Sunday afternoon’s Carabao Cup Final clash between Manchester United and Newcastle United feels like a meeting of classicism and modernity. The old footballing power against the sport’s new direction. The latter is so inexorable that the Red Devils themselves look set to be consumed by it. The next time these two sides meet, it could be in a sort of gulf state derby between Newcastle’s Saudi owners and Man United’s potential Qatari ones.
There are parallels to be drawn between Newcastle’s sale and Man United’s potential takeover. In 2021, the Saudi Public Investment Fund purchased Newcastle United, ending the contentious ownership of Mike Ashley. The Sports Direct chief bought the club in 2007, two years after the equally-controversial Glazer family bought Manchester United.
The fact the Toon’s owner was so despised meant that a Saudi bid, mired as it was in questions over human rights abuses, was still palatable to at least some of the fanbase. It is hard to imagine giddy fans dressing in a costume shop approximation of traditional Saudi dress if Ashley had not been so reviled.
The Manchester giants find themselves in a similar boat. Their fanbase is divided where once it was unified. Every United fan hates the Glazers, but now there is civil war. Supporters are turning on each other over whether it is okay to advocate for Qatari ownership, which comes with the same human rights concerns as Newcastle and the PIF.
The red half of this debate is hypothetical for now, of course. That’s what makes this Sunday’s final such an interesting dichotomy. This could be the Red Devils’ last major trophy under the Glazer regime, though a Europa League win remains a distinct possibility. That fact in isolation should be cause for celebration. The final silverware under an ownership regime that, during the latter half of their tenure, didn’t bring home enough.
That’s not to say that the red United are the only genuine article in this final or that the black and white United are in any way artificial. Such an argument would ring hollow considering the traditionalists spent £203 million to the nouveau riche’s £118 million this summer. But while the former essentially spent their own revenues, the latter benefited from a huge, perception-warping cash injection. Without the Saudi money, Newcastle haven’t seen a cup final since they met Man United in the 1999 FA Cup showpiece.
For something often derided as a sportswashing project, you almost have to admire the way Newcastle’s on-pitch transformation has gone under the radar. Everyone is willing to give them their flowers for their improvement, and Eddie Howe has rightfully earned plaudits for transforming the team. Several players have been applauded too. But it is the identity and category of these players that has allowed the Magpies to almost stealthily go about their business as a newly-minted superclub.
The owners may have splashed over £200 million on players since taking the reins, but the nature of that spending has been smart. Unlike Todd Boehly and Clearlake at Chelsea, or the excesses of Manchester City in the early years of the Abu Dhabi ownership, they haven’t gone wild chasing box office names. A lot of Premier League viewers hadn’t heard of Bruno Guimaraes before he arrived at St James’ Park. When they needed a striker they didn’t steer a wheelbarrow of money up Real Madrid’s drive, they snapped up Callum Wilson from Bournemouth. And any Geordie who tells you Dan Burn was higher on their dream transfer list than Neymar when the PIF bought the club is a liar.
But they have made smart acquisitions rather than headline grabbing ones. So much so that it has clouded the reality behind their takeover. To many they remain the sentimental favourite in this Carabao Cup final. The little engine that could rather than the Premier League plaything of a gulf state. These are the facts and are not meant to cloud the excellent job that the players and manager are doing. This is merely intended to shine a light on the regime that has assembled them,
It is a question Manchester United may soon have to confront. One of the reasons their win over Barcelona on Thursday felt so pivotal was the very fact it was a meeting of two traditional football superpowers. Erik ten Hag’s men will cede that designation if the Glazers sell to the Qataris. The inconvenient truth of human rights abuses will stain future silverware. If the Red Devils win the EFL Cup on Sunday, it could be the last trophy they win that truly shines.
Will Wembley play host to the end of an era? In truth, it will play host to the end of several. A trophy drought will end, whether it is one that’s been in effect since 2017 or 1955 (or 1969, if you’re an Inter-Cities Fairs Cup fan). Either way, you feel like this game is arriving at the end of both clubs’ dark periods of recent years. But could it also be the last meeting of these two teams that isn’t played out between the states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia? That remains to be seen.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change