It is virtually impossible to listen to a British politician of any persuasion for long before the phrase “levelling up” receives yet another airing. The only problem is that almost everyone has different ideas as to what this ostensibly admirable leitmotif means, let alone entails. The only, intensely uncomfortable, consensus is that no quick fixes are capable of correcting the UK’s glaring regional economic inequalities.
It explains why, in 2020, more than 80 English MPs of all stripes signed a petition lobbying the Premier League for transparency over its then blocking of Newcastle United’s proposed takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment fund.
That number included almost the entire, 29-strong, complement of MPs representing north-east constituencies. Plenty harboured serious misgivings about Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights record but they also knew PIF was pledging to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in regeneration projects throughout an, in parts, “left-behind” region.
Small wonder, the government tacitly encouraged a highly controversial takeover finally completed last October. Or that several of Newcastle’s Premier League counterparts proved resistant to a footballing form of levelling up which promises, eventually, to see St James’ Park staging Champions League nights once more.
Only so many teams can qualify for Europe so it is hardly surprising if Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and, particularly, Tottenham remain far from delighted about the idea of Eddie Howe’s side crashing through the ropes separating the Premier League’s VIP enclosure from the division’s also-rans.
As Chelsea’s new co-owner Todd Boehly puts it: “With Newcastle’s takeover, the top six will become the top seven.” Some of his top-tier peers had initially hoped this prospective increase in meritocracy within England’s elite division might be delayed indefinitely by what they, misguidedly, envisaged would be Saudi mismanagement of the kingdom’s new toy.
Instead the new hierarchy are, so far at least, running Newcastle with the sort of ultra-sensible mindset rarely glimpsed during Mike Ashley’s preceding penny-wise, pound-foolish regime. Those who gleefully predicted that the financier Amanda Staveley, Newcastle’s co-owner and the director responsible for the club’s day-to-day running, would make an almighty hash of January’s transfer window were left deeply disappointed.
Rather than accelerating the team’s then seemingly relegation-bound trajectory by acquiring a cast of high-maintenance has-beens, fuelled by mercenary motives, Staveley confounded the misogynists.
In presiding over a transformational new year window featuring the arrival of Kieran Trippier, Dan Burn, Matt Targett, Chris Wood and Bruno Guimarães she ensured all departments of Howe’s first XI were bolstered.
The erroneous, and stereotypical, impression that Staveley’s bosses in Riyadh and Jeddah were the sort of bling-obsessed Arabs who would simply throw money at Newcastle as the team unravelled was swiftly disabused.
Instead a club previously noted more for off-field soap opera than on-pitch achievement have been so short of recent “scandal” that this summer’s most contentious incidents involved the winger Allan Saint-Maximin parking his Ferrari in the manager’s training-ground parking space.
Howe is a walking, talking antithesis to those predecessors who presided over some crazy days on Planet Toon. Whereas Joe Kinnear swore profusely at journalists and Alan Pardew headbutted the Hull midfielder David Meyler mid-match, the edgiest thing about Newcastle’s manager is his slightly evangelical obsession with the 1980s band A-ha. “I want other people to hear what I hear,” says the man whose coaching elevated a team winless when he succeeded Steve Bruce last November to a highly creditable 11th-placed finish.
Where certain counterparts might have celebrated by “going large” in Dubai, Howe took his wife and three sons on a driving holiday through southern California where he especially enjoyed the desert tranquillity of the Joshua Tree National Park.
Along the way his phone was kept engaged by two supremely sensible new boardroom appointments: the director of football, Dan Ashworth, and chief executive, Darren Eales. Ashworth was previously with Brighton and the Football Association, and the similarly much-admired Eales has relocated from MLS side Atlanta United to keep theoretically the world’s wealthiest club on the right side of financial fair play restrictions.
As Howe beds in this summer’s buys – to date most notably the much coveted former Lille defender Sven Botman and England’s former Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope, although another forward and midfielder rank high on the shopping list – Staveley now has time to concentrate on wider initiatives, including turning Newcastle’s women’s team professional.
Despite residing in the fourth tier, Becky Langley’s side appear on a one-way journey to the Women’s Super League.
Their debut appearance, in front of 22,000, at St James’ Park last May was widely publicised in Saudi Arabia, surprising those already taken aback at seeing Staveley handed such a high-profile role by overlords in a country hardly known for female emancipation.
Such unexpected promotion of women’s right can either be seen as genuine attempts at Saudi modernisation or, along with those regeneration projects, a clever and subtle form of sportswashing designed to soften the Kingdom’s image abroad. Maybe it’s both, but at least Gary Neville’s fears about English football’s growing north-south divide should diminish.
In 2015 the former England full-back turned TV analystwarned of Newcastle being “cut adrift” by the game’s “wider economic drift towards London”, musing: “Does any top player want to go and live in the north-east?”
Given Botman chose Tyneside over Milan and Guimarães claims Newcastle possess more potential than Arsenal, it seems the Premier League’s most contentious owners are already achieving a form of levelling up politicians can only dream of.