week.
“This is probably what it was like when we won the war!” , he declared, before going on to add: “If you’re listening to this and thinking about ringing me about human rights, fuck off. We don’t care, we’re all absolutely buzzing. It’s a media thing. It’s not real.” 
In April 2022, Hurst, Tomlinson, and current Supporters Trust chair Thomas Concannon were pictured in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle newspaper posing with Staveley and her husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi at St James Park. It turned out they’d taken part in a seventy-five minute meeting, and the Trust representatives had been impressed.
“They are phenomenal people, they get Newcastle United. They are incredibly ambitious, you cannot fail to be impressed when you spend time in their company.” said Tomlinson.
And when it came to specific issues that might concern supporters, he said: “We can help them and work with them on issues that impact supporters like ticketing, improvements to St James’ Park and the matchday experience. It can be very beneficial to both sides.” 
The considerably more glaring issues don’t appear to have been mentioned – and so an opportunity to discuss the enormous concerns caused by Saudi involvement in our club and city seems to have been missed. Two weeks later, Hurst shared a video which he appeared to have taken from the director’s box at the Crystal Palace match. 
One of the other fan organizations connected to Newcastle United is a group called Wor Flags, a group of fans dedicated to enhancing the atmosphere at St James Park. Since the takeover was completed, they have gained national attention with a series of eye-catching choreographed displays of flags and banners. According to his profile on The Supporter’s Trust website, Thomas Concannon is a member.
When the Saudi-led takeover initially looked set to be completed, two Wor Flags members named as Thomas and Chris, were interviewed by German news outlet DW.
They expressed the same sense of helplessness that was felt by both Hurst and Martin.
Thomas told DW that: “We feel powerless. In England, the fans don’t have any say in their football clubs. Clubs are simply passed around to whoever has the most money.” But the two fans did add that: “If we felt that the Saudis were abusing women’s rights, we would consider a display featuring a female fan in a black and white top”. 
However, like Hurst and Martin, Wor Flags members were able to set aside these feelings of helplessness to protest in support of the takeover when it seemed to have collapsed. Flags and banners that were critical of the FA and Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical rival Qatar were created and displayed outside St James’ Park. 
Meanwhile, there isn’t any doubt that women are being persecuted by Saudi Arabia. At the time of writing, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani has just been sentenced to 45 years in prison for her social media activity, the latest of a number of women to suffer draconian punishment at the hands of the Saudi authorities in recent times.
But I’ve yet to see any reference to this in any of the group’s impressive large scale flag displays on matchday.
On the other hand, I have spotted an image of bin Salman’s lackey, Yasser al Rammayan in the middle of the most prominent banner at the season ending display at the home match v Arsenal. 
The ‘who we are’ section of the Supporters Trust website includes the profiles of its 13 board members. Three of them make reference to their involvement with the True Faith fanzine in their profiles, while another has edited True Faith on at least one occasion.  Two of the other board members refer to their involvement with Wor Flags. 
In August of this year, Martin complained that he had been “upset and exercised by some of the absolutist crap said and written about Newcastle United”. He said: “We routinely have our views dismissed ... and horribly caricaturised [sic] as willing dupes for a regime any sane person regards as cruel and repressive.”  Well he’s right about that. What else could he expect?
I have seen it suggested that fans opposed to the current ownership of the club should leave the issue in the hands of the Supporters Trust, while others have encouraged engagement with True Faith.
However, I have yet to see the Supporters Trust do anything remotely critical of the current ownership.
True Faith has published two submissions from NUFC Against Sportswashing on their website, but attached lengthy disclaimers to each of them distancing themselves from the content. These are the only articles I have seen them publish that have received this treatment. There does need to be a platform for an alternative view on the club’s ownership, but I do not think that either of these groups can provide this.
1. True Faith issue 63, page 61
2. TAKEOVER – IS THIS IT? - True Faith
3. TAKEOVER – Fake News - True Faith
4. TAKEOVER – What Happens Next? - True Faith
5. Newcastle fans launch petition to have Premier League investigated over collapsed Saudi Arabian takeover - The Independent
6. ‘We are honoured’ - Watch Amanda Staveley’s exciting message to Newcastle United fans after takeover - Shields Gazette
7. Newcastle United takeover: Fans vow to raise Saudi issues despite support for deal - BBC Sport
8. Newcastle takeover: ‘This is a chance to become a seriously big club again’ - Newcastle United - The Guardian
9. Football Weekly podcast, 28 May 2020, 11mins 10 seconds, 29mins 58 seconds
10. Newcastle United Supporters Trust send message to new owners after takeover confirmation - Shields Gazette
11. NUFC Podcast: Newcastle United sold to Amanda Staveley, Jamie Rueben and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, 7 October 2021, 6 minutes 6 seconds, True Faith
12. NUFC Podcast: Newcastle United sold to Amanda Staveley, Jamie Rueben and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, 7 October 2021, 22 minutes 44 seconds, True Faith
13. Inside the ‘exciting’ 75-minute Newcastle boardroom meeting which represents ‘huge step forward’ - Chronicle Live
15. Saudi Arabia and Newcastle United: Deal follows Qatari agreement and assurances to Premier League - Sports - German football and major international sports news - DW
16. Newcastle Fan Group Objects To What Increasingly Looks Like An Inwardly Corrupt Premier League - The Newcastle United Blog
19. About Us – Newcastle United Supporters Trust
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