I can’t have been alone in smiling wryly as Newcastle United released details of its the Fans Advisory Engagement strategy just minutes after it enraged thousands of us with a cack-handed approach to controlling ticket sales for away games.
Newcastle United can still be … well, the Newcastle United that leaves us gasping in exasperation on occasion.
But putting poor news management to one side, this Fan Advisory stuff represents a forward step of progress. Of sorts.
Let’s say something this is not. It isn’t the realisation of a dream I and many others have had for some time – namely supporters owning their club in part and nor is it anything like the much admired Bundesliga model with 51% ownership of clubs resting with fans. It is a million miles from that and those dreams are fading into the rear view mirror.
Nor is this anything that has been driven by clubs themselves. Premier League clubs have been resistant to any form of accountability from the get-go. Anything positive the Premier League has done for supporters’ has come from pressure from outside.
There has been a lot of talk this week about tickets for away games but it is only because of pressure from fan groups, prominent amongst which was the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (with Spirit of Shankly, Blue Union, MUST, THST and others) under the leadership of the Football Supporters Association we are paying £30 a ticket and not some of the eye-watering amounts that preceded that campaign.
And it is the same with Fans Advisory Boards which are taking shape against the backdrop of the Tracey Crouch MP–led review (again in which the NUST played a role which drew praise from Crouch and her team on account of its expertise and professionalism) and the threat of an independent regulator for football. In my opinion, that is something long overdue and with the election of a Labour government is likely to happen, I’d imagine.
You’ll recall the Crouch review came on the back of a cumulative concern at how the PL / FA conducted its affairs leading to the attempts to join a European Super League and screw the rest of football in this country.
The first point of any Fans Advisory Board is to establish the fundamental purpose of the exercise. If it is to improve relations between the club and the people that support it, then great!
But it is easy to make broad, feel-good statements and the trick is to take the action that brings those noble goals to life.
The danger of course is prefacing an exercise in fan engagement with a drum roll building expectation and then failing to do the correct things to make it happen. That road leads to bitter disappointment and cynicism.
The sincerity of Newcastle United is under scrutiny and if we end up with something little more than a box-ticking exercise as per the discredited former Fans Liaison Committee then that can set the club further back from the point it started.
But I have a degree of optimism we are a million miles from Newcastle United refusing to speak to the Newcastle United Supporters Trust when Lee Charnley was catapulted into a position he was sorely ill-equipped to perform.
Here is my take on who should represent supporters on the Fans Advisory Board.
Number one again, is who it definitely should not be. It shouldn’t be people like me.
By that I mean, just because I write regularly for this fanzine and appear on podcasts should not mean any visibility I’ve achieved down the years as a “fan voice” (sic) puts me around any table with club officials. That applies to any number of podcasters, writers, you-tubers or anyone else of that ilk. We are people that express personal opinions – sometimes they strike a chord of agreement, other times they don’t and all of that is part of the gaiety of life.
The people who sit down to represent supporter interests should be people who are representative and accountable to us. People who have been elected and who can be removed by us acting collectively if we don’t think they are doing a good job or we believe there is a better person suited to the task. You know, elections, constitutions and all of that old fashioned, boring democracy stuff we’d be fucked without.
The only supporters organisation we have which meets that standard is the Newcastle United Supporters Trust. It is the properly constituted, members-led organisation we have. It has developed a maturity over the years to achieve its current position with one of the largest memberships and best run fans based organisations in the UK – plugged into a wider network of similar organisations with a growing expertise in fan representation.
It is easy for anyone to describe any tin-pot group as democratic, it is far more difficult to demonstrate how that works.
Not that I believe NUST is the only fan-group to have a good reason to meet with officials at United.
Clearly, there is an obvious need for Wor Flags to have a practical, working relationship with the relevant people at Newcastle United so the fantastic displays they have delivered for us continue and improve. That is their thing and should have everyone’s support to achieve that.
The same applies to the Newcastle United Disabled Supporters Association. No-one understands the needs and issues faced by disabled fans of our club than those in their position. I’d think we all understand they should have a key role in developing a supporters’ relationship with United.
Similarly, the United With Pride group representing LGBT+ supporters have a role in helping the club into one that creates an environment for supporters which is welcoming and tolerant.
Extend that to the Newcastle United Fans Foodbank and other related charities, specifically the Foundation who can tap into the enormous energy and expertise of supporters generally.
These organisations are properly-run and with clear objectives.
None of that prevents United from conducting surveys and temperature checks with supporters – season ticket holders and members etc.
Where I do see a problem is in the random collection of supporters whose identities are often unknown, who are unrepresentative of anyone bar themselves and with largely unknown motives. That brings us back to the less than satisfactory consultation regards ticketing and how United has managed to piss so many people off.
Big deep breath, let’s tell the truth and be honest there are people who want the buzz of being around the table at SJP for the benefit of their own ego. They serve no purpose for us as supporters while they are smiling sweetly at club officials and helping themselves to the biscuits drinking tea from the club’s best china.
Much the same is true of social media loudmouths with a high opinion of themselves as the true fans, gas-lighting others about who they are and attempting to sabotage others in their own interests.
They have nothing to bring to the table.
This is a big test for Newcastle United but it is a greater one for us as supporters to behave properly, act in the intelligent, structured and supportive way we should.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …
Michael Martin, @TFMick1892
The Newcastle United fan engagement plan 2023/24 is here – take some time to give it a read.