Like it or not, Newcastle United cannot be ignored any longer

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England -- The Strawberry is an institution in Newcastle. The pub, right across the street from the steps of the Gallowgate End at St James' Park, is a living monument to Premier League club Newcastle United and has been a constant on the city's landscape since 1859, long before the club and stadium arrived in the 1890s. It is where Newcastle supporters have celebrated or consoled themselves for over a century.

There are pictures of the great teams of the past -- the three-time FA Cup winners of the 1950s; the winners of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the original version of the Europa League) in 1969 -- and there is a framed shirt, alongside an old supporters' wooden rattle, with a badge declaring Newcastle as "League Champions, Division 1, 1926-27."

But virtually everything is in black-and-white. Not as a tribute to Newcastle United's traditional colours, but because it has been so long since the club won a trophy that there were no colour photographs to document the success. The last time Newcastle won anything, Neil Armstrong was still a month away from becoming the first human to walk on the Moon. Since that Fairs Cup win against Hungary's Ujpesti Dozsa, no club in Europe as big as Newcastle has waited so long for a major trophy. Hamburg (1987), Torino (1993), Everton (1995), Espanyol (2006) and Saint-Etienne (2013) don't even come close.

- Carabao Cup final: LIVE Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET on ESPN+ (U.S.)

When Newcastle face Manchester United at Wembley in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday, their opponents will be aiming to end their six-year trophy drought -- a fraction of Newcastle's 54-year wait for glory.

Prior to Saturday's 2-0 loss to Liverpool in the Premier League, stalls were already selling scarves and flags for the cup final. As Jurgen Klopp's team coasted to victory, St James' Park wasn't silent or ringing to the sound of frustration, it was a wall of noise with fans singing about Wembley. A source told ESPN that some fans are already paying touts over £1,000 for tickets with a face value of less than £100.

"It's hard to put into words what it will mean if Newcastle win the cup," Thomas Concannon of Newcastle fans' group, Wor Flags, told ESPN. "For so long, it has felt as though we had no chance, that the previous owners didn't care enough to invest in the pursuit of success, so to be within 90 minutes of a first trophy for over a half a century feels incredible."

Newcastle have been runners-up in the Premier League (twice), FA Cup (three times) and Carabao Cup (once) during their drought, but there have also been four relegations, 32 managers and a series of owners.

There was a time when the ownership of the club was a local affair -- boyhood supporters who grew into successful businessmen, such as Sir John Hall and Freddie Shepherd, whose affiliation saw them spend huge sums to sign players to try to deliver success. Hall beat Manchester United to the signing of Alan Shearer for a then-world record £15 million in 1996, while Shepherd sanctioned the £16.5m deal for Michael Owen from Real Madrid in 2005.

Under Hall and then Shepherd, Newcastle had the ambition to match the appetite of the fans. As manager, Kevin Keegan built one of the most exciting teams of the Premier League era in the 1990s, almost winning the title in 1995-96, and they were nicknamed "The Entertainers" due to their attacking style. Newcastle's collapse that season, when they were overtaken by Manchester United, prompted Keegan's infamous "I would love it" rant in a postmatch interview in which he hit out at United manager Sir Alex Ferguson's so-called mind games during the title run-in.

There were also good times under Keegan's successor, Kenny Dalglish, whose team beat Barcelona 3-2 in a dramatic win in 1997, while Sir Bobby Robson also took the team back into the Champions League in the early 2000s.

There was always a connection between the boardroom and the terraces -- a board of local businessmen, chaired by Lord William Westwood, was in charge when Newcastle won the Fairs Cup in 1969 -- but the 2007 takeover by London-based retail billionaire Mike Ashley led to resentment from the supporters at his lack of investment on and off the pitch. Under Ashley, Newcastle went into a steep decline.

But it is the club's present owners that have led to Newcastle United causing controversy. For Newcastle fans, what was once a fairy tale of the club finally winning a trophy is now a different story due to Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) acquiring an 80% stake in the club in October 2021. The PIF is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia with assets of $620 billion (£500bn), so Newcastle are now backed by owners with a seemingly bottomless pit of money with which to transform the club.

It means that, sooner or later, the walls of The Strawberry will boast new images of success. There may also be pictures of Newcastle winning silverware wearing the green-and-white of Saudi Arabia.

Amanda Staveley is waiting to board Saudia flight 540 from Riyadh to Doha. It is the morning after Newcastle's friendly game against Saudi champions Al Hilal in December -- the club's first game in Saudi Arabia since the takeover -- and a smiling Staveley is chatting to the club's supporters in the queue. The 49-year-old is Newcastle's co-owner, having acquired a 10% stake in the club through her company, PCP Capital Partners, at the time of the £305m takeover. Reuben Brothers, a private equity company based in Geneva and London, also owns 10%.

Staveley has become the face of Newcastle since the takeover was completed 16 months ago. The fans regard her as something of a saviour and she is popular, with her accessibility and readiness to engage seen as a total contrast to the Ashley regime. Prior to her involvement with Newcastle, the Dubai-based financier acted for Thaksin Shinawatra during his sale of Manchester City to Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan in 2008 and she was also involved in Dubai International Capital's unsuccessful bid to buy Liverpool in the same year.

But while Staveley is a regular at Newcastle fixtures and is the point of contact for manager Eddie Howe, the real power at the club is held by the PIF. They are the reason why Newcastle are now, in many respects, the richest football club in the world.

Their purchase of the club remains controversial, however. An initial attempt to buy Newcastle in April 2020 was abandoned three months later, with the consortium frustrated by the Premier League's delay in sanctioning the takeover. It was resurrected 1½ years later, but the Saudis refused to participate in the Premier League's "owners' and directors' test," which was central to the requirement of proof that the Saudi state would not control the PIF and, in turn, the football club. Without the transparency of submitting to the test, the deal could not proceed or be sanctioned.

In October 2021, the Premier League announced that the PIF had provided "legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United." Premier League chief executive Richard Masters subsequently told the BBC that "no pressure was applied" by the UK government to approve the takeover. But documents released by the UK Department for International Trade in response to a freedom of information request by openDemocracy in September 2022 show that Lord Gerry Grimstone, a former investment banker appointed as Minister for Investment by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, liaised between the Premier League and Saudi government to navigate a route to a successful takeover. Saudi Arabia is 16th on the list of the UK's biggest trading partners, with total exports to Saudi worth £10.4bn in 2022.

But widespread opposition to the takeover, including from the Qatari-owned beIN SPORTS due to allegations of Saudi-backed illegal streaming of their Premier League match broadcasts, overshadowed the process. Saudi Arabia's human rights record and the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi -- in 2019, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a 101-page report holding Saudi Arabia responsible for Khashoggi's "premeditated extrajudicial execution" -- also led to claims that the planned purchase of Newcastle was an exercise in "sportswashing" by the Saudis.

Khashoggi's widow, Hatice Cengiz, told Sky News after the takeover was completed: "It is so sad, it is a real shame for Newcastle and English football. The current Saudi regime has a crown prince who is managing everything in the country. The point is this -- how do the players, the fans and the director of Newcastle accept this situation?"

Supporters of German team Mainz called on the Bundesliga club to cancel a friendly against Newcastle last July, citing Saudi "sportswashing" and "human rights constantly violated" in the country. The game went ahead, despite the protests.

And although senior figures at Premier League teams largely maintained a public silence on the takeover, Karren Brady, the West Ham United vice-chair, criticised Newcastle fans "with their dubious moral dilemmas, saying this was an issue for another day" in her newspaper column.

Similar issues are likely to be raised if Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani's interest in Manchester United progresses to the point of the Premier League needing assurances that the state of Qatar will have no direct involvement.

"Saudi Arabia's purchase of Newcastle United was arguably the moment Saudi Arabia's aggressive sportswashing programme achieved lift-off," Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK's Economic Affairs Director, told ESPN. "Riyadh's ownership of one of English football's most prestigious clubs is part of a growing portfolio of Saudi-backed sporting ventures, with sport and entertainment increasingly being used by the Saudi authorities to refashion the country's image and help distract attention from an appalling human rights record.

"Saudi Arabia's failure to effectively investigate the murder of Khashoggi is just one example of a grossly dysfunctional justice system, while its bloody record in Yemen -- where thousands of civilians have been killed in indiscriminate bombing -- has similarly exposed Saudi Arabia's institutional impunity in relation to serious human rights violations.

"With the LIV golf series, the hosting of numerous major boxing bouts and even reports of a bid to acquire the entire Formula One business, Saudi Arabia's ownership at St James' Park is just one part of Saudi Arabia's growing sportswashing empire."

For Newcastle's supporters, though, the takeover was greeted with joy and celebration. The new ownership was one element, but ridding the club of Ashley, was another key factor. Under his 14-year tenure, Newcastle went into decline and were twice relegated to the Championship before regaining promotion.

"The initial reaction to the takeover was 'thank God Ashley has gone,'" Concannon said. "During his time, the club was striving only for mediocrity and simply happy to exist. For so many fans, the takeover was seen as something that finally gave us a chance."

Sam Fender, the award-winning singer and Newcastle supporter, joined in the celebrations outside St James' when Ashley was replaced, even giving an impromptu performance outside The Strawberry. Like many fans, Fender admitted to being conflicted by the change of ownership.

"It's obviously quite a contentious situation," Fender told the BBC on the morning after those celebrations. "I'm just really happy for the fans, I'm happy for the city and I'm happy for what might come of it economically, for my place, my town.

"It's a bittersweet moment. We're chuffed, but there is a lot of stuff in question that we probably need some transparency on in the future."

ESPN has repeatedly contacted United With Pride, a group of LGBT+ Newcastle supporters, for their perspective on the new owners who are backed by a regime which retains the death penalty for acts of homosexuality, but did not receive a reply. But Concannon says that the politics of the takeover have been difficult for many Newcastle supporters on a variety of levels.

"I think a lot of Newcastle fans have felt attacked by the reaction to the takeover," he said. "At the beginning, you would have television crews speaking to random people in the streets, asking what they thought of the new owners and Saudi Arabia and I don't think the vast majority of the fans and people in general had any knowledge of the situation to base an opinion on.

"It's a tough one for many fans and a really difficult topic to talk about. The ownership of football clubs now is a much bigger issue than merely what's happening at Newcastle and it would need a drastic change in regulations for the situation to change in general. But this isn't just about football in Newcastle. The new owners are also involved in helping to regenerate the city and this is a region of the country that has missed that kind of investment for far too long."

And that, in many ways, is why there is a resentment within Newcastle to the criticism that the club and its supporters have received since the takeover -- a feeling that the club and the city have become a punchbag through no fault of their own.

In the first game at St James' Park post-Ashley, the stadium was illuminated by thousands of black-and-white flags -- Wor Flags produced the displays and had boycotted the stadium during the final months of the Ashley regime -- and a huge banner was unfurled at the Gallowgate End, bearing a lyric from "Big River," a song by local artist Jimmy Nail about the decline of the shipyards on the River Tyne: "Cause this is a mighty town built upon a solid ground, and everything they've tried so hard to kill, we will rebuild."

Newcastle-upon-Tyne is a town whose mood and prosperity can be directly linked to the success, or otherwise, of the football team. The club's supporters describe St James' Park as the "Cathedral on the Hill" due to the ground looming over the city, visible from all directions. It is a one-club town -- you don't see people wearing Liverpool or Manchester United shirts in Newcastle. And the stadium is legendary for its atmosphere and noise. David Pleat, the former Tottenham Hotspur manager, once likened playing there to being surrounded by "50,000 baying zebras."

"It's very hard for people who haven't lived in the city to understand, but if the football team is doing well, the city has a swagger about it," Luke Edwards, the Daily Telegraph journalist who has covered the club for over 20 years, told ESPN. "Even people who have no interest in football, never watched a game, they know how Newcastle got on at the weekend. It means that much to everyday life.

"Under Eddie Howe, since the takeover, it feels like the city has come alive again. The city centre is thriving and has filled up with bars and nightclubs again. It feels like a city with spring in its step.

"And the fans support their football team, like they always have done. They aren't thinking about geopolitics and sportswashing on a match day."

Howe's squad spent a week in Riyadh during the World Cup, using the trip as a warm-weather midseason training camp before facing Al Hilal in a friendly game which was won 5-0. Just a few days before Newcastle arrived, across the border in Qatar, the Saudi Arabia national team had stunned the world by beating Argentina 2-1.

During their friendly, Newcastle played in their third alternate kit; white shirt and green shorts, the colours of Saudi Arabia. The choice of Newcastle's playing colours is unlikely to be an issue that comes across the desk of the Crown Prince, who chairs the PIF, but nonetheless, for a club that has attempted to play down any connections with the Saudi regime, adopting the colours of the Saudi Arabian flag was provocative.

And Howe has consistently attempted to steer clear of the controversy over the club's owners. When asked about Saudi Arabia's involvement, the state's human rights record and allegations of sportswashing, Howe repeatedly responds by saying he "doesn't feel qualified" to speak on the matter and will "stick to the football."

Ahead of the Liverpool game last week, protest group NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing sent a letter to Howe, urging him to speak out against "torture, unfair trials and execution" in Saudi Arabia. "Surely Eddie Howe now has sufficient knowledge to speak up on the crimes his employers are committing in Saudi Arabia?" NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing said.

But while in Riyadh, it was clear that Newcastle are not yet at the forefront of Saudi Arabia's political or football sphere. Prior to the game against Al Hilal, the majority of the club's non-football staff were told to check out of their hotel rooms and move because a delegation of Chinese government officials, travelling with President Xi Jinping for his summit with the Crown Prince, required accommodation. And at the game, hundreds of seats were empty as Howe's players performed in front of a crowd made up of locals backing Al Hilal, but also wearing Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea shirts.

Cristiano Ronaldo's rumoured move to Riyadh-based team Al Nassr was the main topic of conversation among English-speaking fans at the game and, in conversation with hotel staff or Uber drivers about football, Newcastle didn't get a mention. The most popular players, judging by those conversations, are Paul Pogba, Mohamed Salah and Lionel Messi. And across the road from Newcastle's hotel, a Nike store was decorated by an oversize image of Manchester United's Marcus Rashford. As yet, there is still no club outlet selling Newcastle merchandise in the Saudi capital.

Newcastle's popularity and importance in Saudi Arabia is likely to grow, however, with success on the pitch. Following the completion of the takeover, Staveley stated that winning the Premier League and competing in the Champions League were the ultimate goals of the new owners.

"You've seen PSG or Manchester City and they want to win the Champions League. That is the ultimate," Staveley said. "Is that the same for us? Of course. We have the same ambitions in terms of trophies, yes absolutely, but that will take time."

At the time, Newcastle were in the Premier League relegation zone, but the appointment of Howe as manager in November 2021 was the first step towards stabilising the club. Since then, he has revived the team, far exceeding expectations at this stage of the Saudi project. Less than 18 months after the takeover, Newcastle are fifth in the Premier League, challenging for Champions League qualification and also preparing to play in their first major cup final this century. They have lost just twice in the league all season -- with both defeats coming against Liverpool. And Howe's team has the best defence by some distance, allowing just 15 goals in 23 games; Arsenal and Chelsea share the second-best record, conceding 23 times each.

Newcastle have always been regarded as a sleeping giant, a club that just needs sound management and investment to align with the passionate and sizeable fan base, so they are a clear threat to the so-called Big Six. Chelsea (under Roman Abramovich) and Manchester City (following Sheikh Mansour's takeover) have been the two clubs to emerge since the turn of the century and both have been propelled to the top by huge outside investment, so Newcastle are expected to follow the same path, albeit with financial fair play regulations (FFP) in place that are likely to delay their rise.

Adhering to the financial regulations is crucial -- City have recently been charged with 115 breaches of Premier League rules between 2009-10 and 2017-18. If found guilty by an independent commission they could be fined, docked points or even relegated from the top flight. City maintain their innocence against the charges.

Chelsea and City were able to spend heavily without such restrictions, but as Newcastle grow on the field and commercially, the investment will grow accordingly. The Big Six know that it is only a matter of time before Newcastle either dislodge a club from that group or increase its ranks to seven.

Large sums of money have been spent on new signings; the £40m January arrival of Everton forward Anthony Gordon late in the January window took the total outlay to £275m since the takeover, while they broke their transfer record to bring in striker Alexander Isak for £62m in the summer. However, the spending spree has not mirrored what Manchester City described as their "accelerated acquisition strategy" in the early stages of Sheikh Mansour's ownership. And with Chelsea investing more than £600m on new players in two transfer windows since the Todd Boehly-led takeover at Stamford Bridge last summer, Newcastle's recruitment to date has been relatively unremarkable.

FFP has limited Newcastle's ability to spend due to, with inflation, a real-terms fall in commercial revenue and turnover during Ashley's reign as owner. When he arrived in 2007, Newcastle's commercial income was £27.6m. It had climbed to just £29m in 2020. But it is clear that the club will become a major player in the transfer market in the near future. Champions League qualification, and the prize money that accompanies it, will only accelerate that progression. The more money Newcastle earn, the more they can spend.

"While money has been spent, the owners haven't gone crazy with it," Concannon said. "The signings, such as Kieran Trippier, Dan Burn, Sven Botman and Bruno Guimaraes, have been smart, but the real credit has to go to Eddie Howe.

"He has transformed players like Joelinton, Miguel Almiron and Sean Longstaff, who had dropped to rock-bottom under previous manager Steve Bruce. Eddie has revitalised the club."

Off the field, Newcastle have also been strategic when it comes to rebuilding the backroom team. Dan Ashworth, the man who built Brighton & Hove Albion's widely respected recruitment model during his time as technical director, was hired in February last year to become sporting director at St James' Park, charged with performing the same structural reset. Darren Eales, the former Atlanta United CEO, was recruited last July to fulfil the same role at Newcastle, with both Eales and Ashworth overseeing the construction of a new training ground. But it is ultimately what happens on the pitch that matters to Newcastle and their supporters, in every sense.

"Everyone is just desperate to win a trophy," Concannon said. "I know only a handful of people who remember the Fairs Cup win in 1969 and there can't be many left who saw Newcastle win their last domestic trophy in 1955.

"People I speak to are already talking about whether we should stay in London or race back to Newcastle to celebrate if we win the Carabao Cup because the party will be unbelievable. We just have to win it now."

Like it or not, Newcastle United are going to be challenging for all the major honours in the years to come. They are following in the path of Manchester City and the Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain, clubs owned by nations made wealthy on the back of oil and gas, and more may yet emerge.

But in Newcastle, rightly or wrongly, football comes first.