What happened to Alan Shearer? Newcastle United's Saudi takeover, one year on

Newcastle United’s year under the Saudis: How many PIF promises have been kept?
Newcastle United’s year under the Saudis: How many PIF promises have been kept?

It is almost a year since Newcastle United’s world changed forever. The takeover by a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund came garlanded with feverish expectations of the “world’s richest club” breaking up English football’s established big six thanks to a raft of newly-signed superstar players.

The reality has been less dramatic, with Newcastle safely and sensibly consolidating in mid-table under the astute leadership of Eddie Howe. Even so, more than £200 million has been spent in two transfer windows, and the club feels transformed after the misery of the Mike Ashley era.

So, how do those initial declarations made by co-owner Amanda Staveley 12 months ago stack up against the reality? Telegraph Sport looks back at the promises – and analyses what progress has been made.

On-field performances

“Do we want to win the Premier League within five to 10 years? Yes. Newcastle United deserves to be top of the Premier League. It will take time, but we will get there. Our ambition is aligned with the fans – to create a consistently successful team that’s regularly competing for major trophies.”

This was the new owners’ boldest promise, and will ultimately be the chief barometer of whether or not they are successful.

Although not publicly stated, the Newcastle hierarchy are aiming for a top-10 finish this term, with the hope of progress being made in both the League and FA Cups. If they can also push for a European place that would be the perfect outcome.

Closing the gap on the top seven or eight is one thing. It has always been manageable for a club with significant financial backing. Breaking into the top four and gaining access to the Champions League is far more daunting, while winning the title – which Staveley mooted as Newcastle’s ultimate target a year ago – has been beyond all teams bar the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool since 2004, save for one freakish campaign for Leicester City in 2015/16.

All of the ‘big six’ currently have bigger wage budgets – Newcastle’s remains around mid-table level –so in the short term, there is little prospect of Staveley’s grand plan being realised.

They are already one year into the project and are nowhere near that level yet. It is going to take a huge amount of money, as well as almost perfect leadership, to get them close to the elite. Because of FFP, the owners need to massively increase income through sponsorship and other revenue streams.

In the short term, their more realistic objective has to be the best of the rest – winning a domestic cup and securing European football. That is fine for the next few years, given how bad things were under the parsimonious Ashley.

Grade: B

Finding a new manager

“Everyone is asking about the manager. Look, we appreciate this is incredibly important… We'll come back to you with all those answers in the fullness of time.” 

It did not take long – just over a week – for the club to dispense with the services of the hugely unpopular Steve Bruce. Despite an embarrassing false step in the pursuit of Unai Emery, who was offered the job, prompting senior figures to falsely brief he was going to take it, only for the Spaniard to reject them, the subsequent appointment of Howe was a masterstroke.

Emery was initially chosen because he was a bigger name with a European reputation. Howe, though, has been a huge success, building an excellent rapport with supporters and vastly raising performance standards.

Grade: A

Transfer spending

“We are in the market to compete for world-class players. We have great ambitions – I hope it’s going to be a game changer for Newcastle United.”

There can be no complaints about the amount of money spent with a net transfer outlay in excess of £200 million over the course of two windows. But all the talk of showbiz, superstar signings was dismissed within a few weeks. There has not been any temptation to splash huge amounts of money on aging stars like Gareth Bale, Neymar and Aaron Ramsey.

It has, if anything, been surprisingly sensible given the high-profile nature of the takeover and the vast wealth of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Indeed, senior sources at the club have repeatedly stressed that one of the most irritating things to navigate has been the avalanche of false transfer stories percolating around the club.

It has not all been a success. The January window, in particular, was chaotic and stressful. Mistakes were made and time wasted – particularly when listening to vested interests trying to manipulate a board which lacked football expertise.

But the end results have been impressive. Howe ended up acting as a sporting director in January and showed astute judgement, signing players who were good characters and, in the main, knew the Premier League, such as Dan Burn and Matt Targett (both £12 million).

More eye-catching successes were England international Kieran Trippier (a snip at £15 million) and Brazil international Bruno Guimaraes, arguably the best of the lot at £42 million from Lyon.

Only Chris Wood (£25 million) has really struggled, his price inflated by a release clause at Burnley and Newcastle's desperate need, at the time, for a striker.

In the summer, Newcastle spent far more than they initially planned and have privately admitted it will mean tightened spending in January in order to meet Financial Fair Play Regulations.

Centre-back Sven Botman arrived from Lyon (£35 million) after a failed attempt in January, England goalkeeper Nick Pope joined from Burnley (£10 million), but the most glamorous and exciting capture was Sweden international Alexander Isak from Real Sociedad (£54 million).

Alexander Isak - Newcastle United’s year under the Saudis: How many PIF promises have been kept? - GETTY IMAGES
Alexander Isak - Newcastle United’s year under the Saudis: How many PIF promises have been kept? - GETTY IMAGES

Newcastle have broken their transfer record twice under their new owners and aim to be active again in the January window with Leicester City’s James Maddison a priority target as he enters the final 18 months of his contract. Newcastle failed with a bid for midfielder in the summer.

If there is a small complaint, Newcastle have not improved their attack and midfield as much as Howe would have liked back in May. The club is also not paying the sort of wages that can attract elite level stars.

Grade: A-

Hiring club legends as ambassadors

“I've texted with Alan [Shearer] a lot, and Kevin [Keegan]. They're heroes. I'm so excited to be able to sit down with Alan – I hope he gets involved because it's his club and it's so important. It is very important that we deal with all the great players…” 

Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan did talk to the new owners about getting involved. Both are understood to have had their reservations.

Telegraph Sport understands that ambassador talk cooled quickly when it became clear there would not be anything like the sort of financial package offered you might expect from the “richest club in the world”.

Privately, there was also a desire to maintain independence, particularly with Shearer’s role as a prominent television pundit. On that basis, this promise has not materialised.

Grade: D

Alan Shearer is understood to have had reservations about getting involved - PA
Alan Shearer is understood to have had reservations about getting involved - PA

Fan representation on the board

“I think there are lots of great ideas about fans on boards. We want to make sure that every fan’s voice is heard and we need to make a decision about how best that happens… There'll be an emphasis on an open dialogue and making sure we communicate all the time.”

This has not happened. The club did meet with the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust in April, which is a positive, and there is certainly a sense that fans are more valued now than they were under Ashley – although that would hardly be a challenge. There have been some sops to supporters, including stripping away the Sports Direct sponsorship hoardings, but fans have not been given any greater say in the running of their club.

There are currently no plans to appoint a fan representative to the board and despite regular appearances on the pitch towards the end of last season, the communication from the owners has dried up to a trickle.

Nothing has been heard from chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan since he wrote an open letter to supporters immediately after the takeover. Even Staveley and her husband, Mehrdad Ghoudoussi, who does not officially have a seat on the board, have not communicated directly through the media since February.

There have been short statements through official club channels, and Ghodoussi and co-owner Reuben are active on social media. Staveley has given short interviews to fan media channels, mainly talking about the women’s team, which she is a strong advocate for. Neither Ashworth or Eales have spoken publicly to anyone but in-house club media since they arrived.

On the plus side, the club employed a full-time supporters liaison officer over the summer. Things are expected to improve in this area as a result.

Grade: C

Sportswashing concerns and Saudi involvement

“Football’s inclusive to all. I understand and appreciate all the messages on human rights and we treat them very seriously. But I wouldn’t bring partners into the consortium if they didn’t have the right record and PIF is autonomous and independent of the Saudi government.” 

Despite Staveley’s reassuring words, PIF has remained hidden. The fact Staveley, a 49-year-old financier from Yorkshire, living in London, was installed as the public face of the consortium was deliberate. She is the firewall that exists between a regime accused of human rights abuses and war crimes in Yemen, as well as the brutal oppression of domestic political opposition and controlling an English football club.

However, power and control lies in Riyad. All major decisions have to be signed off by chairman Al-Rumayyan and sources have expressed frustration at the fact the process can be slow.

Owning Newcastle is just one part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 project, aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy and reducing its reliance on selling fossil fuels, but there is no doubt the decision to buy was at least partly motivated by the desire to cleanse the country’s image and, in particular, that of the chairman of PIF, and de facto ruler of the country, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

These concerns have not been addressed by anyone running the club for months. In the club’s defence, the much-criticised Saudi Arabian regime remains an important political, economic and military ally of both the UK and US governments.

PIF invests in all sorts of areas of the UK economy and the Crown Prince was given a state banquet by the late Queen Elizabeth II. He was also invited to her funeral last month.

Once the piracy issue was resolved and illegal broadcasts in the Kingdom halted last October, there was no legal reason why PIF could not buy an English football club.

Indeed, investment from the Kingdom in this country has been actively encouraged by a succession of UK governments. But there is also little doubt that the moral tension created by the purchase still lingers, not least when Newcastle promote events such as the rainbow laces campaign, which clash with the ideology of the Saudi regime.

The choice of a third kit, which is effectively a copy of the Saudi Arabia national team’s shirt, was also crass and provocative.

Grade: C

Off-field infrastructure

“We need the right infrastructure. We must have the right training ground, the right medical facilities. [The training ground] is really awful.” 

Plans to build a new training ground have been drawn up, but the information in the public domain is sketchy. The papers released by Newcastle City Council were heavily redacted, citing the need to protect sensitive information, and there is a cloak of secrecy surrounding the project. The expectancy is that it will happen, but not for a few years.

There is a suggestion the club would like to build a new training ground on green belt land around Newcastle racecourse, which is already owned by the Reuben family.

In the meantime, the changes have been largely cosmetic. The existing training ground has been smartened up, facilities improved and the building expanded. Work is ongoing but, at the moment, it is a renovation rather than a rebuild.

Grade: B+