Newcastle LGBTQ+ group defend statement, say they were put in 'impossible position' by Saudi takeover 1 week ago

Newcastle LGBTQ+ group defend statement, say they were put in 'impossible position' by Saudi takeover

United with Pride's statement on the takeover received criticism on social media

Newcastle United LGBTQ+ supporters group United with Pride have defended their decision to welcome the club's new owners, saying they were put in an "impossible position" after the Saudi-backed takeover of the club.

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The Premier League approved the takeover after receiving "legally binding assurances" that Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) - which is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - is separate to the Saudi state and would not control the club.

United with Pride released a statement which acknowledged Saudi Arabia's lack of tolerance for LGBTQ+ and gender rights but added that the takeover could have a "positive influence".

The statement has drawn criticism on social media for not condemning the new owners, with some claiming it contradicts the group's message of zero tolerance for discrimination.

Speaking to JOE, United with Pride's co-chair Ian Pearson-Brown has said the group anticipated criticism following the release of the statement but insisted he did not regret the response they had taken.

"We were always going to upset somebody [with the statement]," he acknowledged. "We were in an impossible position. At the end of the day, we are football fans. We don’t have any control over who owns our club. There is a conversation around whether fans should have a bigger say in who owns their football club but that’s a conversation to be had with the UK government and the Premier League. 

"We are trying to work with the hand we have been dealt as an LGBTQI fans group. All of our members, pretty much, were behind the statement; the Newcastle United fans we talked to were behind the statement; the club itself helped us a year last May with what we should do in the event of a takeover. 

"We don’t regret it. We knew there’d be a social media pile-on, largely by people from other clubs who call us hypocrites. But they are entitled to their own opinion."

Pearson-Brown explained that the group's focus is to continue their work amongst Newcastle supporters and within the local community and that maintaining a good relationship with the club - irrespective of who owns it - best enables them to do that.

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"The key thing from our perspective is what is going to help us achieve our goals going forward in our community. Our mission is to work with Newcastle United Football Club, with the same staff we’ve worked with for years.

"We could look at the situation in Saudi Arabia and we could rightly condemn it, but it’s not really our responsibility as a group to act on something. That is for Amnesty International and other organisations. We are here to open football up and we think by engaging with Newcastle United Football Club around that, we will achieve more.

"The alternative is we disband, do nothing and go and support another football club, but you can’t do those things."

Pearson-Brown admitted that the takeover had prompted a lot of reflection from across the Newcastle fanbase, but added that any concerns he held about the new ownership's commitment to supporting the club's diversity and inclusion initiatives such as United As One were allayed long before the deal's completion.

"I think every single fan - and this is the same for heterosexual fans as well as LGBTQ+ - has had a lot of soul-searching to do. I did mine when we were in talks with the club. We had a spike in homophobic abuse around that time and were engaging with them a lot.

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"We were aware the potential owners, who are now the new owners, had looked at the United As One equality, diversity and inclusion brand of NUFC, and really liked it and wanted all the work to continue around that brand. That includes our work and we were given assurances that our relationship with the club wasn’t going to change."

The day after United with Pride's statement, Pride in Football, a network of LGBTQ+ football supporters groups, condemned Newcastle's takeover. Having repeatedly called for the introduction of a more thorough fit and proper owners' and directors' test in English football, their statement said that the Saudi-backed deal for Newcastle highlighted the inadequacy of the systems currently in place.

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Asked if he agreed with Pride in Football's stance, Pearson-Brown said: "Yes, absolutely. I’m a romantic. I’d love to have a local owner like Sir John Hall or, if you want to go elsewhere, Jack Walker at Blackburn - a local lad who made his millions and invested them into the club and that club’s gone on to achieve success.

"The reality of football in 2021 is that isn’t the case. There are very few examples of that at the top of football. The people who run these clubs are Russian oligarchs or people who have made masses of money out of, sometimes, questionable human rights.

"I think there should be better regulation around who owns football clubs. I completely agree with Pride In Football’s stand in this."

"We didn’t get into this as a group of volunteers to be commenting on geopolitical issues in the Middle East. We’ve been put into a situation which we should never have been put into.

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"The furore around this and the number of people who are desperate to get an angle on our opinion, that is also hampering our work. Unfortunately, we’ve had to deal with the social media pile-on instead and lots of requests. We didn’t ask for any of this, and this follows a lot of soul-searching in any case."

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