Some left work early and others skipped school. They gathered around a statue of their idol, the late Sir Bobby Robson, and when the news was confirmed they burst into song, beers flying, tears flowing.
The £300m Saudi-led buyout of Newcastle United has delighted almost all supporters of a once proud club that has drifted aimlessly for years.
“The club is the heartbeat of the city and it’s basically been on a life-support system for a decade if not more,” said Paul Loraine, 47, outside St James’ Park on Thursday, where fans hung a banner declaring “We don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries”.
The takeover is one of the most controversial in English football history, prompting widespread criticism from human rights groups andthrusting this ailing north-east club into the geopolitical spotlight.
But when confirmation of the deal broke at about 5.15pm, cans of lager went soaring into the air and flares were hurled skywards.
“My two grandsons are 30 now, they come here and they’ve never seen them win anything. The hurt on these big lads’ faces, it breaks your heart,” said Jean Sproul, 80, a lifelong fan who remembers drinking out of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup when Newcastle won the European competition in 1969.
The motto “more than a club” has been adopted by teams around the world but few would doubt Geordies’ devotion to St James’ Park. Loyalty does not buy silverware, however, and there has been little to celebrate under the increasingly unpopular ownership of Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct billionaire who bought the club in 2007.
“This makes your whole week. If you get beat you’re going to have a terrible week. The last 14 years have been horrendous,” said Allen O’Connell, 28, with his three-year-old daughter Millie, standing beneath the Gallowgate stand on Thursday.
“As fans there’s not a lot we can do about the human rights stuff,” said Loraine. “We’re all wearing clothes borne out of sweatshops in countries with human rights issues. The moral compass is always a strange one in times like this. As fans, especially as downtrodden as ours, you’ve got to be allowed to enjoy a bit of hope, and that’s the priority today, not about human rights issues. Hope for the club, hope for the area.”
Newcastle’s 52,000-capacity stadium looms large in the centre of the city. Streets away live some of the poorest families in England. Half of the children in the area – nearly 10,000 – are living in poverty. Two miles away is one of the busiest food banks in England, distributing 19,000 emergency parcels to local families last year.
Newcastle is a city yearning for investment. City leaders, although cautious not to be drawn on Saudi Arabia’s record, hope the Gulf state’s involvement will pump billions into the area in the same way as Manchester City’s takeover by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour has done in that city since 2008 (although some communities near the Etihad remain desperately poor).
“Football is nigh on a religion here and it’s one of the key things about the identity of the city,” said Mark Middling, a senior lecturer in accounting at Northumbria University who specialises in financial transparency in football. “If the Saudis were to emulate what’s gone on in Manchester then I think that would be very welcomed.”
Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle city council, said: “This is a momentous day in the history of the club and our city. Football is such a vital part of Newcastle’s identity and St James’ Park is, for many, the literal and metaphorical beating heart of the city. The prospect of successes on the pitch once more gives us all something to hope for.”
Many of those celebrating outside the ground were too young to remember the Robson era, let alone the pre-Ashley one. One shirtless lad of about 14 yelled: “This is the best day of my whole life!”
Beneath Robson’s statue, fans demanded to know why the same opprobrium had not been directed at Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, which is owned by groups from Qatar.
“The World Cup next year is going to be in Qatar and that’s one of the worst places in the world [for human rights] – so why should Newcastle United be affected by the human rights side of it?” said Ray Sproul, 80, who still attends games home and away. “Man City have had their owners for years and no one’s shouting and screaming at them. We’re just interested in football. We’re ordinary football supporters and that’s it.”
Middling said Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was “concerning”, but he said blocking the takeover on those terms would have smacked of double standards. “The UK still sells arms to Saudi Arabia and has business arrangements within the country. If you’re going to trade with Saudi Arabia, to turn around and say they can’t own one of our football clubs would be a bit hypocritical.”