Do you ever get that strange stomach churning, knot in your stomach when you think about Newcastle United? Yeah, me too.

It seems that over the last 13 years or so, the leadership at Newcastle United has gone out of their way to distance themselves from the clubs fans. I often wonder why this is, it all seems so simple to me – invest time and energy in your fan base and they will repay you with loyalty, admiration and ultimately more of their money. Other clubs appear to do it, why can’t Newcastle? The opposite appears to do nothing but create anxiety, distrust and eventually total apathy.

Apathy is something that may well have set in many years ago among even the most ardent Newcastle fans, but it became national news when home attendance dropped so low last season that the club had to give away 10,000 half season tickets to fill St. James’ Park. That’s not news to any reader, but I think at the time the significance may have been lost on those outside the North East. I’ve been a Newcastle fan for 25 years and until recently one of the most important tools in our recruitment strategy as a club had been that players will get to play in front of 52,000 raging Geordie’s every week and being loved by the Newcastle fans was like being loved by an entire city. Virtually every player we signed made sure to comment on just how special our fan base was – in many ways, it was the best thing about Newcastle United. So when we lost that edge, it was massively important to the club that they got those fans back. Instead of investing time & effort to win fans back, earning their trust again and in many ways showing that they’d noticed the apathy, the club just decided to giveaway season tickets to patch over the wound. It’s this patching strategy that has defined the Ashley era in so many ways.

Communication should be one of the easiest things the club can do with it’s fans. Social media has made interaction with a global fan base so much easier. Instead of just the 52,000 that fill SJP, the club has the ability to interact with over 1.5m followers on twitter, instagram and other platforms. Like other sports companies, you’d think Newcastle would jump at the opportunity to communicate openly and broadly with it’s fan base via these platforms – after all, it’s free, it’s simple to do,  and you can cover a lot of ground very quickly.  Yet, the club appears to tightly harness it’s content on Twitter and rarely posts on instagram. When they do loosen up, it’s truly a breath of fresh air and increased fan interactions should be a good thing!

The club has become well known for running a very tight ship. Ask any local or national journalist what it’s like to get even the simplest information out of the club and they’ll tell you it’s like pulling teeth. This was perhaps highlighted most recently when the club didn’t or wouldn’t comment on the whereabouts of their record signing Joelinton. It was widely suspected that he’d had to quarantine after going to Mykonos on holiday during the off season – but the club wouldn’t comment on that. Now why would that be? It seems so simple. Journalists asked for a very simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on that information and the club went silent. Well, doubt fills a vacuum.

When the club refuses to comment on simple stories, doubt fills the gap, rumors fill the gap, uncertainty leads to suspicion and suspicion grows rampantly. We don’t trust the club, and that’s their fault. We’re suspicious of the club, and that’s also their fault. Eventually that distrust and suspicion turns to apathy!

More over, when the club just refuses to do that right thing, apathy grows. When COVID-19 reached pandemic levels and the Premier League came to a grinding halt, clubs had to scramble to get their ducks in a row. Players and their families had to be taken care of, but also fans. Newcastle were the first club to furlough staff, and the last club to engage with fans regarding season ticket refunds. Only after increased media scrutiny and lobbying via the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, did the club eventually relent and issue refunds and credits (I know, they still need to make good on this promise!), but still we wondered why? Why did it take so long? What’s so hard about refunding season tickets holders their own money? Why would that take the club months to do? Still, no communication from the club – and the distrust, anger & apathy grows stronger.

These are just a few simple and recent examples of how the club has hurt it’s own reputation with fans and the media. It seems so frustratingly simple to fans, why can’t the club wrap their heads around this?

So, what’s the strategy and why do the club seem to pursue a hands off relationship with it’s customers? I work in a relationship business, and I’m sure lots of readers do – and one of the number one rules is that regardless of your title or position, we’re all ultimately in customer service. If the end user (or supporter) isn’t happy, then it doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO, the call center rep, or the janitor, you’re all responsible. There’s a couple of theories worth exploring:

  • The fans hate the owner, so why bother trying? There’s no doubt, we hate the owner. We also hate the managing director – but they’ve earned that! So it’s chicken and egg in my opinion. They’ve proven time and time again that by not engaging with fans, they simply don’t care. Fans didn’t hate Ashley when he bought the club & most sided with him when he fired Sam Allardyce. It wasn’t until he utterly screwed Kevin Keegan by lying to him, holding back resources and hiring a team of complete idiots to run the club that fans started to turn. Frankly, we’ve all given Ashley enough chances to change this.

  • Every time we try, they still berate us! There’s actually some truth to this, isn’t there? The hate for Ashley joined with the distrust of the club leadership means that basically everything they do is wrong. It doesn’t matter who we sign, what the results are, or how our kits look, we always berate the club for something. Even when we sign a proven Premier League goalscorer it’s not ambitious enough for some or when we win 1-0, the football isn’t pretty enough. By why is that? It’s because, for close to a decade and a half, we’ve only had fleeting moments when the club appears engaged or caring so we’ve become suspicious of it all.

  • They just don’t care! A lot of Newcastle fans just think that Mike Ashley doesn’t care about us. Frankly, this is hard to argue against. He’s proven time after time that his priority isn’t the club. He’s almost gone out of his way to show disdain toward the fans, and that’s just hard to shake off. However, it’s worth considering that Mike doesn’t factor in the day-to-day running of the club – clearly on the big stuff, he does, but the little things (the easy things!), he doesn’t. So, why is it still so hard for the club the do those little things?

I could go on forever expanding on the list above, but you all know what I’m talking about. To finish this piece, I wanted to talk about some of the simple things that the club could do to encourage fan engagement, grow back some of that love we all have for the club, and eventually earn back the trust of some of us.

To start, they could really clean up St James’ Park. This one is just a no brainer for me. So easy to do, and at a pretty small cost. I’ve seen the pictures online and witnessed it for myself last year, the ground is just so run down. They’ve done a few nice bits to the main entrance and it looks very nice now, but couldn’t they clean the rest up? What would a monthly or quarterly power wash of the Milburn entrance cost, maybe £5,000? Basically, every piece of signage at the stadium is dirty or covered in stickers or defaced with graffiti. It’s just lazy for the club to not clean it up – and again, it looks like they just don’t care!

The training ground and club shop needs a face lift. I don’t expect Ashley at this point to invest millions of pounds in the club – but for a man who is trying to sell the club, he might want to do some simple clean up of the front garden! The club’s face is the stadium, but the body of the club is the training ground. Most of the press conferences take place there, a lot of the TV work is done there and usually the media footage comes from Benton – and it always looks untidy, unclean and generally a bit shit. Again, I can’t believe it would be a major cost to just throw some new furniture in there, maybe some better decorating and basic equipment for the team. (Having seen footage of the Spurs training ground on the recent Amazon Prime documentary, I’m incredibly jealous of their working conditions!) I think the training ground conditions have become similar to walking around a Sports Direct store. Desperate and cheap.

Which leads me onto my final point. The club shop. When I was a kid, the club shop was like visiting heaven! It was all I wanted to do when I visited SJP and it was all I thought about when I was back at home.  Whether it was the tradition of picking up my home shirt for that season (back when they lasted 2 seasons!) Or ordering out of the catalogue for my birthday – the tradition and experience of the club shop was fantastic. Now, I’m 34, so I don’t expect to have that same sense of wonder, but what they’ve done to that store now is truly disgusting. I went there last year and honestly, I’ve never seen a place feel so sterile and unloved. The staff were miserable, the selection of gear was terrible and the whole experience felt so unsatisfactory for everyone involved! It was also totally empty – not a person in site, and that didn’t sit well with me. That store needs a new attitude. It should be one of the first places you visit when you go to SJP, whether your a local or a visitor  – and the experience should be memorable for all the right reasons!

Beyond the general experience we have with the club, the way a club communicates with it’s fans should be something they’re proud of. The club should embrace it’s fans like family, not just it’s paying customer (which they sometimes seem to forget!), and want them to have the desire to come back and support the team. Perhaps give the social media marketing team a little more license to explore fan engagement, get more clicks to the club’s website and enjoying themselves a little! Instead of begrudgingly giving season tickets credit – they should have rushed to give people that money back, especially at a time of national economic crisis. Instead of stonewalling journalists, they should open up their lines of communication because at the end of the day, that’s how us fans get our information. I’m not saying that every single story needs the club’s full attention but perhaps meet us half way?

So to end where I began, why do they treat us this way? I don’t know, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Adam Beckett