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The Trust exists to provide a way for the fans to get their voices heard by Newcastle United FC. We’re not a protest group, we want to develop formal links between supporters and the Club and to be a positive influence on supporter issues.

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THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN!

In another of a series of articles from NUST members, Phil Hornsby sets out his views on the current situation at NUFC.

These are difficult times being a Newcastle United Supporter. I have supported the club for over 40 years and in my view what as a supporter group we are facing at present, compares equally unfavourably with any of the low times in my past experience.

However, we have always found a way forward and I believe we are now doing so again.

I saw my first Newcastle United Game on the 20th March 1970, a 3-1 win against Stoke. However, it was not until the second half of the 1976/77 Season that I started going regularly. We finished 5th and qualified for Europe. The following season we were relegated. Sounds familiar!

My time of supporting Newcastle I will divide into 3 distinct periods:

1977-1990: The club was run by a board of directors who consisted of local businessmen and solicitors whose positions were largely inherited having been passed onto them by their fathers. The chairmen over this period of time were Lord Westwood, Bob Rutherford, Stan Seymour Jnr and Gordon McKeag.

1990-2007: Hall/ Shepherd era

2007-the not too distant future: Mike Ashley

I am going to reflect on these three periods of time and discuss how Newcastle United’s evolution since 1977 within the context of the changes in football and society, mean that as a supporter group and as part of the Magpie Group, I believe we can be confident of being part of the catalyst for effective change in how our club is run.

1977-1990: Lord Westwood et al

There are clear parallels to be drawn with the current situation. The Ashley era is increasingly becoming a painful reminder to supporters of my generation of what supporting Newcastle was like for those first thirteen years.

On the field, the team suffered two relegations. Much of the time was spent meandering in the old second division, going nowhere. Of course there were false dawns, the biggest of which was the two seasons when Kevin Keegan played for the team and led us to promotion. This opportunity was squandered with the manager, Arthur Cox leaving before we kicked off back in the First Division after a dispute with the board about his contract.

We had 3 outstanding players around which a successful team could have been built: Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne. All were sold and not adequately replaced.

The quality of managers, Arthur Cox aside were middling to poor.

Supporters today complain, rightly, about the neglect at the ground. However St James Park like many other grounds at this time, was a disgrace. Stories about the state of the toilets in the Gallowgate End told by those of us who experienced them are the stuff of legends, but true!  The old Leazes End was demolished and replaced by a high wall with a bit of terracing in front. This was because after the planned redevelopment started the money ran out. Following the Bradford City Fire, priority had to be given to demolishing and rebuilding the West Stand, which became the Milburn Stand. Those of us who sat in that old West Stand can only think there but for the grace of God, goodness knows what those enforcing modern day fire regulations would have made of it.

In summary this was a time of austerity and lack of ambition. Like today, supporters knew the potential that existed and were frustrated by the direction the board of directors took the club in. These were local men who undoubtedly supported the team. However, they had largely inherited their positions at the club. To coin a phrase, Newcastle United was “The Family Silver” and maintaining their control was more important than meeting the aspirations of supporters and they were unwilling to sanction the investment required to make us competitive in the First Division.

However, supporters were unable or unwilling to ever effectively take any positive action due to the difficulties in communication as compared to the present day, and a stoical attitude of acceptance. Speaking personally, it is a desire not to allow the club to regress to this type of situation for the long term again which is a significant motivation now.

1990-2007: John Hall/ Freddy Shepherd Era

The original Magpie Group led by John Hall and Freddy Shepherd understood the potential and had the financial resources to tempt stubborn but greedy men to part with their shares and sell their inheritance.

The achievements of our football team over this period are well known. Although there were disappointing times under the managerial reigns of Dalglish, Gullitt, Souness and Roeder ( although we did reach the FA Cup Final twice), it is the periods when the team was under the guidance of Keegan and Robson that are best remembered; we competed at the business end of the Premier League and European Football was a regularity.

Although there is controversy about their legacy and their stewardship, of course they sold up to Mike Ashley making a huge amount of money, it is the positive aspects of their legacy I am focusing on this article.

This was the time when the club realised its potential both on and off the field. Aside from the achievements of the team, sell out crowds became commonplace, commercial revenues were a significant source of income and we now have a stadium of which we can be proud, “ The cathedral on the hill”. Whether we like it or not, this coincided with Sky televising the Premier League and the exposure they provided significantly increased our profile.

The memory of this period I view as being very significant in the perception of our club today and why to quote Oliver Holt , he regards us as “ a top six club”. It is still relatively recent and a very significant driver in our efforts at this time.

2007-Present Day: Mike Ashley

I do not need to chronicle the misery of this period, other than to say it is increasingly becoming a mirror of my earlier years supporting the club.

The Times are a Changin!

Times have changed and this is the reason why I believe we can be optimistic. The world is a smaller place. Between 1977 and 1990, the travails of Newcastle United were of little interest to the national media, who being based in London and Manchester focused on the fortunes of the clubs in those regions. The misery of the Newcastle supporters were of little consequence.

Up until Rafa Benitez became our manager, I think it would be fair to describe the attitude of the vast majority of Newcastle Supporters, including myself under the Ashley Regime as again having become stoical. We accepted the indignities inflicted upon us with little protest other than a shrug of the shoulders and looking forward to the next false dawn.

Rafa aware of the recent history of the club knew its potential, has reawakened the club with all parts connected apart the owner. Links have been re-established in the community and in some cases expanded.

Rafa has been the catalyst but what else has happened. Social Media now exists at a level enabling much easier communication. This has been fully utilised by ourselves in coming together to work towards effective change. John Gibson once described trying to organise Newcastle Supporters as like “trying to herd cats!” I think we have put this one to bed.

Our efforts have been recognised in both the local but more importantly the national media.  We have had Ian Wright on BBC 5 Live and Jake Humphries on BT Sport not holding back in their criticism of the regime. Sky seems to be taking a more balanced approach with contributions from Steve Howey, Jamie Carragher and the Custis Brothers. ( I do wonder if this reflects a change in attitude, so instead of broadcasting cushy interviews between Ashley and Craigy, they are now distinctly unimpressed that given the large sums of money the club have received from Sky, this has not been reflected in investment in the team, and consequently the televised product has been diminished).

Apart from the excellent reporting of George Caulkin, Luke Edwards, Mark Douglas and other local Journalists we have support from influential national journalists such as Henry Winter, Oliver Holt and David Conn.

I must mention the contributions of Dennis Wise, Richard Keys and Andy Gray amongst others. I have enjoyed listening to their opinions. Why? It reflects how out of touch Ashley is that he chooses to uses these type of discredited individuals to argue his case. The saying, “When you are in a hole stop digging” could not be more appropriate. Their utterings only add strength to our cause.  

Newcastle is now recognised nationally as a vibrant thriving city whose profile has significantly grown. Our football club is an institution within the city whose progress at the start of the century reflected the development that was taking place making Newcastle a very significant social, cultural and economic centre. Ashley’s lack of respect for the club is seen increasingly at national level as an insult to the city.

We are winning the argument and as our situation is now becoming one increasingly discussed in the national media, this in turn is increasing the focus on Sports Direct, and the unethical way he runs this business. Ashley’s discomfort must be increasing daily.

If we continue our efforts the pressure from all sources on him will continue to increase and he will sell eventually. We can only hope the damage inflicted beforehand is minimised.

We have momentum, let’s keep it going!


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Newcastle United fans are making a last effort to rid their club of Mike Ashley

Mike Ashley’s reign at Newcastle United has been the subject of an article in this months WSC by Paul Brown. NUST were asked to provide comment and the article is published in full below.

Among the shareholders attending the Sports Direct AGM on September 12 were several Newcastle United fans. Also in attendance was Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct CEO and Newcastle United owner, but fans were not able to question him on the relationship between the two businesses. During a rushed meeting, the board allowed no questions from the floor and departed after just 15 minutes. Ashley is under pressure from shareholders, suppliers, unions and MPs following repeated warnings of mismanagement
and poor working practices, and due to the fallout from the recent purchase of House of Fraser. A series of newly-coordinated protests from Newcastle fans seems the last thing he needs.

The protests are being led by the recently-formed Magpie Group, a coalition of fan organisations including the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust (NUST), the Ashley Out campaign, True Faith fanzine, and stadium display organisers Wor Flags. At its first public meeting, a positive and well-attended gathering held in the week before the AGM, group organisers handed out factsheets detailing Ashley’s litany of offences during his 11 years of ownership, ranging from a lack of investment in players and facilities and the stifling of commercial income and matchday revenue to renaming St James’ Park the “Sports Direct Arena” and appointing Joe Kinnear as manager (twice!).

The facts do not make good reading for Ashley or the handful of pundits who repeatedly defend him in the media. Ashley bought the club in May 2007 for £134m, and inherited £77m of debt. According to the club’s latest accounts, by 2017 that debt had almost doubled to £152m. Sports Direct has never paid anything for the advertising that blankets St James’ Park. Commercial income has halved under Ashley’s ownership, while matchday income has fallen by a third.

Things have gone backwards on the pitch, too. In the 11 years before Ashley, Newcastle qualified for European competition ten times, reaching the Champions League group stages twice. In the 11 years since, the club has qualified for the UEFA Cup only once, and has been relegated from the Premier League twice. As for investment in players, a much-shared statistic shows that, since promotion in the summer of 2017, Brighton’s net spend is £110m, Huddersfield’s is £78m, and Newcastle’s is £1m.

Sports Direct controls the club’s retail operations, and in the five years to 2017 the club made a net loss of £5.5m from the arrangement. Ashley has purchased land behind St James’ Park’s Gallowgate stand, for a knock-down price of £6m, and obtained planning permission for a £70m residential development, effectively blocking any future expansion of the ground. The latest accounts for Ashley’s MASH Holdings company, through which he owns the club, were not published as required in January and are long overdue. Meanwhile, the club is under ongoing investigation by HMRC for suspected tax fraud.

“The owner clearly doesn’t care about the club,” NUST board member Colin Whittle tells WSC. “He does, however, care about his retail empire, and that’s what we’re concentrating on.” Protests outside stores and online are targeting Sports Direct and its many subsidiary companies and brands, including Flannels, Cruise, Slazenger and Firetrap, in an effort to disrupt the use of Newcastle United as a marketing tool. Part of the action involves spreading awareness of just how many brands are owned or part-owned by Sports Direct.

The protests have been given some urgency by the situation regarding Rafa Benitez’s contract, which expires at the end of the season. Fans fear Benitez will leave due to the lack of support from Ashley, prompting the #IfRafaGoesWeGo movement on social media. “To many of us it’s the  manager who is holding things together,” says Whittle. “This is galvanising fans in a way that we haven’t seen before. People aren’t prepared to allow Rafa to go without a fight.”

Protests outside Sports Direct stores have made national headlines, as has the creation of a website, sportsredirect.com, which directs shoppers to alternative sportswear retailers. The Sports Direct Twitter account has effectively been silenced after a barrage of disruptive responses from fans. So has the account for Keith Bishop Associates, Ashley’s PR firm. Shareholders and suppliers are also in the firing line. “Sports Direct’s share price has dropped,” says Whittle, “and while this is due to many factors, continued pressure from Newcastle fans is playing a part. We’d encourage fans of other clubs to support us. It’s hoped that he’ll eventually consider ownership of Newcastle more trouble than it’s worth.”

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Magpie Group: Second Open Meeting

The second open meeting organised by The Magpie Group took place at the Labour Club last night before a packed audience who listened to local MP’s Chi Onwurah, Ian Mearns and FSF CEO Kevin Miles.

The trio of speakers, all NUFC fans, spoke passionately about Newcastle United, their love for the club clearly demonstrated to an appreciative audience.

The evening began by Chi outlining the work behind her petition presented In Parliament about the ownership of NUFC which caused so much concern in the Ashley camp which led him to formally respond. She went on to explain how she now intended to ‘follow the money’, citing in particular the deal regarding the land at Gallowgate Car Park on Strawberry Place.

Life Long fan Ian Mearns, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Football Supporters, then followed, highlighting his travels following NUFC over the years and explaining his role as Chair and its purpose which is to protect the interest of football fans. He spoke passionately of his desire to see fans come together to protect the future of NUFC.

Ian was followed by Kevin Miles from FSF who briefed the audience on the role of the FSF and the work they have done over the years to help football fans up and down the country offering the help of the FSF to fans. As longstanding members of the FSF we can vouch for the excellent work they have done over the years.

It was then over to the floor with a wide range of questions /suggestions and opinions from a packed audience which covered a number of areas. The audience were encouraged to provide their feedback on the most popular suggestions made by fans following literally 100’s of suggestions made from fans.

Word reached fans in attendance that Mr Ashley was in town …well slightly out of town….and a contingent of fans including members from NUST headed up to Ponteland to register disapproval with the owner and to display Ashley Out/Sports Redirect banners. The night ended with the owner giving the V’s to fans….what more can you say!

NUST

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Sports Direct AGM 2018

I don’t spend a lot of time at AGMs; in fact, the Sports Direct version held in a partly finished floor space at Academy House today was my first. I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain they usually last more than 15 minutes for large scale businesses such as this.

However, after the cursory/derisory amount of time allocated to the meeting, and Ashley’s appearance after saying he was too busy, the most striking aspect of the non-event was the complete absence of a Q&A session involving shareholders in the audience (not to mention the sprinkling of Mags in attendance) questioning the board of directors.

The ‘meeting’ was chaired by Keith Hellawell, who has previously relied on Ashley’s intervention as Chief Executive and majority shareholder to retain his position as Chairman following shareholder unrest. After Hellawell confirmed his and non-executive director Simon Bentley’s resignations, he covered some admin points before giving some guidance on the polling card, which contained the 18 Resolutions that were to be voted upon. Questions were invited from shareholders/proxies, but specifically regarding the 18 Resolutions only. When there were no takers, the board hastily relocated to a nearby meeting room, one making a glib comment about getting to the pub early.

With people unclear whether the meeting was over or briefly adjourned, the room started to empty. There was no ‘any other business’ or opportunity for an open forum Q&A session. As far as I could see, there wasn’t even a printed agenda, only a few rows of plastic seats on a bare concrete floor. I asked both a reporter and a shareholder whether I was wrong to expect a Q&A, and both confirmed that it is normal practice to include this in an AGM.

While Q&A sessions are not a compulsory element of any AGM, they are seen as an ideal opportunity to engage with shareholders and let them have their say. Indeed the ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators), who ‘champion good governance practices’, identify the Q&A as one of the main reasons shareholders attend an AGM. It is also seen as an opportunity for good ‘PR’ in front of the media.

Given the current climate of shareholder unrest, including advisory groups advocating voting against Ashley and Hellawell, this should have given the board some much needed face time with their investors. It raises further questions about the corporate governance of Sports Direct, which is at the top of the list of current shareholder concerns, along with a falling share price, the reported £5million payment to his daughter’s boyfriend, and the House of Fraser buyout.

There were no presentations, speeches or any sort of board-shareholder engagement that (according to my research) are common practice in corporate AGMs; Ashley remained silent, with a decidedly uncomfortable look on his face. On reflection, the whole meeting came across as scripted and stage-managed, an approach with which all NUFC fans are all too familiar.

Is this just another example of ‘typical Ashley’? He is either gambling on shareholder loyalty, as he does with ours, or it is another display of outright arrogance and contempt; in my opinion, it is a mixture of both. To quote a recent headline from the national press: “The investors aren’t happy. But Mike Ashley doesn’t have to care.”   

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Who are we?

The Newcastle United Supporters Trust is not a protest group, but a positive force for change.

We seek to benefit our football club and its supporters by channeling the passion of its loyal supporters into a forward-thinking non-profit organisation that is a legally constituted, democratic, not-for-profit Supporters Trust.

The Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) seeks to benefit both the Football Club and its supporters by channeling the passion of Newcastle supporters into a forward-thinking organisation that is a legally constituted, democratic, not-for-profit Supporters Trust of Newcastle United.

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