Board Member Peter Fanning attended as the NUST representative and this is his report.
So, the first meeting of the Fans Forum took place on Monday night, 23rd September at St. James' Park and it was an interesting meeting. It's the first time I've had the chance to sit down with two Directors of NUFC and question them about the accounts, transfer policy, the appointment of Joe Kinnear and the Wonga deal. Fair play to the Club representatives for being there and trying to answer questions from fan representatives as best they could.
Who was there?
The line up from NUFC included Lee Charnley (Club Secretary), John Irving (Finance Director), Wendy Taylor (Head of Media), Steve Storey (Head of Safety and Security), Stephen Tickle (Box Office Manager), Kate Bradley (Head of Newcastle United Foundation). It was chaired by Lee Marshall (Supporter Liaison Manager) and he was assisted in facilitating the meeting by Bob Moncur, Club Ambassador.
As well as the great and the good from the Club (no sign of the main man of course but nobody expected that!) two Wonga representatives were there to talk about their "partnership" with NUFC.
I won't list all of the fans representatives (14 of us) because you can go on the Club site and see pictures of all of us and the Club will also be posting the minutes of the meeting. This report is my perception and views of how the meeting went.
What did we ask about?
After some introductions we were invited to raise any questions we wanted to the two Directors. The following is a summary of some of what was covered:
- The Clubs five year plan was given a knock by last year's poor league performance but it is to establish the Club in the top ten of the Premiership;
- Mike Ashley has no real intention, desire or ambition to sell the Club;
- Transfer policy continues to be to target players under the age of 26, but there is some flexibility there. Last summer their strategy was to retain the players we had rather than buying because they thought they had a good squad. They also believed that the increased TV money this year would inflate the transfer market which is why they were prepared to bring forward their business to the last January window rather than this summer. The Club believe they have a strong squad. There was money available during the close season but the players they wanted weren't available at the price they were prepared to pay;
- Mike Ashley appointed Joe Kinnear because he wanted someone he trusts to work with the football side of the Club and have the football conversations with Alan Pardew;
- It is felt that Joe Kinnear tried hard to bring players to the Club and it wasn't always his fault that deals were not completed. Sometimes there were problems with agents fees and other issues around the deals which meant that they weren't completed. It was also repeated that we had done most of our planned business in January;
- It was agreed that the Joe Kinnear appointment could have been handled better at the time it was announced. Lessons have been learned. Joe Kinnear has a column in each matchday programme;
- The cup competitions are not a priority for the club. They are used to be able to look at our squad as a whole. The focus is on a top ten league place because the financial rewards are so great;
- We asked about the Club finances and it was explained that their financial planning is done on a three year cycle linked to the TV money. There are very few clubs in a healthier financial situation than us. Our only debts are interest free debts owed to Mike Ashley which are unlikely to be called in until and if the Club is sold;
- The Club accounts show that Mike Ashley took an £11million short term loan back last year but the £18million short term loan he was due to take back this year is being rolled over to future years. The long term loan of £111million will stay in the accounts but there is no definition of long term. This means that our only significant debts are the interest free debts to Mike Ashley.
- On the Commercial income side we are one of the weakest clubs around. The Directors are working with Wonga and Puma to improve that situation but there was little information about what plans we have in place. Our commercial income shown in the accounts is about £13million. Man. Utd for example was shown recently as £153million! We were told that we couldn't compete with Man. Utd.;
- They were asked if Sports Direct paid for adverting at St. James' Park and it was confirmed that they do not. John Irving said that Sports Direct were using space that would be otherwise unused but didn't say how hard the commercial team were trying to find other (paying) advertisers;
- The Club Directors were asked how they intended to use the £200k Enhancing the Away Fan Experience payment. They explained their preferred policy of campaigning in the Premier League for agreed reciprocal pricing arrangements because our fans travelling away get charged more than we charge away fans to come to St. James. They were making some progress with individual clubs but this was ongoing. They said they were open to suggestions about enhancing the away fan experience. A request from our Disabled Supporters representative that away travel be provided for them was immediately taken up by the Club and John Irving agreed that something would be worked out. Result!
- They were asked about the involvement of the Club in the Rainbow Laces initiative and reported that some players and the manager had worn them. They also agreed to identify a players representative for equality issues;
- There were a number of facilities issues raised about St James' and we were told that the ticketing system is currently being upgraded and major improvements are being worked on, the East Stand P.A system is being checked out because it is so ineffective and the Club are looking at travel issues for away games and providing official travel to away games in future.
- We were given the chance to state a preference from several options for a future third strip that is currently being worked on with Puma.
We then had a pitch from Wonga about their company, their business model and their partnership with the Club. They were asked if a replica shirt could be produced without the Wonga logo for those who wanted to buy an alternative. John Irving was clear that such a request was a non starter, it wasn't going to happen. The Club didn't want it and Wonga didn't want it. If fans want it, they're not getting it. Interestingly John Irving said that the Wonga strip is the fastest selling shirt they've had in the last six years. The Wonga representative also explained that the purpose of branding and sponsorship is for everybody to be wearing the same shirt. Now I don't have any figures to query shirt sales but what I see in the pubs and at the match is very different to that. The majority of shirts I see are previous editions going back to Blue Star and beyond. Many Newcastle fans have always worn the black and white stripes but there has always been an eclectic mix of favourite versions of shirts, whoever the sponsor.
Kate Bradley then gave us an update about a programme of activities organised by the Foundation linked to it's fifth anniversary. She agreed to liaise with Forum members so that we could circulate details to our wider groups where appropriate.
So there we go, the Fans Forum is up and running and will meet four times a season but in the meantime we are encouraged to bring issues raised by fans to Lee Marshall who will try and get some answers or will put the matter on the agenda for the next meeting.
What did I think?
First the plus points.
I was pleased that senior club representatives came along. They answered the questions put to them, albeit sometimes in a diplomatic and "political" way where they spoke without telling us anything but hey, at least they were here talking to us and it was the first meeting. Perhaps we'll get better at interrogating them!
Everybody was sensible and treated each other with respect when questions were being asked and answered.
We were offered the opportunity to influence the design of a future strip, albeit a "third strip" and it will still have a Wonga logo on it!
They gave an immediate commitment to use some of our new money to provide away game travel for disabled supporters.
Now the not so plus points!
As I thought about what we'd heard I felt an overwhelming feeling of lack of ambition. Winning cup competitions is not important to us because mid table mediocrity pays more! We'll never compete with Manchester United so the extent of our commercial markets will be tours to Motherwell and St. Mirren rather than America or the Far East. Our transfer business will lag behind Swansea, Norwich, Southampton etc. because we'll only play by our rules even if it means losing a targeted signing.
As this negativity sinks in you can't help but think that if it's club policy to downgrade cup competitions then it must influence the manager's decision making. Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear may not be writing out the team sheet but who's really picking the team?
Are we really saying that because Man.U. Arsenal, Chelsea and Man. City are in those overseas markets there's no room for us? If we were winning things surely those markets would open up but if we're not a bit more ambitious and aiming a bit higher than premiership survival each year we'll never win things so we just sit comfortably in our own back yard and take the T.V. money and the hard earned cash of fifty thousand Geordies?
I'm an optimist. I was born in 1956, the year after we last won a domestic trophy but I still hope to see us win something before I pop my clogs. My favourite memory is the Man. Utd 5-0 because that showed me where we should be as a club, beating the Mackems should be a given! Players, managers, boards of directors and owners are transient...supporters are the lifeblood, the heart and the soul of the football club. Things will change at some point and Newcastle United Football Club will regain the ambition to match that of the supporters, but it could be a while!