Why I Gave Up My Newcastle United Season Ticket

For some years now, I’ve had the impression that the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia represented the absolute worst of this country for a number of reasons:

The hypocrisy of pursuing policies and legislation in pursuit of a so-called ‘war on terror’, while laying out the red carpet for the state that inspired many of the extremists we claim to oppose.

The obvious contradiction between claiming to uphold human rights and democracy around the world, while maintaining an alliance with a barbaric, authoritarian, absolute monarchy.

The absolute jaw-dropping corruption and spineless deference involved in all of our political leader’s dealings with the Saudi government, and the shamelessness of the media and politicians who defend Saudi Arabia and work to soften its image.

And in my view, the support for the war in Yemen probably amounts to the single worst thing the UK has been a part of since the invasion of Iraq.

Fortunately, none of that ever had anything to do with supporting Newcastle United. 

Like many fans, I have also been opposed to the growing commercialisation and financialisation of football, which has been an ongoing process for practically the entire time I’ve been attending. Every decision made by the game’s governing bodies seems to be made with the intention of funnelling money to an elite few who have attached themselves to the sport’s top clubs, with fans the very last consideration.

I’d say that the concept of state ownership of football clubs marks a particular low point in this process, partly because of the danger that a club might begin to represent the state that owns them, rather than their local community. And what would be the point in supporting a club like that?

Football, Newcastle United, football clubs, football fans, Premier League, Saudi Arabia, sportswashing, football fandom, NUFC, NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing
Artwork by Charbak Dipta

However, I have been attending matches with my dad since I was 6 years old, and we’ve held season tickets in the same seats for all 32 of those years, renewing them every year. It was going to take an awful lot to make me decide to end that lifelong routine—in fact, one of the only events I could conceive of that could have made me even consider it would be the state of Saudi Arabia taking over the club. I was extremely relieved when the proposed takeover looked to have collapsed in July 2020, as I had resolved that if the takeover went ahead then that was the end of me going to matches—asking me to devote massive chunks of my spare time to assisting a regime like Saudi Arabia, however minor my role might be, was a step far too far. 

Maybe one of the reasons myself and other members of NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing seem to have a separate view to the majority of fans is because we really feel that fans can influence who owns the club. I don’t see how a sportswashing project can be effective if the fans react against it in a significant way—the Saudi regime has little tolerance for criticism. 

I can also see that, if you felt conflicted about the ownership but also powerless to influence anything, you might try to put the issue out of your mind and carry on supporting the team as you always have (although I’d argue that it would still be important to act to show that we don’t endorse the owners in any way). There were certainly plenty of supporters saying that they felt powerless to influence the outcome when the possibility of a takeover emerged.

“I don’t remember us being given much of a say,” said one Supporter’s Trust board member after the takeover was completed, echoing previous comments by other board members and supporters. 

Except I don’t think that’s really true, from what I recall anyway. In a tearful interview with the Athletic journalist George Caulkin, when the takeover looked to have collapsed in July 2020, Amanda Staveley said, “It’s up to the fans now. Because if the fans want this back on then they’re going to have to go to the Premier League and say this isn’t fair.”

In my view, supporters could have responded to Staveley’s request by making it clear that we wanted nothing to do with this despotic regime. If they’d given that response at that moment, then I think it would have killed the takeover for good. But many fans emphatically gave the opposite answer. The Supporters Trust urged fans to write to their MPs, and thousands did so, with more than 80 MPs responding.

A separate petition demanding ‘transparency’ from the Premier League was also widely promoted. The petition addressed concerns raised by Khashoggi’s fiancé by claiming that she was being “used” by “outside influences” and pointing out that she had “no connection to English football”. It also said that “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”.

This dreadful propaganda didn’t deter 110,000 supporters from adding their signatures.

Some fans even travelled to London to apply pressure to the Premier League, and the local press also seemed fully onboard, with almost no sign of any reservations on the part of local journalists.

Considering covid restrictions were usually in place for much of it, the campaign seemed absolutely enormous, and it succeeded in dominating the local news agenda. It seems strange for supporters to campaign like this if they felt powerless regarding the question of ownership—evidently a large number of fans didn’t feel helpless after all.

Even so, in October 2021, when the shock news came through that the takeover had been completed, I was still hopeful that what I’d seen online wasn’t a reflection of the fanbase as a whole. Although I’d seen the pictures of fans celebrating at SJP, I was hoping for a more measured response from supporters when I went to the first game against Spurs. As it was, I was hit by a wave of euphoria pretty much as soon as I got into town, and I decided that I’d fulfil the commitment I’d made 20 months ago and start my boycott, staying away from the next home game against Chelsea.

This turned out to be a bit more difficult than I’d thought it would be. I’d only missed a handful of home matches over the last 15 years or so, but prior to that there’d been a few stretches where I’d missed games for months at a time, and I’d survived very easily. The vast majority of the season ticket holders around me weren’t there 10 years ago, despite us having pretty good seats, so obviously plenty of other supporters are able to tear themselves away as well. But this time felt very different.

20 months previously I’d envisaged walking away as part of a collective effort, but I was the only person I knew boycotting. It felt completely pointless.

I’d also failed to really appreciate just how much of a social lubricant Newcastle United is when you live and work here. Several times a day you’ll slip into a conversation about the match that had just happened or the match that’s coming up—now it felt like I was never more than a few moments away from an argument about a Middle Eastern country that I simply could not be bothered to have. I expect those who walked away because of Mike Ashley won’t have felt they were going completely against the grain in the same way.

There were also a lot of people that I would see before, during, and after the match that I just wasn’t going to see as much, not least my dad, who pointed out that it wasn’t fair on him to agree to go to matches with him for a season and then disappear after four home games.

And so, rather pathetically, my boycott ended after just one game. Towards the start of the takeover saga, there had been a lot of talk from fan groups, politicians, and others of “being critical friends” to the owners and “holding them to account”. Maybe things would settle down a bit, and we’d start to see some of that?

That turned out to be a completely misplaced hope—there has been no sign of anything even remotely challenging to the owners from fans, politicians, journalists, and ex-players who’d promised to retain a critical outlook on the ownership.

I kept on attending, but on a matchday I’d look at the fans sat around me and ask myself:

How many of these supporters had heavily involved themselves in the online pro-takeover campaign? Probably not that many, but the answer won’t be zero.

How many signed a petition dismissing Hatice Cengiz and praising Mohammed bin Salman? More than 100,000 people signed that, enough to fill the stadium twice over, so probably quite a few.

And how many are engaged in an unspoken agreement with the club, where we sit here and never criticise our revolting owners, and in return expect some trophies to be delivered, almost as a reward for our servile behaviour? I would say every one of us in the stadium was doing this, even if some might be more willing than others.

The football I was watching was as good as ever, but it all seemed pretty meaningless, as I can’t see any glory in winning in these circumstances, and I don’t really feel much affinity with a lot of our supporters at the moment either.

By October last year, I had joined NUFCFAS, and found myself in a meeting talking to activists from Saudi Arabia about how we could reach out to fans opposed to the ownership. I was interrupted by one of them, who asked me, “but which fans are you talking about?”

Before our meeting she’d been browsing NUFC social media groups, and all she could see was supporters celebrating our owners, declaring that they “deserve” the takeover after having such a hard time with Mike Ashley. It was extremely embarrassing to hear that from someone who has come face to face with the destruction meted out by the NUFC owners.

Just as bad was the thought that, while these activists take enormous risks to stand up to the Saudi government, I hadn’t been able to make my boycott last more than one match. That was the final straw for me, and I haven’t been to St James’ Park since. Walking away has actually felt like something of a relief on the whole.

We are regularly contacted by NUFC fans who support our campaign, and there are a lot of fans who are deeply unhappy with the club’s ownership but haven’t yet spoken out. I was one of those supporters myself for several months.

In October 2021, a poll of NUFC fans in The Athletic showed that 83% of fans said that Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights record concerned them, while 29% said Saudi Arabia’s human rights record would put them off going to a game or spending money in the club shop.

I’ll continue to campaign in the hope that these supporters will make themselves heard. Saudi activists have told us that they believe the owners would leave if faced with any significant protests from fans, so there is every incentive to keep going.

In the meantime, the club’s reputation is in the gutter, and while that’s partly because of the ownership, it’s also down to a section of supporters who seem determined to accelerate NUFC’s transformation into a plastic, soulless super-club, that represents an oppressive regime as much as our own community. For as long as that remains the case, I won’t be making any effort to get back to St James’ Park.

Andrew Page

Newcastle United season ticket holder for more than 30 years, and member of NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing.