Although it is beyond frustrating as we wait for the takeover to be confirmed, I’m as confident as I can be (on the basis of no meaningful evidence to the contrary) that it will happen. Our club, Newcastle United will move from the death grip of Mike Ashley into the hands of the Staveley-led consortium. Thereafter we all have our hopes as to what the future holds, primary of which is a Newcastle United that might awake from its slumbers and become the giant of football that it should always have been.
There are other clubs that regularly win honours and while the dream for us is to join them, in terms of the ambitions for United is also a different kind of club to the one we’ve suffered under Ashley (and which I’d argue also under Hall, Shepherd, McKeag and Seymour et al).
Over the last decade and three I’ve heard, read and on occasion written about a lack of supporter engagement around Newcastle United. It is an expression regularly bandied about with many not really understanding how fan engagement moves from an intangible aspiration and into something real. Within this interregnum provided by COVID-19 and the desire of the PL to respond meaningfully to the machinations of BEIN (brought by bad blood between the Qataris and Saudis), we can pause and think about what supporter engagement really means.
There are some who mistakenly misunderstand what fan engagement looks like. It isn’t about swinging by on Barrack Road walking into the Milburn Stand, having tea and biscuits and demanding the purchase of a new centre-forward. We have never and should never have that kind of impact upon those on the playing side – managers and coaches with club executives look after all of that and if they get it wrong consistently, they are out on their arse. That looks after itself.
The vast majority of thinking, sentient supporters understand all of that but the position we’re currently in, provides an opportunity to set out a vision of what we want from our club – aside from the sky-scraping success of our wilder imaginations of course.
It’s about real supporter engagement.
The first starting point for this is the right intentions. There are promising signals from the buying side they understand the need for supporter engagement and a broader liaison with key local institutions. If we have that and it isn’t just tokenism designed to appease the mass ranks of peachy keen, ruddy faced excited supporters then we are in a good place.
One thing I learned editing a fanzine for close to twenty years and becoming variously involved in fan activism and that is most of us have a different view of what Newcastle United means. Some of that is shared by others whilst many don’t recognise what we as individuals hold to be an inalienable truth. For many years I felt Newcastle United was an expression of civic pride, a cap badge of Geordie identity, representative of our community centred in NE1 but a regional club cherished by those from the Tweed to the Tees and passed down through generations, often across the world via the Geordie / NE diaspora. I felt our support was a one which stuck together, cared for our neighbours – those bairns are wor bairns as my lovely mother would have said. Happily a lot of people shared my view but many looked at me as if I was daft and their Newcastle United was something different to mine shaped by a different upbringing, different political view. Who is to say I am right or wrong or similarly those who have looked quizzically at me when I have expounded such views. Newcastle United means so much to us in many different ways it is occasionally painful to countenance a different perception. Now I’m out of all that fan activism (with no intention of returning to it) I’ve been allowed that perspective.
So, anyone wanting to engage with the supporters of a club such as ours as the legal owners of Newcastle United has to understand that we rarely speak with one voice. We often quarrel, disagree vehemently and too often develop toxic enmities as a result.
How then, does a club ownership engage with a supporter-base riven with such division of opinion, even nuance without giving up and resorting to at best a benign corporate dictatorship or at worst just pull down the shutters and give it up as a bad job?
The answer I believe is in a few fundamental principles around something as dull sounding as governance.
As a group of supporters we need representatives. Those that go into speak to those that run Newcastle United have to possess a legitimacy that can only come with being elected by supporters.
Those that are elected as supporter representatives have to be accountable to us. We have to give them their authority to speak on our behalf and do as we agree collectively through voting and the other paraphernalia of group decision-making. If they don’t perform as we wish or we think there are others better qualified to take their place, then through elections we can get rid of them.
If we, as a group of supporters, agree fundamentally in the need for real engagement with the club then we have to behave in a different way to that which has become embedded over the Ashley years. I’m not hopelessly optimistic enough or plain daft to believe our support will instantly become sensible, considered and patient overnight. To make a new era of engagement work, supporters will need to behave differently. That will mean towards each other and to the club. Ashley’s running of United has in large part led to an outright poisonous atmosphere around United. That is manifested itself in some disgraceful abuse of fellow supporters, lies, rolling-eyed conspiracy theories and some at times outrageous claims against each other. I wonder what standards of decency some people observe in their daily lives, in the work-place and in education.
The problem of course is there are no checks and balances or consequences for appalling behaviour in interactions between supporters. But it has to change.
Supporters have to behave better, respect each other and coalesce around some core principles and the key one is absolutely and completely democracy.
I see this as our most difficult challenge because there are those who know no different than appalling behaviour. They are similarly threatened by the very concept of democracy and accountability.
So, what is supporter engagement? As I’ve said above, it completely lacks definition so needs a structure put round it to bring it to life.
There are some themes I think are obvious.
Few would argue against players and managers playing a greater role than they have hitherto with the local community, with the Foundation and the executives at the club making themselves more available to the media which all plays into the sense of engagement.
But it isn’t supporter engagement. Not really.
There needs to be engagement around such key bread and butter issues as:
- tickets for away games
- health and safety
- supporters liaison (I strongly advocate SLOs being interviewed and selected for the job at least in part by supporters)
But it can go further and include the Foundation, inclusion strategies and along with special interest groups such as the NUDSA and Diversity Group to increase access and ensure Newcastle United is not only the Club of the North © geographically but socially too.
There should also be transparency and there is a role for supporter engagement to understand the club’s plans to develop in all areas and provide an insight into the financial management of United. Fan engagement is also about being accountable to a sense of good stewardship, answering questions and listening to constructive, well-articulated criticism. But as supporters through various means it is our responsibility to keep a watching eye on those people who are the temporary custodians of Newcastle United and react if they are damaging our club. That doesn’t change and we always have to be on guard.
Those coming into care for our club will find a support ready to defend it to the hilt as it does the right things to take Newcastle United forward. But real supporter engagement is listening to sensible criticism and responding.
There is only one supporter organisation that can even begin to think about having this responsibility and it is the Newcastle United Supporters Trust. It ticks every box. With a membership of over 10,000 and growing, it is both representative and accountable. Indeed it is the largest members based supporters organisation in the UK. No other supporters’ organisation has anything like the legitimacy it possesses.
It is an absolute no-brainer and a potential game-changer for Newcastle United – the club and those who support it.
The club cannot afford to allow it to develop its strategy by referencing the hysterical, extreme and often nonsensical rantings of social media loudmouths. Those goons have to be ignored in preference for sober, reliable people who the club can be confident have a democratic legitimacy with a wider support base beyond ranting keyboard warriors.
You’d imagine a manifesto for sensible representation and fan engagement with an organisation with a bona-fide constitution, elections, a rule-book to run its affairs and accountability would carry universal support. I believe it more or less does but that will not prevent some whose agendas are self-aggrandising and borne of naked self-interest as to be laughable to object for utterly spurious, reasons. Unfortunately, for them they have no auditable constituency in any way shape or form. That is not to deny them an opportunity to have their voices heard – but to earn our trust (pun intended) as representatives they will need to get with the programme, prove they have what it takes and become elected where they can show their talents. I’m not sure some have the appetite for that.
We could be at the dawn of a new era and it’s on us all to do the right things.
Wise up – join the Newcastle United Supporters Trust and to coin and expression – Fortiter-Defendit-Triumphans – click here
Keep On, Keepin’ On …