Newcastle United takeover: Shooting towards new goals

November 5, 2021

You didn’t need to be a football fan to understand what was going on.

The seismic takeover of Newcastle United last month sent shockwaves through the game and similar reverberations around the city and the wider region.

With Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – valued at around £315 billion – taking an 80 per cent stake in the Magpies, alongside PCP Capital Partners and RB Sports & Media, fans can dare to dream again.

And some are doing just that, with the more optimistic social media posters eagerly following the gossip merchants and transfer whisperers to see which of the world’s best will be first to touchdown on Tyneside.

The reality will look much different. Any rise to the top of the footballing pyramid will take time, and a fair amount of money, as the necessary infrastructure is implemented to build – and in some cases rebuild – the club’s reputation at home and abroad.

However long the timeframe, though, Newcastle United is on a new footing.

And so, predict many, is the city it represents and the North East as a whole, as the investment generates new confidence in Newcastle as a business and leisure destination. On the field, of course, fans are just hoping for a shot at success after years of frustration.

Words by Colin Young

A love reignited

Warren Barton became the most expensive defender in English football when he signed for Newcastle United in the mid-1990s. In the spiralling world of football transfers, though, it didn’t take long for the title to be wrested away from the full-back’s grasp.
What has never left him, however, is a love for the Magpies, which burns as brightly today as it did 25 years ago. While he may now live across the Atlantic, the adopted Geordie
has never forgotten his ties to Tyneside, to the extent that he was recently involved in a Newcastle United Supporters Trust campaign to oust former club owner Mike Ashley. The Saudi Arabian-led takeover may have brought an end to that endeavour, but Warren remains committed to seeing the club rise again and provide its supporters with the same entertainment delivered by Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson. Here, he tells Colin Young about his enduring passion for Newcastle United and why its recent takeover represents huge potential for the club and the city.

Warren Barton could have stayed out of Newcastle United’s business.

He’s living in California with wife Candy, an interior designer, and their three grown-up kids, Milo, Kane and Tye, keeping his UEFA pro-licence updated with Los Angeles Blues in the USL pro league and still earning a few dollars as a regular pundit with Fox Sports network.

Warren moved to the States in 2008 to become the voice of Fox’s Premier League and Champions League coverage, hired for his expertise and experiences with Newcastle United in two of world football’s greatest competitions in the late 1990s and 2000s. The new day job with Fox meant keeping abreast of events at his former club and all the news back home.

So, he knew the Newcastle fans who had changed his life, were suffering for years.

And so was his football club.

But he didn’t know how bad it was until he visited St James’ Park with one of his new teams and his three sons before the pandemic hit.

“St James’ Park used to be glowing,” he says.

“When you saw that stadium coming into Newcastle on the train over the bridge, it looked like a diamond gleaming over the city.

“When I brought the kids across from America it looked like it had been left to rot.

“There was no cleanliness about it; it was unrecognisable from the beautiful ground we played in. You could feel it had been neglected.

“When we played, whatever was going on in the fans’ world, that place was their light; now you look and it’s depressing.

“I wanted to show the lads what the place meant to me, with some pride.

“But I just remember walking round the ground with my boys thinking, ‘this is not fair, this is not right, this is not what this club should be.”

So, when he was approached by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) to help front a new campaign to oust Mike Ashley from the club earlier this year and, at that stage, raise funds to buy it, Warren was one of four key players to sign up as guardians to the 1892 Pledge Scheme.

Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, respected local football writer George Caulkin and chartered accountant Lee Humble were named as the guardians of a fund that would raise money to rescue the club if they were relegated from the Premier League again.

They proclaimed: “We want to work with new owners, whenever they emerge, and be part of this football club. We can only do that by raising enough money to have a seat at the table.”

Six months on, and it looks likely that any funds raised will be donated to charity; Newcastle’s new owners have already promised supporters a place on their board; NUST is certain to have a voice.

Once he felt assured their motives were right for the club, the city and the fans, Warren pledged his support to the cause, and is delighted he did so.

He says: “My first thing was to make sure it was for the fans.

“I knew Alex Hurst from the trust and George and there were a lot of calls because I wanted to make sure it was the right thing for the supporters.

“I was lucky enough to play for the club and captain Newcastle when Alan Shearer wasn’t available.

“I played and met fantastic people like Gary Speed, Shay Given, Rob Lee, Aaron Hughes and Al, and I had to say something.

“It would have been easy to sit on the sun lounger and do nothing. Even though I’m 5000 miles away, I couldn’t leave the Geordies on their own and I knew they needed support.

“I was like that as a player; whenever the new players came in – Nobby Solano, Alain Goma – I always chatted to them, made them feel part of the club from day one, made sure their wives and families were ok, and that they were settling in.

“It felt like the club was vulnerable and weak, and the ownership and the whole club was weak.

“I couldn’t let that happen because it had given me so much and I just felt it needed to fight back.

“I couldn’t ignore what was happening any longer.

“And once Big Al came on board, that was a game-changer. People started to take it seriously then.

“And it wasn’t for our image or persona – it’s because we care.

“I’m pleased we don’t have to use the money, but we always said that it was for charity and people are still pledging now.”

Warren became the most expensive defender in English football when he joined Newcastle from Wimbledon in 1995, the summer before Kevin Keegan’s

‘Entertainers’ narrowly missed out on the Premier League title.

He stayed for more than seven years until 2002, playing more than 150 games under Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and Sir Bobby Robson.

But it was more than the football that he fell in love with; his relationship with the supporters was always close because he was always committed; as he has always admitted, “sometimes it was good enough, sometimes it wasn’t” and sometimes, in teams which leaked goals, he was the victim of the fans’ ire.

It never bothered him, though, and the fans still loved him – ‘Warren Barton, centre parting’ is one of the most endearing chants of the era.

I first met Warren on the flight back from Japan in summer 1996 when a certain Alan Shearer was in the front of the plane, and he sought me out in the stewardess’ section sampling the duty frees.

I’d just joined The Sun as the North East’s football correspondent, a big deal in those days, and as it was my first foreign trip, I was totally out of my depth. Typically, as I was to discover, Warren was looking out for the new kid in Toon and making sure I was settling in…

For both of us, it was a period that provided professional and personal highlights, the establishment of lifelong friendships and a taste of what might have been for Newcastle United.

Warren says: “I had such a wonderful time in the North East, playing for Kevin, Sir Bobby, Kenny; the time we spent there as a family was the most enjoyable part of my life.

“Sir Bobby was a gentleman; he understood from day one with his first team talk what we needed.

“He just said to Alan, ‘why do you keep facing towards us?’, and Alan said, ‘because he (Ruud Gullit) wanted us to play sexy football’.

“And Sir Bobby just said, ‘face the goal’, and Al scored five in his first game.

“He ran a football club the right way, but it wasn’t just the football; he was a big influence on all of us and the way we conducted ourselves because that’s the way he was – opening doors, never late for a meeting, treating everyone with respect.

“We once lost a game at Crystal Palace.

“We were sitting on the bus, waiting for him, and he was talking to a steward.

“Someone shouted, ‘come on, gaffer we’re going to miss the flight’ and he just said, ‘hang on, I’m talking to this gentleman, telling him how rubbish you lot have been. We’ll go when I’m finished’.

“We used to love going to club events.

“We would want to go to schools on an afternoon, because we knew we were creating memories for kids and that was down to Kevin and Sir Bobby because they never let us forget their roots and what our presence meant to those kids.
“And we’d always have a laugh too.”

Not everyone has welcomed Newcastle’s change of circumstance; 18 other Premier League clubs almost immediately voted
to change the rules regarding owners and internal sponsorship deals.

Tellingly, only Manchester City voted with Newcastle.

Club supporters, relieved to be rid of Ashley after more than a decade of treading water and “ticking along” under Bruce, have been accused of ignoring the Saudis’ human rights record, and in particular the assassination of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey three years ago.

Ridding the region of Ashley comes at a price; and while there is obviously a willingness to embrace the new owners, particularly among supporters, Warren and Alan Shearer have reiterated the North East public must educate itself in the more controversial aspects of their background and history.

But it is difficult to quell the euphoria which greeted the rather unexpected announcement in early October.

The former full-back, with more grey tints than blonde now (and no centre parting), is convinced the future looks bright for the black and whites – and the whole city.

He adds: “The fact they will have their city and their club back excites me more than anything.

“I know we didn’t win anything, and we failed really but we had a go, and we knew exactly what we were trying to do.

“When you look back to that time, Sir John had just built the Metrocentre, the Quayside was starting to take off and it spread from the hotels, bars and restaurants in the city centre to Jesmond, Gosforth, Whitley Bay; the whole region was vibrant and exciting, and it was a joy to be around.

“Look how much the city centre has changed since.

“The takeover will have a knock-on effect in Newcastle and the whole North East again with the jobs it will create.

“The whole image of the club has changed.

“When we played, if anyone worked part-time or volunteered for the club, they’d get a uniform and they wore the badge with pride, so you’d see a taxi driver who was a steward or a shop owner with that Newcastle United fleece on and it meant something to them.

“I think that connection has dwindled. “And understandably so. “But that love has been reignited almost overnight.
“Someone like Allan Saint-Maximin has not even got a taste of what it feels like to be adored by Newcastle fans.

“He’s their hero, the one they love, like David Ginola and Laurent Robert, and if he keeps playing like them, they are really going to love him.

“And he won’t have a clue what’s hit him, if he thinks this is looking after him.

“I’ve seen Peter Beardsley being carried down the Bigg Market on people’s shoulders.

“I’m not saying you play the game for that, but they are special memories.

“Just look at that Spurs game. The atmosphere was incredible; it nearly took your breath away, even watching it on the TV.

“It really took me back.

“I loved every minute of my time at Newcastle; I miss every minute.”