Although the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United has not yet gone through, the expectation remains that, despite objections from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; despite pleas from the fiancee of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi and from the Qatari TV company beIN Sports; and despite the potential for Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, to influence Abdullah bin Musa'ad, a lower-ranking Saudi prince who owns Sheffield United, it will in the end be ratified. And inevitably, alongside the qualms about another Premier League club becoming an agent of soft-power for a government with a highly questionable human rights record, that means speculation.
Excited hopes that Newcastle is about to launch a nine-figure bid for Kylian Mbappe are probably wide of the mark, but if the deal does go through, it’s almost certain that there will be a glut of signings and, quite probably, a new manager.
Steve Bruce has become a divisive figure on Tyneside. Although he grew up in Daisy Hill, just over three miles east of St James’ Park, and supported Newcastle as a boy, his willingness to work for a despised owner in Mike Ashley caused many to turn against him. His supposedly negative tactics have been criticized as well, but he had the club in 13th, and his Premier League win percentage of 31% is very close to the 31.4% achieved by his very popular predecessor, Rafa Benitez. The perception of him, though, is of somebody lacking the sophistication of Benitez, a manager operating at the summit of his range. And he is not a figure likely to be much of draw for overseas talent.
Although the prospective new owners have said Bruce will have at least until the end of the season (whenever that may be), it was no great surprise to see Mauricio Pochettino linked this week with the post. Pochettino is extremely highly regarded, has shown he can take an upper-mid-table Premier League side and transform it into a title challenger and has been without a job since being sacked by Tottenham in November. He is exactly the sort of person new owners should be contacting.
The assumption had been that Pochettino was next on the list for both the Real Madrid and Manchester United jobs. Both clubs rate him highly. Neither has a manager who, at the moment, inspires complete confidence. But United’s form had picked up under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before lockdown and it’s not clear either anyway that United or Madrid would be willing to dismiss their present managers, both icons of their clubs, amid the disruption of the virus. That perhaps would leave Pochettino more open to a concrete offer from elsewhere.
But how attractive, really, is the Newcastle job? Any new manager will have to deal with questions about the human rights record of his employers, just as Pep Guardiola has had to at Manchester City. Pochettino presented a coaching masterclass at the Aspire Fellows Summit last year, so perhaps that isn’t something that overly concerns him but, at the very least, it would be a distraction.
Newcastle fans seem to expect a huge spending spree, but it’s hard to see how that is possible. Financial Fair Play regulations in the Premier League cap losses over three years at £105 million; UEFA limits them to £26 million (as in, the restrictions are tighter for clubs in European competition, but the added income from being in that competition offsets the difference). Although there is likely to be some short-term softening to regulations to take into account the way the lockdown has impacted club finances, those basic principles remain.
Newcastle made a small profit in 2017-18, but the expectation is that the figures for 2018-19 will show a loss. That places a severe restriction on spending. For context, Chelsea made a loss of £308 million in its first three years after the Roman Abramovich takeover in 2003; City endured a loss of £395 million in the three years after the Sheikh Mansour takeover in 2008. FFP regulations are not only more stringent now, but as the recent UEFA ban on City showed, regulators are far more alert than they were to the potential for manufactured sponsorship deals (a state company, for instance, offering a shirt sponsorship deal at several times the market rate as a means of disguising direct investment). The likelihood will be of more player purchases than there has been of late, but nothing like the sort of splurge Newcastle fans are wishfully anticipating.
Although Pochettino may like the idea of building a club from the ground up again, as he did at Tottenham, he discovered there the limits on even a well-run side when there is a lack of money to invest. Given all that, and the fact that there is no indication what sort of owners the Saudis may be, it’s by no means certain Newcastle would tempt him, at least not while his reputation remans high and he, presumably, is in no immediate need of work.
Whenever football does return in England and Spain, the picture could clear very quickly. With Maurizio Sarri seemingly on his way out from Juventus, there could also be opportunities in Italy. Pochettino is in a very fortunate position. He can wait and take his pick. Even with the imminent takeover, Newcastle may not seem like a step forward.