By Charlie Eccleshare, The Athletic
The seismic nature of the Newcastle United takeover has meant that pretty much all 20 Premier League clubs feel profoundly affected in some way. Especially given the appalling human rights record of the country funding the takeover.
But it feels like there is something particularly pertinent from a Tottenham Hotspur perspective, especially with the two clubs meeting on Sunday in what is the first match of a new era at St James’ Park.
Visitors Spurs, with their self-sustaining business model, face opposition who are looking to take the steps they gradually climbed in the 2010s to become Champions League regulars a little faster than they did — by financially obliterating the competition.
Newcastle’s approach to turning themselves into trophy challengers is expected to be more like Manchester City’s under the ownership of the Abu Dhabi United Group since 2008, or Chelsea’s following the arrival of Roman Abramovich five years earlier, where elite players and managers are brought in for vast sums of money, and the sustainability element comes from the owners consistently ploughing more and more cash into the club.
Come January, they could start to make the kind of transfers that Tottenham, with their financial prudence, so rarely have.
So we wanted to ask The Athletic’s Spurs followers how they feel about the Newcastle takeover.
Are they jealous of the kind of fantasy signings who will likely soon be pitching up on Tyneside? Would they rather have a nation state such as Saudi Arabia in charge than owner ENIC? Is it about success at all costs or is there a point at which they would draw the line over who is running their club?
We had almost 2,000 responses, which give an indication of how a cross-section of the fanbase feel about the myriad issues raised by the sale of Newcastle.
A big majority would rather have Spurs’ ownership structure than Newcastle’s new Saudi-led one, but as the other questions and comments show, these are extremely complicated subjects…
The nature of these surveys means there isn’t always as much room for nuance as is sometimes necessary, which is why it is useful to also read the numerous reader comments as well as the survey responses to get a greater sense of the wider attitude towards some of the issues raised.
But starting with the numbers, almost 80% of respondents said they would rather have Spurs’ current ownership structure than Newcastle’s new one. A touch over 20% went the other way.
When it came to how respondents felt about the Newcastle takeover, 35.7% told us that disappointment was their overriding emotion. Another 17.7% answered that anger best described how they felt, followed by envy (16.1%), frustration (15.6%) and indifference (14.9%).
Asked whether seeing a takeover like the one at Newcastle, by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), happen at Tottenham would be enough for supporters to decide to stop going to matches or supporting the team, the majority (59%) said no.
Although the majority of those fans surveyed said they would continue to go to matches in such circumstances, almost three quarters (a combined 70.9%) disagreed or strongly disagreed with the idea that: ‘As long as Spurs are successful, I’m not bothered about who owns the club.’
Trying to understand where some of the frustrations with ENIC lie, we asked fans the extent to which seeing Spurs being outspent in the transfer market is their main issue with the current ownership. More than half (54.8%) either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the notion, with 40.5% either agreeing or strongly agreeing.
The numbers, especially the overwhelming majority who would rather have Tottenham’s ownership than Newcastle’s, indicate how abhorrent many find the idea of being effectively taken over by a nation-state that has an awful human rights record.
Some of the comments conveyed the fact Spurs pride themselves on being an inclusive club and one whose fans could never get on board with a nation that treats women and the LGBT community so horrifically. It’s worth remembering that, this past summer, Tottenham supporters were in open revolt when it looked like Gennaro Gattuso, who had made racist and sexist comments in the past, was about to be named as the new head coach.
Respondents referred to the idea of “sportswashing” and said they would never want their club to be a vehicle for a nation such as Saudi Arabia to try to change how it is perceived by the rest of the world. On the flip side, many respondents said they could overlook these human rights concerns if it meant financing success for their club on the pitch.
The idea was also raised that it’s possible to have some sympathy with Newcastle fans, given the frugal way the club was run under Mike Ashley for the past 14 years, which included getting relegated to the Championship twice.
Some Tottenham supporters complain that chairman Daniel Levy has been similarly unwilling to splurge the London club’s money, but there is really no comparison between the two.
While Ashley showed almost zero ambition, certainly in the final decade of his ownership, Levy has helped transform Spurs from also-rans (Ashley’s first season as owner, 2007-08, saw them finish 11th, one place and three points above Newcastle) into a club who finished third in 2016 and 2018, as runners-up in between and reached the Champions League final two years ago, and who now play their home games in arguably the finest stadium in world football.
Building on how supporters feel towards Newcastle, it is interesting only 16.1% said jealousy was their overriding emotion regarding last week’s takeover at St James’ Park. Linked to the fact that most Spurs fans would rather have their current ownership structure than Newcastle’s, there’s a sense among some supporters that although being so cash-rich is enviable, constantly having to make moral judgments about your team is not actually that appealing a position to be in. Some fans are dismissive of the questions the Saudi takeover raises, but for others, it would put them in an extremely uncomfortable position.
So uncomfortable that 41% of the Spurs fans surveyed said they would stop going to matches or even following them at all if the club got taken over by an equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s PIF.
Many respondents made the point that they are already extremely disillusioned with how money-driven elite football is today and that this kind of sale would tip them over the edge. Some said they had already started boycotting or reducing the number of games they go to out of frustration with ENIC’s ownership, and the organisation’s perceived policy of profits over glory. Others said they wouldn’t stop going to games but would protest against the owners while at the stadium and/or stop buying anything else (merchandise et cetera) that gives additional money to the club.
Regarding the final question about whether a relative lack of spending was supporters’ main frustration with the current Spurs ownership, many made the point that it’s not about the amount the club have spent but how effectively, or otherwise, they do so. Tottenham’s net spend is actually higher than Chelsea’s since the summer of 2018, for instance (although the latter were under a FIFA transfer embargo for one summer window of that period), but too many of their signings over the last few years have failed to deliver.
This sentiment that it’s not just about the level of investment is another reason why some supporters wouldn’t sacrifice their principles for a sudden cash injection.
The fact Spurs came so close to winning the 2018-19 Champions League suggests there are other ways to have success than the Manchester City, Chelsea and now, presumably, Newcastle model. Though doing so is only going to get harder as more of Tottenham’s rivals can count on such huge financial advantages.
On Sunday, we’ll see the two teams with their contrasting business models go head to head but only over the next few years will we get a sense of how these decisions affect their respective results on the pitch — and what that means for the mood of the two clubs’ supporters.