In a move that rocked the Premier League late last week, former Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley completed a stunning £300m+ sale of the club to a consortium backed in part by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF). This has sparked intense backlash from numerous corners of the footballing world due to Saudi Arabia’s appalling record of human rights abuses, along with allegations that the middle eastern nation is using its purchase of Newcastle to “sportswash” — invest a staggering amount of money into a popular sports team in order to rehabilitate the nation’s reputation.
It’s a move similar to the ones made by Abu Dhabi when its consortium purchased Manchester City from Thaksin Shinawatra in 2008, or Qatar, who purchased PSG three years later. The new owners are expect to shovel money at Newcastle in an attempt to lift them, much like what happened with City and Chelsea, towards contention for perennial Premier League titles.
But according to Keith Patterson of Newcastle Consortium Supporters Ltd, a prominent Newcastle United supporters club, it was very nearly Tottenham Hotspur who sold to the Saudis back in 2019.
Patterson, in an interview with the Shields Gazzette from November 2020, claimed insider knowledge that ENIC and Daniel Levy were at one point in talks sell the club to a similar consortium of Saudi Arabian investors for £2.5b, plus an additional £1b in add-on fees a few months before the first agreement was made to purchase Newcastle, but that the Tottenham bid was ultimately rejected.
“Tottenham Hotspur, in a negotiation which broke down in March 2019, approached investors in the region we are talking about – two months before the Newcastle deal was ironed out – to buy the football club for £2.5billion, with a further £1billion in add ons.
“The deal was taken to the investors in Saudi Arabia, by a dealmaker named as Eldridge Investments, and rejected.
“The whole deal totals £3.5billion – Newcastle was set to be sold for one tenth of that price. I have had that exact same information from three different credible sources.”
— Ken Patterson, Newcastle Consortium Supporters Ltd.
It’s not very clear from the comments just how far along Tottenham were with the Saudis regarding this potential sale. Patterson’s revelation is used in the interview to make a point — Spurs were one of two clubs that objected to the initial Newcastle sale in 2019, which ultimately fell apart the first time due to concerns about Saudi backing of football piracy through the beoutQ service.
That Spurs were themselves allegedly trying to sell the club to the same group of investors is seemingly pretty hypocritical, but there’s some context missing — if Spurs made a pitch to the PIF consortium that didn’t go anywhere then that’s pretty gross, but not as bad as if, hypothetically, talks had gone a significant distance further before falling apart. Patterson comes across in the interview as very defensive, bordering on salty, about the objection to Newcastle’s sale, so that context does seem to be a noteworthy piece of the puzzle that’s missing from his comments.
Rumors about Tottenham attempting to sell the club (or being approached to do so) have popped up a number of times over the years — remember Cain Hoy back in 2014? I vaguely recall some un- or lightly-sourced rumors from a couple of years ago that Spurs were again in talks with some unnamed group of investors concerning a possible sale, but if it was the Saudis it was definitely kept pretty quiet.
Patterson’s interview in the Shield Gazzette is now nearly a year old and I missed it the first time it came around, but his comments have taken on a new relevance with Newcastle’s recent sale. Assuming for a moment that Patterson’s allegations are correct (and honestly it would not at all surprise me to find out that they are), I find the idea of being owned by a Middle East sovereign wealth fund to be unequivocally gross. To sell to the nation of Saudi Arabia with its history of human rights abuses is even more incorrigible. That said, ENIC has never hidden the fact that its purchase of Spurs in 2001 was an investment and that they eventually would cash in, and Spurs have improved their status and club wealth to the point that the only ones who can likely afford to purchase Tottenham are either absurdly wealthy individuals such as Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, consortiums of only slightly less rich groups, or oil-rich nations.
There is plenty to criticize about Mike Ashley and Newcastle choosing to sell to a group of investors so intrinsically linked to Mohammad Bin Salman and the government of Saudi Arabia — from state-sanctioned discrimination and regressive laws that subjugate women to the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi three years ago in what has been strongly suggested to be a hit ordered by MBS. Many Newcastle supporters are currently trying to square the circle of being both ecstatic about the end Mike Ashley’s disastrous ownership with unease about the moral and ethical implications of a regime such as Saudi Arabia now in control of their beloved football club. Those are not easy things to grapple with.
However, it is sobering to think that, in some other parallel universe, it’s Tottenham fans who would need to grapple with these issues and decide just how important the owners of a football club are to their happiness and opinions about the club. And it raises this terrifying question — if ENIC ever were to sell, to whom would it be, how ethically acceptable are they, and what sort of moral contortions would be required to make it feel okay?