Newcastle v Man City sportswashing derby wasn’t a great ad for the Premier League

Date published: Wednesday 24th August 2022 8:04 - Ian King

A representative from the Saudi PIF at Newcastle United

Newcastle United vs Manchester City might have been a showcase for the Premier League, but what it showcased wasn’t much to be proud of.


It was, if you step back a degree or two, a fabulously entertaining match, featuring six goals, countless other opportunities, a raucous crowd and a result that cast some degree of doubt upon the previously assumed magisterial qualities of the visitors and pre-season title favourites. Newcastle United vs Manchester City, two of the great historic names of English football, doing battle at St James’ Park, a fixture steeped in the history of the game.

Except… it wasn’t, really, was it? Both of these names have been bought, and are now being used for something else altogether. The names of these football clubs now represent something different for the 21st century; they’re brand names being used to launder reputations, a vision of a future in which light entertainment is packaged in such a way that it obscures the behaviour of those who own these particular means of production.

Manchester City supporters have had a decade and a half to get used to not being who they used to be anymore, and it would be unrealistic to suggest that they don’t like it. A club which, prior to the intervention of hundreds of millions of pounds of oil money, hadn’t won a major trophy since 1976 and which hadn’t won the league since 1968 was suddenly in amongst the trophies again. And in a sporting world in which all success is bought to some extent or other, why should they care about the origins of the money funding it?

Except in the age of social media, such concerns do matter. To gain the respect and admiration of your peers for your own success is one of the smaller pleasures of winning, but it is a pleasure nevertheless. And Manchester City still have the advantage of being compared directly to Manchester United and Liverpool. These two clubs, so the argument goes, are not remotely interested in ‘financial fair play’. All they ever really cared about was maintaining a hegemony that maintained their control and power.

Manchester City, so the theory goes, get a soft ride because they’re not Manchester United or Liverpool.

Newcastle United supporters are just about to embark upon the same journey, but it seems unlikely that they will be cut as much slack for buying their success as Manchester City. No-one hates Sunderland to the same extent that many hate Manchester United and Liverpool, and while having local rivals so unpopular among rival fans has proved to be good for City, no such security blanket exists for Newcastle. Their wins – especially if they become as routine as City’s over the last four or five years – will simply be unpopular.

Because this is the problem that sportswashing creates. On paper, Newcastle United vs Manchester City should have been one of the most enticing games of the early season. The champions travelling to a newly minted club with pretensions of annexing the Premier League title and beyond.

But how do you start to get excited about Abu Dhabi vs Saudi Arabia unless you’re already emotionally invested in the colours they’re currently wearing? If you know that these two ‘clubs’ are now brands used to launder the reputation of the governments that own them, doesn’t it all feel like a little bit of a waste of time?

And what money has brought, money will take away. Newcastle United aren’t anybody’s second team anymore, and they’re unlikely to be many people’s ever again. In a country that tends to support the underdog, stuffing yourselves with money is just about the last thing that’s going to give you public sympathy.

Sunday’s match between these two clubs felt like a slightly surreal spectacle, at times; lots to admire, a lot of what felt like it should be excitement, but ultimately a match with a strangely synthetic feel, even for a modern Premier League match.

And it’s understandable, should supporters not care. It’s hardly as though they’ve got any choice, although the extent to which so many Newcastle supporters went out to bat for their regime was somewhat dispiriting. All morals are for sale, if the price is right.

The owners there have even gone so far as to stick the team in a third kit that seems purposefully designed to stick two fingers up to all of their critics, enthusiastically backed by a substantial proportion of the club’s support. Newcastle fans may have enjoyed the extent to which they DGAF about that. This sort of derision does seem to be the language of the modern age. But they should look a little more closely into what else they DGAF about.

But no-one has even been asking Newcastle supporters to ‘give up’ their club, just as never happened with Manchester City, PSG, Chelsea, or any other clubs bought out and fattened by the money of a state. A little more critical thinking was all that was ever asked for, but dissenting voices in Newcastle, while there have been one or two, have been largely drowned out by the sound of Big Money.

But is already fair to say that a lot of residual affection washed away with the Saudi takeover, in particular because what looked like a sizable proportion of the fans demonstrated time and time again that they specifically didn’t give a damn about human rights abuses, barbaric legal practices, the murder of dissident voices or any other really stomach-turning issues so long as their football team got rich.

It wasn’t even a matter of life or death. It was just boredom, after years and years of stagnation under Mike Ashley. And what were Ashley’s ‘crimes’ again? A couple of relegations followed by promotions straight back as winners of the EFL Championship? Not spending as much money as they’d like – money that isn’t theirs, of course? Even on the sliding scale of offences committed by the owners of football clubs, this was hardly selling a club’s ground from under its feet or financially mismanaging one into administration and near-death, was it?

But getting angry with the fans over any of this is probably futile and mis-directed. We’re all as powerless as each other to control or change anything, to such an extent that it often feels as though the whole professional game exists for the betterment of those lucky enough to make a lavish living from it, and with everybody else paying for it.

The issue is with a game which has become so addicted to ever-increasing amounts of money that it lost most of its sense of moral compass decades ago. The issue is with a league that was specifically set up to hoard money for a small number of clubs, but which has found that once the genie of applying unrestrained free market economics is let out of the bottle, competition becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. The issue is with governing bodies who allowed this to happen, with their only significant interest being their own control of the game and internal politicking.

The result was a shiny game with lots of lovely goals that ultimately left me cold.

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