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Should Newcastle be Aiming for Cups or the League?

In the October of 2021, Newcastle United were taken over by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, working alongside PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers. Although the other two were there, to say nothing of the fact that the PIF argued the opposite, there was little doubt in the minds of most people that Newcastle were now de facto owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The supporters of the Magpies were quick to celebrate, feeling as though the fact that they were one of the richest clubs on the planet meant that success would surely follow. It didn’t happen immediately, however, leading some to question what they should be aiming for.

The Problems with PIF

Whilst those behind the takeover of Newcastle United were quick to argue that the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia was separate and distinct from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the United Kingdom, they did the exact opposite in the United States of America. The takeover of the Mapies by PIF was only allowed by the Premier League after they received ‘legally binding assurances’ that PIF and the Saudi government were separate entities. When the PIF-backed LIV Golf launched in America, meanwhile, PIF’s lawyers argued that the new golfing body should receive immunity as it was a sovereign nation, saying, “PIF and Newcastle chairman Al-Rumayyan are a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a sitting minister of the government.”

You might be wondering why it matters, with the answer being that Saudi Arabia has an appalling human rights record. The entire purpose of the launching of LIV Golf and the purchase of Newcastle United is to try to sports-wash the country’s reputation on the global stage. The likes of the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the execution of underage children, the criminalisation of homosexuality and a lack of women’s rights are all issues that Saudi Arabia is trying to use sport to cover up, making the fact that they own one of the United Kingdom’s most famous football teams extremely problematic for most people.

What it has Meant for Newcastle

Whether people like it or not, the deal for the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia to take over Newcastle United went through after 18 months of wrangling, with the British government getting involved on the grounds of the deal not happening causing possible damage to UK-Saudi relations. The club soon sacked manager Steve Bruce and appointed Eddie Howe in his place, with the club moving to use its money in order to sign players from its direct rivals in the relegation battle so as to remain in the Premier League. That included bringing in both Chris Wood and Dan Burn, whilst also signing some genuine talent.

The latter included the signing of Kieran Trippier and Bruno Guimaraes in the first window that PIF were able to sign players for the Magpies. In the following summer the spending continued, with €185.8m being spent on Alexander Isak, Anthony Gordon, Sven Botman, Matt Targett, Nick Pope, Harrison Ashby, Charlie McArthur and Garang Kuol. In the first few windows after the takeover, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia gave the green light for €440.1 million of player acquisitions, bringing in around €51.1 million in player sales for a net spend of €389 million. The fourth most expensive player signed was Harvey Barnes for €44 million.

What Should be the Club’s Aims?

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It is incredibly difficult to figure out what Newcastle United should be aiming for under the ownership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, the Magpies are one of the richest clubs on the planet now, effectively owned by a nation state and able to spend money without any real problems. Yes, they still need to obey the Profit & Sustainability Rules that the likes of Everton and Nottingham Forest fell foul of during the 2023-2024 season, but the simple fact is that they can be market disrupters and spend huge sums of money buying players that they can then discard if they don’t work out well or the manager doesn’t like them.

As a result, the expectation on the club is sky high. The team managed to exceed expectations in the 2022-2023 campaign, finishing in fourth place. In truth, that was because of the failings of the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea, both of whom endured torrid seasons. Even so, they qualified for the Champions League and many believed that they would look to kick on from there. Drawn in a group with Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan in Europe’s premier competition, however, Newcastle won just one game, losing three and drawing two to finish bottom of the group and go crashing out.

During the same season, Newcastle also lost to Chelsea on penalties in the League Cup quarter-finals, being knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester City at the same stage. A disappointing league campaign accompanied the cup results, meaning that the Magpies had no silverware to show for all of the club’s evident riches. Newcastle had won four First Division titles prior to the takeover, but the most recent came in the 1926-1927 season and therefore can’t really be considered as being relevant. Similarly, the club’s most recent cup win came thanks to victory in the FA Cup in the 1954-1955 season.

For supporters, there is unquestionably a desperate desire to once again see the side win some silverware. It is probably fair to say that, initially at least, the domestic cups represents the Magpies’ best chance of achieving that. Having reach the quarter-finals of both the FA Cup and the League Cup, the club was just two games away from winning the former trophy and three away from victory in the latter. It isn’t hard to see how Newcastle could go one step further if they chose to focus on the domestic cups and actually win one. The problem in the 2023-2024 season seemed to be finding the balance between league, European and cup ambitions.

That being said, when you’re one of the richest clubs on the planet it is difficult not to think that the league should be where to set your sights. With Manchester City having dominated for so long under Pep Guardiola, with only Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool able to stop them from winning the Premier League title between 2018 and 2023, it is difficult to see how a team that has struggled for success could go straight to winning a title. In truth, it seems as though the main thing that the club needs to do is to pick a lane and stick to it. There will have been a desire to finish in the top four again in 2023-2024, but they didn’t.

Had they been better at deciding how to use their resources, Newcastle may well have been able to win a domestic cup even at the sacrifice of their league position. That is something that is unlikely to sit all that well with their Saudi Arabian owners, for whom there will be an expectation that they’re paying for success in order to help with the sports-washing of their reputation. For supporters, though, there is nothing wrong with starting small and adding a trophy to the cabinet, giving the players and management a taste of success before going on to aim for the bigger prize. If you’re selling your soul, it might as well before something.