The build-up to Sunday’s Carabao Cup final was overwhelmingly focused on Newcastle United’s supposedly monumental achievement in reaching a first domestic final since 1999.
A gigantic Geordie crowd journeyed south, occupied Trafalgar Square and posted videos of itself to social media, inviting the world to marvel at the passion of the Newcastle support.
There were emotional open letters to the players from their mothers, fathers, old PE teachers, etc – the sort of thing more readily associated with a World Cup final than the Carabao.
Implicit in all of this was: look how much this means. And yet it was impossible to share their excitement.
[ Michael Walker: Newcastle United no longer rely on omens, its currency and character has changed ]
It may be a great feeling for a Newcastle fan to believe that their long-neglected club, borne up on a limitless tide of Saudi petrodollars, is destined for imminent spectacular success. But it’s not the kind of story that will win over many neutrals.
Saudi Newcastle is different from the Newcastle teams of Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson, teams that attracted others with their flair and charisma. In 1995-96, everyone who didn’t support Manchester United was cheering Keegan’s side on. When they wept at the end of that campaign, the world wept with them.
Saudi Newcastle can only be loved by Newcastle fans – that is, people who are so obsessed with the prospect of their club winning something that they are ready to ignore the fact that ‘their’ club is now an instrument of Saudi foreign policy. Many of these fans are, in fact, happy to be used in this way by the Saudi state. They don’t see themselves as living stage props in a Saudi soft power show. They think they have “won the lottery”.
Newcastle fans will defensively scoff at the notion that the feelings of neutrals are of any consequence – after all, the world’s warm regards never helped Newcastle in the past.
“We’re not here to be popular and get other teams to like us” in the words of their anti-charismatic coach, Eddie Howe, whose ethos is defined by the fact that Newcastle games boast the second-lowest average ball-in-play time in the Premier League.
Popularity evidently doesn’t matter to Kieran Trippier, who talked in the build-up to this match about the need for a team on the rise to be ‘cute’ – that is, to cheat – giving the example of his former team-mate at Atletico Madrid, Stefan Savic, who used to pull opponents’ hair to put them off.
Yet it seems to matter to the fans of Manchester City, who for more than a decade have been inhabiting the gilded world of which Newcastle now dream. Success doesn’t seem to have improved the mood over there. If anything City have become the angriest club out there, to the point where they might as well adopt “Cry More” as the club motto.
They are now ritually booing the pre-match ceremonials at both Uefa and Premier League matches, and recently hoisted a stadium banner celebrating the expensive lawyer City hired to defend them against charges of breaking the Premier League’s financial rules.
The basic problem with City is very simple: they are a great team, but they are not respected as some other great teams of the past have been, because people feel their rich owners have bought their success.
When you’re backed by a state, it does rather feel like you have an unfair advantage (City, of course, argue otherwise). Their success therefore tends to inspire more resentment than admiration. Naturally, the City fans meet resentment with resentment. The retaliatory logic is that of Frankenstein’s monster. “They spurn and hate me. Shall I not then hate them who abhor me? I will keep no terms with my enemies. I am miserable, and they shall share my wretchedness.”
Newcastle under the Saudis are sure to go down the same road and we will all be the worse for it.
[ Manchester United win Carabao Cup final to prolong Newcastle’s trophy wait ]
All this is especially relevant for Manchester United in the month when they ended a near six-year wait for a trophy, knocked Barcelona out of the Europa League, and became the focus of a takeover bid from Qatar.
The strange thing about the news of that Qatari interest is how many United fans appeared to welcome it, even though the idea of having success bought for you by a trillionaire sugar daddy is antithetical to everything Manchester United is supposed to be.
This is a club that, more than any other, has built itself on the myth of homegrown success, of organic growth: the Busby Babes, the Fergie Fledglings, an unbroken run of youth team players in the matchday squad stretching back to the 1930s.
The Treble they won in 1999 was so much more precious because, to a large extent, it was won with players who had come up at the club, who felt to the crowd like an extension of themselves. When you know this is what real success feels like, why would any supporter prefer to become an extension of a rich country’s foreign policy?
The truth is that Manchester United need a trillionaire owner less than any other club in the world. They have more than enough money to succeed, if they only can start getting some decisions right, as they finally seem to be doing under Erik ten Hag.
Ten Hag has created a sense of excitement and growth, a conviction that after a decade of drift they are going somewhere again, and they didn’t need anyone else’s money to make it happen.
To now become the possession of a state would be a tragedy for United. Even fans who are untroubled by the ethical concerns must surely see that state ownership would rob the club’s subsequent achievements of meaning. Only City and Newcastle fans could seriously want this to happen: after all, misery loves company.