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It’s about 2.20pm outside Selhurst Park, on the corner of Holmesdale Road. A man is shaking a bucket on behalf of the Palace for Life foundation. “Any loose change for cancer research?” he asks the crowds. “Every penny helps.”
A Newcastle fan walks past. He’s wearing a jacket with those blacked‑out goggles on the hood and over his shoulder he says: “Do you want some Saudi money?” The man smiles. “Yes,” he says, “We’ll take Saudi money. Even if it’s covered in blood”.
It was an odd moment, but the scene ran on. First, the man incorporated “blood money” into his sales pitch, turning it into a bit of a gag. Then, about five minutes later, a horde of the Toon Army marched up the hill towards the stadium. They were lined up behind a Saudi Arabian flag. Loud, optimistic and drunk, one of their number – who could not have heard the previous exchange – clapped his hands and began to lead a chant. “Blood, blood, blood money,” went the refrain.
Blood money. That was the phrase and that was the image rendered gaudily on a banner draped across the Holmesdale End at kick-off. The Palace ultras have a reputation for making statements: they’ve created flags to protest against everything from VAR to the closure of Fabric nightclub in the past. But this one was a degree more visceral.
On the left was an image of a Saudi sheikh, wielding a scimitar, taking aim at the head of a magpie. On the right, a bag of money and a pool of blood lapping at the feet of a cartoon Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive. In the middle was a clipboard listing criteria for the Premier League’s owners test. They read: “Terrorism, Beheadings, Civil Rights Abuses, Murder, Censorship, Persecution,” and next to each line was a large scarlet tick.
A 1-1 draw with a VAR-overturned winner, a series of thumping challenges and moments of impressive skill, felt both oddly banal and a little by-the-by after that. All these people – even if it was only a fraction of the crowd – with blood and murder on their mind … who wants to have to bring that to a football match? It seemed there was something else lapping at the edges of this game, the realities that exist outside the bubble of Premier League football.
The Holmesdale Fanatics, the group responsible for the banner, lingered after the final whistle angrily shouting – it appeared – at Newcastle’s substitutes as they warmed down. They issued a statement explaining their mural, which was equally heated in tone. “The Premier League has chosen money over morals and in green lighting this deal, has done business with one of the world’s most bloody and repressive regimes,” it said. “To give the ‘thumbs up’ to this deal at a time when the Premier League is promoting the women’s game and inclusive initiatives such as rainbow armbands, shows the total hypocrisy at play and demonstrates the League’s soulless agenda where profits trump all.”
Meanwhile, Newcastle were releasing a statement of their own. It was a correction to a statement earlier in the week in which they had asked their fans to stop wearing traditional Arab dress. The fear on Wednesday, according to the club, was that such dressing up was “culturally inappropriate” and risked “causing offence to others”. On Saturday, that was apparently no longer the case.
The club said the new owners had “been overwhelmed by the welcome of the local community” and so, to “clarify their guidance”, they wanted to make clear: “Those who wish to support the club by wearing appropriate culturally-inspired clothing should feel free to do so as they see fit.”
Amid everything else that had gone on, this statement felt part of a piece. It was surely well-intentioned. The new owners were saying they didn’t want their new fans to feel that their celebrations were wrong. They had decided it was OK, because the sentiment was positive, and had endorsed the behaviour. But they had also set a limit on what was “appropriate”. Furthermore, the owners – who remain officially unconnected in any way to the Saudi state but are funded by its money – had laid claim to the values of inclusivity.
It’s hard out there for a lot of people right now and, this winter, it’s likely to get harder. That people, fans, should take enjoyment where they can find it is not surprising. It’s also hard to blame them for doing so. All behaviour has consequences however, and the scenes inside Selhurst Park and out this weekend showed that. The Magpies have created a situation where, sometimes, black is now white.