clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Different Kind of Moneyball: Newcastle United Is Finding Out What Winning in the Premier League Really Costs

Last year, Newcastle United, the deeply beloved and perpetually mismanaged team from North East England, was taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Now fans are finding themselves in the middle of a debate around money in the game, and what a foreign country wants with a football club.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last November, on an early-morning train from London to Newcastle, in the north of England, I saw a drunk fellow in a white robe. The outfit, I knew, was supposed to simulate the attire of a traditional Saudi Arabian man. It was not a breathable material, this cheap polyester ordered off the internet. It was absolutely roasting him. He was red-faced with the booze and the shame, but mostly the booze.

His friends, all around him, were exuding the very specific aura generated by drinking bottles of Stella plucked out of plastic takeaway bags. They called him by his nickname, which also happened to be the name of a classic Disney character. Let’s say Cinderella.

Cinderella was a supporter of Newcastle United and he didn’t want to talk to me, but his friends screamed at him until he did. He explained, “It’s my stag do”—his bachelor party. “Everyone made me wear this.” He looked down, as if realizing again that he was, indeed, still wearing the robe. He unfurled it over his jeans and black sneakers and looked up at me, almost bashfully: “It is full length.”

One of the pals shouted, “This man is a very religious man!” Another countered, “The sheikh look is very in, that’s what it is.” Cinderella ignored them and tried to explain it all himself. “What you’re fishing for is, ‘Are you wearing this because the sheikhs have took over?’ And the answer, probably, is yes.”

A few weeks before Cinderella’s train ride, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia paid the better part of £300 million to take control of Newcastle United. The response from commentators in London was nearly hegemonic. They said the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should not be able to abuse the tradition of English football to burnish its public image. They said this was the most egregious case of sportswashing the country had ever seen.

But in Newcastle—where the industries of shipbuilding and coal mining had once boomed and then collapsed—the people partied. In front of the club’s stadium, St. James’ Park, on a hill in the center of the city, masses of wide-eyed youth materialized to drink and sing “we’ve got our club back.” Newcastle United were free of their loathed owner, the bumbling sporting goods billionaire Mike Ashley. And they were rich to a degree that was frankly bizarre.

On Takeover Day, as they’d come to call it, the locals, the Geordies, waved the green-and-white flag of Saudi Arabia, which reads, in Arabic, “There is no god but Allah.” The more industrious of the lot had prepared Saudi-style thobes in the black and white of Newcastle United. The lazier had wrapped tea towels on their head, in an approximation of Saudi-style ghutras. That last bit almost felt too on the nose. A straining metaphor to describe the State of Northern England Today. But it all actually happened.

And they celebrated Amanda Staveley, a Dubai-based financier and scion of Yorkshire landed gentry. She’d spearheaded the deal on behalf of the Saudi fund PIF and negotiated herself a 10 percent ownership stake and the title of director, which meant she was effectively running the club day to day. One banner hung on the facade of St. James’ Park was dotted with photos of a beaming Staveley. Another banner read “Until Amanda I was never happy.”

“It was windy and dark and warm,” Adam Widdrington, a writer for the Newcastle fanzine True Faith, would tell me later over the din in a packed Newcastle pub. “It just felt—palpable. Car horns in the distance. Smoke bombs going off. People chanting. It was a cathartic release from this malaise that we’ve been under. Everyone was absolutely shitfaced.” Widdrington couldn’t stop thinking, with joy, about his 4-year-old son, Milo. About how this deal might affect the rest of Milo’s life. “He’ll have great memories! Seeing goals scored! In his formative years. That’s something for life. No matter what happens after that, that matters.”

The deal had nearly come together once before, in the summer of 2020, but stalled. In response, then Newcastle City Council leader Pat Ritchie wrote a letter to the Premier League saying the takeover would “make a real difference to the lives of disadvantaged children” and asked for an opportunity to “share the wider investment ambitions” of PIF, Staveley, and their other partners, the Iraqi English Jewish billionaire Reuben family. In about as blunt a manner as she could politely manage, Ritchie was saying we need the fucking money.

The U.K. is now in its 13th year of austerity, a wide-ranging Conservative Party mandate to cut the social safety net. In the North East, the austerity era has coincided with a bevy of troubling statistics: rising childhood poverty, the highest rates of personal insolvency in England, the highest rate of suicide. When elected prime minister in 2019, Boris Johnson promised a “leveling up” of “every part of the U.K.” and then created a vaguely defined “leveling-up fund” to distribute funds to deprived areas. But in the North East, there is widespread resentment that “leveling up” hasn’t yet amounted to anything.

In the first match after the takeover, fans held up a banner quoting “Big River,” Jimmy Nail’s ode to Newcastle’s fallen industrial past: “’Cause this is a mighty town / built upon a solid ground / and everything they’ve tried so hard to kill / we will rebuild.” While the country watched in horror as the Geordies bear-hugged PIF, locally the word was this: The working-class town of Newcastle, and its beloved football club, will rise again—thanks to Staveley’s dealmaking and loads of Saudi cash.

The investment from PIF felt like a deus ex machina. An all-powerful entity meddling in fallible human affairs. In 2022 in North East England, it seemed impossible that your best shot at resurgence was being blessed by an oil-rich, murderously autocratic theocracy. But it was true.

Getty Images

Once our train made it to Newcastle, I saw that our boozy Cinderella was a one-off today. Outside of St. James’ Park, where Newcastle would later face the London club Brentford, it was all folks in their Newcastle black-and-whites, buzzing off potential. Brentford was playing their first-ever Premier League season after being promoted from the Championship. At the time of the takeover, Newcastle were the worst team in the league. This match was a prime target for Newcastle’s first win of the season.

At a nearby market, a man named Abrar was selling keffiyehs. Post-takeover sales were disappointingly flat, he told me, and then he got bored and I asked about football, and he instantly switched into aggro mode. “The clubs down south have had it good for too long. They are now suffering from a state of paranoia. And they’re throwing their toys out of the pram. We up north, we take it as it comes. I’ll tell these top six clubs: You’ll just have to see.”

Across from one of the stadium’s entrances, there was a stand offering free tea with a sign reading ASK A MUSLIM. One of its proprietors, Sahil, explained that the guys there were all born-and-raised Geordies from the Islamic Diversity Centre and they’d never before set up the table at St. James’ Park, but with this sea change they saw an opportunity to clarify misconceptions and let Newcastle fans ask questions. He said, delicately, “People are noticing Muslims a lot more.”

Down the street, an aspiring influencer was filming content. His name was Abdulrahman and he was studying at a local university. He was actually from Saudi Arabia, was dressed in the thobe and the ghutra and carrying the Saudi flag, and he was being stopped for selfies by an endless string of kids in high fades and Supreme beanies. He was making dual-language content with an English guy named Abz. Their YouTube show was called SMB TV, for “Saudi Meets Britain.”

Abz asked fans, “What do you think of the takeover?” One took a split second, then broke out into a grin and an impromptu song. “Geordie boys! We’re rich as fuck! Geooooordie boys, we’re rich as fuuuuck!” Another, unbidden, told Abdulrahman he wore a thobe himself on Halloween, then ticked off the reasons why. “One, it was cheap. Sixteen quid. Everything else was 25. The other reason? Takeover, mate!”

Down the street, at a souvenir shop, I spotted my first bit of real-life Staveley reverence. Alongside mini Saudi flags and a baby onesie reading “nee cheesy chips in this tummy” the store was selling a framed drawing of Staveley, in flowing white robes, superimposed on a local sculpture known as the Angel of the North.

Online, I’d already seen plenty of Staveley love. One local man attained notoriety when he tweeted a promise to commemorate the takeover with a Staveley tattoo. A local cartoonist now sells shirts reading “I want to snog Amanda.” There were lots of variations on “Wor Lass,” a Geordie phrase meaning “our girl”: “Wor Mandy,” “Wor Amanda.” “She’s our Mandy,” True Faith wrote. “She achieved what many said was impossible.”

Throughout the rest of the Prem, Staveley’s coup and Newcastle’s good fortune were met with derision and protest. Playing away at Crystal Palace, Newcastle were greeted by a massive banner showing a magpie, Newcastle’s mascot, being beheaded by a man in a ghutra. Speaking in Parliament, lawmaker John Nicolson expressed dismay that the widow of Jamal Khashoggi—the journalist whom U.S. intelligence was assassinated by the Saudi government in 2018—had to see “numpties dancing around in cod-Arabic headdresses.”

The LGBTQ+ groups of Newcastle’s subsequent opponents—Tottenham’s Proud Lilywhites, Brighton’s Proud Seagulls, and Arsenal’s Gay Gooners—spotlighted the story of a young Saudi man named Suhail al-Jameel, who has been held in Dhahban Prison since 2019 after posting a photo of himself in a swimsuit. Notably, Newcastle’s own LGBTQ+ supporters group, United With Pride, did not protest the takeover. In an attempt to defend their approval of PIF, the group reached for the figurehead. In a statement, they wrote that PIF “collabor[ating] with Amanda Staveley’’ demonstrates that “they are being influenced by our culture of respect, equality and tolerance.”

The argument seemed to be that the presence of a woman indicated progressive values. It felt like a deranged nadir in the concept of equality by representation. Some dead-eyed twist on female empowerment via visibility. We’re on the right side of history because we have Amanda Staveley, and she is a girlboss.

The only issue the club itself addressed was, preposterously, the aesthetic one. First, the club was “kindly asking supporters” to leave the “Middle East–inspired head coverings” at home. Days later, they reversed course. “The new owners have been overwhelmed by the welcome of the local community,” and “the fans who have celebrated by wearing” head coverings “have been part of that welcome.” Everyone “should feel free to do so as they see fit,” the club announced.

The Saudi takeover of the beloved and troubled club was an arduous 18-month process that often appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Prospective owners of Premier League clubs have to pass the Premier League’s “fit and proper person” test. When the Saudi takeover stalled in 2020, many assumed the league had deemed PIF not fit and proper. But that test was created to prevent low-level criminals from hiding unlawfully gained assets in football clubs. For example, if you have an “unspent criminal conviction,” you are not fit and proper. However, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is both the head of the Saudi state and the chairman of PIF, and the crown prince has never been convicted of a crime. Even if the “fit and proper person” test was passed, there were still more complicated issues facing the possible takeover.

The main hold-up in the deal was a minor side effect of a years-long geopolitical standoff between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. BeIN is a Qatari media giant and is the Premier League’s international broadcast partner. For years, the Saudi state had banned BeIN while allegedly sanctioning a piracy platform called beoutQ, which cheerfully bootlegged the Premier League. In October, Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on BeIN, and within hours the takeover moved forward.

In March of this year—in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and amid massive public pressure for reprisals against allies of Vladimir Putin—the U.K. government seized Chelsea from its owner, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. It was a largely performative move in that it had no perceivable impact on the lives of Ukrainians under fire. Still, it was a mind-blowing decision: The government had actually taken away a football club from someone it had decided was a bad person.

But in November 2021, when the BBC interviewed Premier League CEO Richard Masters about PIF’s takeover, none of that had yet happened, and Masters was able to pretend we live in a world where money and morality don’t overlap. When the BBC asked about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Masters answered, “PIF are also investors in many other companies in this country,” and then looked off-screen, as if hunting for a publicist waving cue cards with the correct answers, before finally continuing: “I can’t choose … the owners of football clubs.”

Masters made it all seem like it was out of his hands. And frankly, it may well have been. After the first attempt at the takeover stalled, Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) directly messaged then prime minister Boris Johnson to warn that relations between the U.K. and Saudi Arabia would be hurt if the takeover failed. In a message later leaked to the press, MBS wrote, “We expect the English Premier League to reconsider and correct its wrong conclusion.”

In the United States, PIF is now best known for funding LIV Golf, a renegade attempt to compete with the PGA Tour by hiring away a bunch of its talent for absurd amounts of money. Recently, after being courted for a potential LIV broadcasting gig, Charles Barkley shrugged his shoulders about it all to the New York Post. “We have all taken ‘blood money,’” he said. “If you are in pro sports, you are taking some type of money from not a great cause.” It was the kind of nihilism that Masters might approve of. It was also honest: Barkley seemed genuinely confused as to why this particular chunk of blood money was the chunk upsetting people. You can understand why: While Saudi Arabia’s various sporting endeavors unfold worldwide, the country’s international influence is as strong as ever. President Biden’s fist bump with MBS in Jeddah this summer was greeted with screeches and howls, but as the always-sobering Financial Times put it, Biden was beholden to the world as currently constructed: Saudi Arabia is “the world’s top crude exporter” and “oil prices [are] at their highest levels in more than a decade.”

Since the takeover, there’s been a desire to portray Newcastle fans as simple and happy boosters of the Saudi regime. At one point BBC News asked True Faith to appear opposite the CEO of Amnesty International, the implication being that they were to argue against the merits of human rights in totality.

“We’re an easy target because they can’t get near actual government officials,” True Faith’s Widdrington said in the pub, while inhaling a cider. But the takeover “is the natural fallout of a capitalist mentality in the Premier League. It’s a transaction between multibillionaires.” He put his pint glass down to clap the back of one hand into the palm of the other. “Money, money, money, money. You’ve created a monster. Speak to Richard Masters, speak to the Premier League, speak to the queen—speak to everybody who could have possibly stopped this.”

What can he do? The vagaries of global finance have smiled down upon them. Queasily or happily, they are going to accept their good fortune.

In that sense, Staveley comes off less as a villain or a hero and more as a businessperson with inexplicably strong connections in the Gulf States and a hell-bent desire to get famous owning a football club.

Staveley grew up on a 175-acre Yorkshire estate given to her family in the 16th century by a fellow named Cardinal Wolsey, a court favorite of Henry VIII. The local pub there is called the Staveley Arms. She was told early that her older brother would inherit the estate and that her obligation was to “marry well.” “She wasn’t super bright,” a former PE teacher told the BBC. “She worked hard.”

At 22 years old, she bought a restaurant near Cambridge called Stocks from an ex–rugby player called Dickie Jeeps. Stocks was a hangout for the Dubai royal family, who were regulars at a nearby high-end horse track. According to the official origin story, the restaurant was Staveley’s entry into business in the Middle East. Not long after, she later recalled, she flew out to the UAE and, with a great sense of potency, “looked out at all the desert.”

About 10 years later, in 2005, she founded her investment firm, PCP Capital. A few years later she moved to a home in the Emirates Hill neighborhood of Dubai, and 2008 was her big money year. First she helped broker the sale of Manchester City to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed’s private equity firm, Abu Dhabi United Group, for £210 million. There was a backlash then, too, about Abu Dhabi using City to sportswash its own image, and City were languishing then, as well. Now, they play some of the slickest, loveliest football the world has ever seen and have won the Premier League four out of the last five seasons. Now, they are titans of the sport.

Next she brought Abu Dhabi back into the U.K., this time to prop up the megabank Barclays with £3.25 billion. She personally netted £30 million from the deal, which made her a minor tabloid character. The Daily Mail wrote, “It has been reported that Prince Andrew, or ‘babe,’ as she called him, secretly proposed to her in 2003.” Later, The Times of London wrote, “The former model turned multimillionaire financier has been burgled. … Her husband, wearing only his underwear, chased masked raiders into the street.”

It’s not clear how she made inroads with PIF, but then there’s a lot about PIF that’s unclear. Due to shoddy accounting practices, PIF did not know the full value of its own holdings as recently as 2017. It’s now regularly estimated at $430 billion, which means PIF is powerful everywhere. One Saudi English journalist told me that if I want to understand how PIF works I’d have better luck doing it in London than in Jeddah. “Schmooze around Annabel’s,” she suggested, referring to the private members club in Mayfair.

In the Gulf, business relationships regularly get their beginnings at a majlis. It’s a broad term for a gathering but in a professional context refers to a function hosted by a member of a royal family at one palace or another. At any given majlis, Staveley would have been one of the few women in the room. Tamer Khedr, a financial analyst who overlapped with Staveley on some projects in Qatar, said she always had a natural facility to just fit in. “She understood how she can introduce herself, what to say in the meetings,” Khedr said. “She’s a smiling lady. Always smiling.”

When in the Gulf, Staveley does seem to happily code-switch. In January, Newcastle United went to Jeddah to play a friendly against Saudi club Al-Ittihad. In a photo from the match, Staveley poses cheerily in a long red abaya while being given a golden diorama.

For all the hero worship that Staveley is receiving in North East England, she’s still a marginal figure in London banking. But she clearly flourishes in a loosey-goosey world that traverses majlises and places like Annabel’s. She’s a middleman. Her LinkedIn page is still up. It lists her two “interests” as a charity called the Wellbeing of Women and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.

Staveley is like a cipher, admittedly not helped by the fact that she declined to be interviewed for this piece. The press she’s done since the takeover has been with largely friendly reporters. (“Amanda Staveley has spent sufficient time in Middle Eastern souks,” one wrote, “to be able to spot a precious stone hiding, unpolished, amid a sea of replicas.”) Reps for Staveley fielded repeated requests for an interview but ultimately just provided her right-hand man at PCP Capital, David Bick, who in turn provided a bit of nothing. (“She’s financially very capable” and a “very loyal person” who “thinks outside the box.”)

In early 2022, Mike Ashley, the former owner of Newcastle, revealed in court documents that the Reuben family had lent Staveley £30 million ahead of the takeover and that he himself had lent her the last £10 million she needed to help purchase the club (from him!). Ashley claimed Staveley had breached the terms of the loan, which mandated that she couldn’t criticize him publicly, and he was demanding immediate repayment. Staveley’s lawyers denied any breach but did not deny the crux of Ashley’s assertions about the loans.

OK, so: What the fuck? How do you buy a football club without any money? How did Amanda Staveley convince PIF to put her in charge? Is she a mastermind or a con artist, or is she just another person who works in elite international finance who is mostly full of shit?

When I asked a fan from one of the supporters groups about Staveley, they requested anonymity to speak candidly, as they were wary of jeopardizing relationships with the takeover group. It might feel paranoid, but then again, Newcastle is a company town now, and that company is the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.

“She—air quotes—saved us,” the fan said, mocking the Staveley reverence. “I think she does like football. I think she loves football fans.” Pause. “I don’t think she has a clue what she’s doing. I think they’re in the deep end.”

After the takeover, many assumed that Newcastle would spend money dumbly to go after splashy fading celebs (Jose Mourinho! Neymar!). Instead, the club hired former Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe to run the squad and Brighton technical director Dan Ashworth to sign players; both had gained respect for maximizing results with limited budgets at their smaller Premier League clubs. This summer, Newcastle have kept spending sensibly, avoiding the temptation to outbid continental megaclubs and instead nabbing more respectable cogs like the burly Dutchman Sven Botman. Current indications are that Newcastle intend their rise to be ceaseless and methodical. Whatever chaos is happening up top, it hasn’t trickled down to the actual team.

There are certainly better, quicker ways to make money than owning Newcastle United. But is this the surest way for a semi-famous London financier to win adulation? By helping a long-suffering football club win, like, the Carabao Cup? Or am I overthinking all this? Did Amanda Staveley make this deal simply because it was the deal she could make?

According to a sports finance professional who’s known her for years, Staveley is “charming. Absolutely charming. She’s warm, friendly, good company, intense, smart.” Just slightly, with impeccable timing, he paused for comedic effect. “And she’s obviously a sociopath.”

Back in November, I walked inside St. James’ Park just before kickoff. The stadium’s capacity is more than 50,000 and it felt rammed that day. Things kicked off with a rousingly altered “Hey Jude”: “Na, na, na, na, Geoooordie!” I Googled the stadium’s titular saint. It turned out James was the first apostle to be martyred, which felt appropriate to the narrative.

Within 35 minutes, it was 2-1 Brentford. It was just one of those games, full on. Then a bobbled ball found its way to Joelinton, a Brazilian who had become the embodiment of pre-PIF Newcastle frustrations.

Signed for a club-record £40 million in 2019, he once went six months without scoring a league goal. (For the record, he was trying extremely hard the whole time. I found it all very human.) But that afternoon, when given his chance, Joelinton slashed that bobbled ball into the net.

He responded euphorically, as did the crowd of 52,000. A fan banged on the glass of the hospitality suite behind him and pointed to a child in a “Newcastle Baby” hat: “She’s got to come every week!”

In the second half, the sun set and the temperature dropped, and Newcastle went down again, 3-2. Twenty rows above us I saw Staveley and the other shiny-suited co-consortium bros; it was the closest I’d ever come to them. When the mercurial Frenchman Allan Saint-Maximin found the net to draw even, 3-3, Staveley pogoed out of her seat, stretched her arms wide, shouted “Allan!” and did that rich-person thing where you high-five someone and then, for some reason, interlock your fingers and keep clasping their hand.

Since PIF’s takeover, the Reuben family has promised to match the donations picked up on match days for Newcastle’s West End Foodbank, which feeds 3,000 people a month. It was a net good and a tellingly sad state of affairs: The arbitrary generosity of the billionaires in the takeover group determines how many more dozens of food parcels the West End Foodbank is able to squeeze out this month.

The U.K. government’s “leveling up” campaign may or may not ever actually come to Newcastle. But for now, the Saudis, Staveley, and the Reubens are here. So if there’s anything that’s objectively good about the takeover, maybe it’s this stark and simple reminder that the fates of millions and millions of working people are universally left to the inexplicable caprices of the few, obscenely rich. Every time you watch Newcastle you can remember: This is not an aberration, a fluke, a strange story from a foreign country. This is precisely how the world works.

After the takeover, Newcastle spent £92 million on players in the January transfer window, more than any club in Europe over the same period, and finished well out of the relegation zone. But the Brentford match occurred before the January window opened, which meant it happened before Newcastle spent any Saudi money. The version of Newcastle that I was watching represented the very last embers of the club before it became a Saudi state project. When it was still … a club. Years from now, will anyone in Newcastle miss these days, when their club was elementally flawed and the fans still filled St. James’ Park? When Newcastle were a regular team, one that reflected the indignities of life in a metaphorical way and left its fans largely despondent and bereft in all sorts of arguably healthy ways? When they inevitably become a Manchester City–esque titan that wins until they’re numb, how will fans remember these days?

Late in the game against Brentford, Joelinton found himself clean through on goal. Surely, Joelinton, the six-month man, could not suddenly score twice in one day? Surely he wouldn’t be able to sort his feet out and roll this one in? Surely he wasn’t about to win a pre-weaponized Newcastle the match?

No, he was not. Joelinton, bless his heart, did not sort his feet out. Joelinton just absolutely bungled the chance.

The Newcastle accent is heard well on o’s, which go flat. Most notably the word town becomes toon. That’s what they call Newcastle, “the toon.” But for me it’s most wonderfully expressed in the word fuck, as in when the game ends at 3-3 and the man to my right mutters a familiar, private, eternal curse: “Oh, for fook’s sake.”

Amos Barshad is the author of No One Man Should Have All That Power. He lives in New York.

Stadio

Why Does Fandom Always Have to Be So Biased?

22 Goals

‘22 Goals’: Diego Maradona, 1986 World Cup in Mexico

The Press Box

NBC’s Rebecca Lowe on the Premier League, Breaking Into TV, and Talking Soccer With Americans

View all stories in Soccer