It was at the place which has become an emblem of the working class struggle in this city that you truly understood why a brutal, misogynistic Saudi regime has somehow been able to dress itself up as a knight in shining armour.
They’re perfectly aware of the arguments about Saudi human rights abuses at the West End food bank, a straight half hour’s walk up through graffiti-stained, litter-strewn streets from St James’ Park. But the need for something to cling to, amid the daily purgatory of life, supersedes all that.
‘When you have nothing, you need the team. They make you feel different when they win,’ says Sonia, outside the unprepossessing brick food bank building immortalised in the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake.
Newcastle fans celebrated the takeover of their club by a Saudi-led consortium for £305m
Questions have been asked about whether Saudi’s human rights record is suitable for a club
‘You don’t need to be at games to feel that. You talk about these rights and those rights, but this is our life. The team is the whole of life for some people here.’
The need for something to wash away the quotidian struggles has been more acute than ever this week, as a reduction in Universal Credit payments has brought entire families back to the food bank on Benwell Grove. Such is the desperation that Mohammed bin Salman can capitalise on, as he makes the club a vehicle to obscure the truth about his regime.
Down at St James’ Park, a London–based Saudi TV crew is already milking the acclaim for that regime, surpassing even the local Chronicle newspaper in its quest to interview any pro-Saudi Newcastle fans going.
They’ve hoovered up Mark and Paul, a couple of Geordies who’ve arrived in Arab headgear, and moved on to another supporter, Joanne Ayres, who’s here in homemade robes with the name of dealmaker Amanda Staveley inked on the back.
Takeover dealmaker Amanda Staveley (left) played the crucial role in getting the move done
The Saudi crew are extremely pleased with themselves, though Sportsmail’s conversation with them becomes extremely testy as soon as they are asked about any local kickback against Bin Salman’s human rights record, which includes the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his dismemberment with a bone saw.
‘Your country are the murderers,’ a male Saudi journalist replies. ‘Ask yourself about British human rights. The way Britain has come into the Middle East and killed people.’
His female colleague suggests that the money Saudi Arabia has paid Britain for arms has propped up this country.
This borderline aggression seems all the more reason to press them for thoughts on their fellow journalist, Khashoggi, being killed by 15 of Bin Salman’s henchmen, according to declassified American intelligence files.
The murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi (above) is a key point of Saudi controversy
‘We don’t know the full story. We must wait for the full story,’ says the male journalist, faltering. Here, in microcosm, is the bombast we can expect from the new owners when they arrive in search of adulation and find themselves fielding awkward questions. Those challenges may be limited, given that even a Newcastle LGBTQ group was taking a positive position on the Saudis yesterday.
The United with Pride group spoke of Newcastle’s ‘potential to be a positive influence to improve the conditions for the LGBTQ community’ in Saudi Arabia, and how ‘recently the country relaxed some laws for women’.
Their statement glossed over the fact that homosexuality is banned in Saudi Arabia.
Mrs Ayres, an intelligent, articulate 39-year-old, was also blanking out inconvenient truths about how the club’s new owners treat women like herself.
Newcastle fans argue they are completely desperate for a new set of ambitious owners
‘I’ve got my views on that and I don’t overly want to talk about it,’ she said. ‘Yes, if there was another buyer that would have been more suitable, that would have been good, but you don’t know how desperate we’ve been for so long.’
The voices of dissent came from the few with no attachment to the club. Like Valerie Jones, outside a nail bar near the stadium, for whom Saudi Arabia is ‘no place to be associated with. I don’t like this’.
A walk through Newcastle’s tired club shop revealed how easy it will be for the new owners to score quick points here. It has been a vehicle for Mike Ashley to shift merchandise, and looks little more than that.
Mike Ashley (above) was the owner for 14 years but became unpopular with the Magpies fans
Images of players barely feature on the ground floor. The sports bar next door and Gallowgate Stand fascia are equally careworn.
The hugely influential Chronicle now finds itself walking a tightrope, serving an audience unanimously in favour of this deal, while knowing the truth about the new owners.
The paper raised the issue at the back end of an editorial yesterday, declaring that ‘the city of Newcastle will not shy away from challenging anything that diverges from our proud record of tolerance’.
But for the majority of Newcastle fans, ‘this is about football’, that editorial concluded.
Newcastle fans are now looking forward to potential improvement on the pitch at the moment
The Premier League have neatly bypassed questions about the death of Khashoggi and the hassling and jailing of Saudi women willing to speak their minds by insisting that the takeover vehicle is discrete from the country’s state. Even though the country’s sovereign wealth fund owns 80 per cent of the club.
But it is among the people of Newcastle, desperate for some joy, that Bin Salman will find an open goal. The majority view belonged to Mark, one of those fans wearing Arab headgear.
‘I’ve served in the army and lost mates in the Gulf,’ he said. ‘I’ve known Iraq and compared with that, Saudi Arabia is a very good place. I’m happy to call them my friends.’