As Amanda Staveley let out the rallying cry, the online militia of Newcastle United fans heeded the call and changed their profile photo, retweeted a hashtag and spammed the Premier League social media accounts. Like a toddler thrashing out at the wind as it blows in its face or an American buying a new semi-automatic to fight COVID-19, their intentions may be good but their efficacy is of Joelinton levels. Small victories have been celebrated as the Premier League Twitter page was forced to delete a post about a West Brom goal and a man entered a glass-fronted reception. You can almost taste the first global superstar transfer bought with Saudi money. Meanwhile, the Twitter troops await instruction on which online checkout basket they need to fill (but not purchase) and the meme sweatshop workers pull double shifts to force Masters’ hand. Genius.
We have never seen such commitment and relentless work ethic since, well, since the Sports Direct protests. Every social media post was bombarded with images and comments until they were forced to stop posting anything, the online store showed no stock as ‘COCKNEYMAFIAOUT’ held 40 pairs of Lonsdale shorts in their basket for a week and a handful of people stood outside a shop. At least they achieved their, oh no, wait...never mind. He’s still the owner. The fanbase has been disjointed and fragmented for many years but the Ashley era has splintered each of those fragments to the point where not even the online section of the Toon Army can agree on one page or person to follow. Crises breed new groups, new hashtags and new protests yet nothing ever changes. Thirteen years on, Mike is still here. Four months on, no takeover. If only we had a supporters trust to unite behind, eh?
The NUST has finally offered the possibility of a legitimate, official voice for the fans to unite behind and it has fewer members than Steve Wraith’s fan club. That it sought legal counsel for communication with the Premier League, that it had an actual conversation with Amanda Staveley, that it is legally registered and regulated matters not to those who prefer positive online platitudes to detailed official discourse. That it was criticised for not making its letter to Richard Masters public and then criticised for making its phone call with Amanda Staveley public says all you need to know about the hurdles it has to overcome in gaining the following of the online cults. In a phenomenon stretching wider than the NUFC takeover, people are drawn to blind faith and the comfort of being told what they want to hear. Boris Johnson told the nation to believe in Brexit and that the positive British spirit would ensure success and, although the results have yet to be seen, the blame is already primed for those who did not believe enough. Those who questioned its sense and offered critical analysis were negative and unpatriotic to even contemplate anything other than an unparalleled era of prosperity. And such is the online world of the Newcastle United takeover, as those who remained 100% positive right up until the moment of withdrawal (and beyond) have been held up as Demi-Gods for keeping the positivity and raising spirits. Meanwhile, those who suggested that all may not be well as the four week process entered week seventeen have been exiled and branded a mackem.
Even as we enter the post-takeover world, acceptance of its fate and a suggestion that we try to move on is seen as heresy while the YouTube channels and newly-spawn fan pages swear to you that #wewantsaudi will work if you just want it enough. There have even been suggestions that funds are raised to buy Saudi flags to ‘stand by our Saudi brothers’. Give me strength. ‘You’re not a real fan if you don’t share this!’, they cry from their keyboards, as though questioning the link between a Twitter hashtag and Richard Masters making a decision is just cause to remove your black and white colours for eternity. In an online room filled with bereaved and emotional people, there are those using the tactics of mediums who gain trust by glibly asking whether anyone has ever lost someone. Of course they fucking have but to those not thinking clearly, this seems prophetic and something to cling to and follow. Fans want to hear that it isn’t dead, that communication is still open, that there’s a chance – and in step the mediums to tell them just that. Trust is earned, cult followings increase and journalists are cast aside for never doing this much to help the collective mental health of the fan base. ‘I demand to know the truth!’ … but only if it’s the truth I want to hear.
I feel as though it’s important at this stage to clarify that the online petition does not fall under this category of pointless action, however ineffective it is likely to be. Indeed, the UK Parliament website criticises the unclear language on the change.org website and states that 100,000 signatures does not actually guarantee a parliamentary debate. Although many petitions have exceeded the threshold and lead to no debate, and a debate could be dismissed in minutes once heard, it is a legitimate form of protest and one that ought to be encouraged. Keep in mind that more than five million people signed a petition calling on the government to revoke Article 50 and the government rejected it outright. Also keep in mind that the government did not, as far as we know, intervene in the takeover process or use their relationship with the Saudis to influence the Premier League. It therefore seems unlikely that it will involve itself in an enquiry into their handling of it.
However, petitions are a simple way of expressing your sense of civic duty and individual responsibility in a world where we are increasingly powerless and distant from decision makers. They also attract publicity to your cause and highlight injustice, so they do have a point regardless of the eventual outcome. The Premier League’s stance with Newcastle United fans has perhaps been one of contempt but certainly one of a sense of superiority. We are nothing to them and, however much we may disagree with that, it’s part of a pattern in the global capitalist world. They have made it very clear that their interests lie with the so-called ‘big six’, although how perennial failures Tottenham make that list is beyond me. If any of the other clubs exit the league, they are replaced by another and it makes little difference to the global product of the Premier League. Newcastle United may be the most important thing in our lives but it is a replaceable cog in the Premier League machine and it whirs on regardless.
This is an unpalatable reality but one we find ourselves in and now difficult decisions must be made. We have already seen thousands of our black and white brothers and sisters walk away from the Mike Ashley era and vow no return until he has gone. Those who remained did so for a number of reasons but how many of those will now be tested by the Premier League and their apparent sabotage by inaction? Protest needs to have a possibility of success to attract followers and the hope was a realistic one that empty SJP seats would hit Ashley where it hurt and force his hand. I’m not convinced that has the same impact on the Premier League and therefore protesting in that manner is more likely to be born of frustration rather than anticipation of success. When we’re allowed back in, I want to be there.
When the Premier League restarts, and COVID-19 permits, the chances are that most season ticket holders will return to their hard and grey thrones to sit quietly through another season of mediocrity because it’s what we’ve done for years and decades. The love of football and our football club makes us the easiest of victims in a game of neglect and abuse, as our owner and those above him can do whatever they like knowing that we will be pulled by the undertow of obsession and even if the club drowns, so what? Did the Premier League care when English football giants like Nottingham Forest and Leeds exited and, until recently, did not return? New members took their places and eventually teams like Wolves and Leicester emerged as top half clubs and European representatives for the laughably-titled ‘Greatest League in the World’.
So what do we do? Well, if you haven’t done so already, you join the NUST. As I said earlier, this is our first and only official, legitimate, recognised voice and one we all need to shout with. That Newcastle Central MP, Chi Onwurah, has added her voice and influence to the cause is another positive step towards recognition from the Premier League that they can not maintain their neglectful silence forever. The takeover appears dead but the autopsy deserves to be shared with its most invested stakeholders to, at the very least, provide closure on this never-ending saga and allow us to begin to move on.