Fans Forum

Monday, 23rd September, 2013 - Joe Harvey Suite, St. James' Park

 

CLUB REPRESENTATIVES

Kate Bradley - Head of Newcastle United Foundation

Lee Charnley - Club Secretary

John Irving - Finance Director

Lee Marshall - PR and Supporter Liason Manager (chair)

Bob Moncur - Club Ambassador

Steve Storey - Head of Safety and Security

Wendy Taylor - Head of Media

Stephen Tickle - Box Office Manager

 

SPONSORS

Damian Peachey - Wonga, Media Relations

Nick Stone - Wonga/Sportquake

 

SUPPORTERS

Gareth Beard - Newcastle United Disabled Supporters Association

Steve Cole - Supporters Branch Representative

Thomas Concannon - Away Fan Representative

Peter Fanning - Newcastle United Supporters Trust

Chris Forster - East Stand Representative

Liam Hall - Young Persons Representative

Steve Hastie - NUFC Fans United

Susan Joyce - Milburn Stand Representative

Sharron Lee - Long Distance Fan Representative

Michael McCarthy - Leazes Stand Representative

Andrew McClay - Members Representative

Phil Patterson - Corporate Representative

Paul Robson - Gallowgate Representative

Vishal Vedhara - Equality Representative

 

GUESTS

Kevin Miles - Football Supporters' Federation (Observer)

 

APOLOGIES

Gordon Gilchrist - Over-65s Representative

 

1. Introduction

Lee Marshall (LM) welcomed all Forum members and outlined that the purpose of the forum is to bring fans and senior management in the club closer.

Introductions were made by individual supporters and club representatives around the table and meeting protocol and the publication of official minutes was explained.

 

2. Open questions to the board

Questions from members adjudicated by Club Ambassador Bob Moncur:

Phil Patterson (PP) - "Can you explain a bit more about the club's five year plan?

The club's board (LC and JI) explained that the club has a football plan that it works to. Last season knocked the club back a little and resulted in the club revising its expectations for this season. The club's intention last season was to finish in the top eight. Because we finished lower, the club re-evaluated and we want to finish in the top ten this season.

The board added that the type of player that we want to bring into the club hasn't changed. Given the club's wage bill and the quality of our current squad, we think we can and should reasonably expect to finish in the top ten this season.

Chris Forster (CF) - "What are Mike Ashley (MA)'s long-term intentions?"

The board explained that MA has no real intention or ambition to sell - he is as committed today as he was three or four years ago. He wants the club to move forward but to do so within its means. He wants the club to stand on its own two feet.

The club's business model was outlined, which is to get club on an even keel financially, then make it stronger and more self-sufficient.

CF - "What irks some fans is that we've received increased revenue but haven't spent it (e.g. TV money)."

The board stated that the club doesn't look at transfer windows in isolation but rather as a trading year. The club spent a net £30m in January because of the league position at that time but also in the knowledge that the TV deal would create an inflated market. If the two windows in 2013 are combined, Newcastle United are in the top ten spenders in the Premier League.

The board added that the financial regulations which prevent clubs from spending over and above their means will mean other clubs will not be able to spend the sums they have this year in the near future.

Steve Hastie (SH) - "Is there any flexibility in terms of age of the players we'll look at?"

The board explained that there are exceptions, as there was with one player in the summer window which made sense from a football and financial point of view. It is not a case of 'no never' but it is not the club's general policy.

Peter Fanning (PF) - "Do Sports Direct pay the going rate for advertising, their adverts are all over the stadium?"

The club explained that the advertising boards in question were installed with Sports Direct branding as a showcase for unused space. Sports Direct don't pay, but it would be sold if other advertisers wanted the space.

PF - "Looking at the accounts, looks like MA was going to take out £29m (£11m had been repaid, plus another £18m due). He continues to be owed £111m and that's listed as long-term funding‚Ķ what is long-term funding?"

The board stated that relegation came with hefty price tag and that fortunately, we have an owner who was able to fund that by injecting £29m interest-free. This saved us millions of pounds that would have been incurred had the club had to take on external debt. The intention was always that the £29m was a short-term loan to get the club through the relegation period.

£11m was duly paid back, with £18m due to be paid back. That sum has not been paid back yet, nor is there an intention to pay it back this season. MA had to put £111m in to clear external debt and won't be paid back until the day MA sells the club. JI explained that an interest-free, long-term loan of this kind is as good a debt as you can get and we were very fortunate to have it.

Of that, £58m was for the stadium and £29m was needed to clear the outstanding transfer fees that we owed other clubs for players that we'd already bought prior to MA purchasing the club (Albert Luque, Damian Duff etc.).

The board explained that due to MA, we now have a policy of paying up front in cash for players and that in turn can save the club money.

Steve Cole (SC) - "What was the thinking of appointing a Director of Football?"

The board suggested that MA's approach was appointing someone who he already had a relationship with, who he trusted and who was a football man that understood the game. Joe Kinnear (JK) was the owner's choice.

Thomas Concannon (TC) - "What is the club's stance on JK'S first few days (talkSPORT interview etc.)?"

The board said JK now has a page in the match day programme which he will use to put across his views and feelings moving forward.

CF - "Why JK? There could have been a lot of better options."

The club explained that it was the owner's decision and MA wanted JK to carry out that role.

Andrew McClay (AMc) - "JK is at the forefront of most of the discussions on forums etc. His comments were 'judge me on my signings' and he didn't make any."

The board explained that it was not through lack of effort that the club did not make a permanent signing in the summer window and that JK was absolutely not responsible for deals not materialising. They added that some of the circumstances were beyond the club's control (agent demands etc.).

Liam Hall (LH) - "There is a lot of frustration over transfers. Why couldn't we have made more loan signings?

The board explained that we did the majority of our business in the January window. The club has space for 25 squad members and named 24 (Ryan Taylor is long-term injured so we had 1-2 spaces). They added that any club can sign bad players; signing good players to improve the squad is not easy. We actually think we've got a strong squad and we are capable of finishing in the top ten of the league.

Bob Moncur (BM) - "So can you clarify that money was there to spend?"

The club confirmed that money was available.

SC - "There is a rumour that JK didn't know who one player was.

The board underlined that this was completely untrue. They also added that some of the things that have been written about JK have been completely untrue.

Vishal Vedhara (VV) - "It's a bit embarrassing how often things leak out and appear unplanned. JK's announcement came from him, not from the club and that was embarrassing."

The club conceded that the announcement could have been handled better. The club also stated that the media would not influence when and how we communicate.

Susan Joyce (SJ) - "The club communicated that lessons had been learned between January and the summer. Recently we heard that "money will be available this summer", why make these comments if you then don't deliver?

BM suggested the question has already been answered. He suggested that saying funds were available was fine but that getting a deal done was a different matter.

SC - "Some of the January signings should have been here the summer before (e.g. Debuchy)."

The club explained that the plan was to hold onto key players last summer and not to trade. With Vurnon Anita coming in and with younger players coming through, the club felt it had a good enough squad.

Phil Patterson - "Realistically, the cups are about the only chance of silverware, but year in year out we don't seem to target one, why not?

The board said that we utilise the cup competitions to secure match experience for the wider squad. The club is also mindful of injuries following last season's Europa League. Our primary aim and focus has to be the Premier League and we don't want to jeopardise that.

Chris Forster - "A cup would be success for fans."

The board said the financial rewards of being a PL club are so great that we have to make sure that we do everything we can to stay in that position. Examples of three recent cup winners who are now no longer in the PL were given. The board added that the extra 14 games we played in the Europa League and the injuries sustained had contributed to a lower league finish.

VV - "What are the plans for investment in youth structure behind the scenes versus what goes on in the first team."

The board stated that the club had spent significant sums on the development side to get the Academy up to Category 1 status (i.e. investment in staffing and facilities). Primarily, the club wants the Academy to focus on local youngsters. We hope to get local talent up through the system and into the first team. In relation to the development squad, our ideal-world scenario is a structure whereby we have a layer of players immediately below the first-team who will push the first team players and will be their replacements if they move or are injured etc.

VV - "Is it realistic to get a lot of players from the local area?"

The board explained that examples such as Adam Campbell, Adam Armstrong, Sammy Ameobi and Paul Dummett show that that talent is there, but we always need to recruit from across the world. We are aware of the need for English players but often clubs have to pay more for a 19/20yr old in England than from other countries. It is a difficult market to operate in.

PF - "Up to June 2012, commercial income had reduced from £15m to £13m. Man Utd have just reported commercial revenue of £150m. What plans are there increase commercial income again?

The board explained that the club operates on a three-year cycle tied to the current TV deal. Newcastle United are in a better financial position than most clubs outside of the top four or five in respect of turnover, wages, external debt etc.

In reality the new TV deal assisted those clubs who weren't operating as shrewdly as we have been. Commercial income is an area where there is room for improvement. The number of supporters we have is a massive plus for us, but as a proportion of clubs' income it is becoming smaller. We've been weak on the commercial side but we are becoming stronger, especially now have that we have Wonga on board. The next accounts will show our strongest commercial position ever. We are working with Puma to improve that deal, and if we can bring in new revenue we will.

 

3. Supporter Items

Paul Robson (PR) - Away fan initiative (£200,000 per club)

The board explained that we want to give fans who come here the best value for money. Until this season there was no rule in the Premier League on sale or return of away tickets. We have always offered tickets on a sale or return basis since I have been at the club because we think it's right; it encourages fans to travel and doesn't leave clubs with a financial penalty if they don't sell out their allocation.

We campaigned heavily and the Premier League has now instructed that clubs must offer sale or return up to a full allocation which is great. We also campaigned heavily on ticket pricing with Premier League and we have always tried to make prices affordable. However, our fans don't get that when they travel - we already give a discount to other clubs' fans but that isn't always reciprocated.

On average our fans pay £10 more per game to travel than fans of other clubs who come to St James' Park. We ideally want that £200,000 to be used by all clubs to reduce ticket prices for away fans. If they won't do that, then we're looking for other ways to spend it, e.g. buses for away travel.

LM has been speaking to a Premier League club about getting agreement on reciprocal pricing (i.e. we give a club's travelling fans discount if they discount ours in return). Full details of this are not public yet.

LM asked the group for ideas.

PR - "Would the club be willing to communicate that to fans and ask for their views on how it's spent?"

The board explained that the intention is that this forum would be the vehicle for getting fans' feedback. LM encouraged ideas.

Gareth Beard (GB) - "Could the club not look into funding away travel for disabled fans, bearing in mind we need two coaches and more space for wheelchairs?"

Steve Storey (SS) and Stephen Tickle (ST) will take that suggestion forward and look into it.

The board pledged to fund disabled travel for the current season.

AMc - Online ticketing system

ST said that delays are as frustrating for the club as they are for fans. The club is looking at a new call-waiting concept and ST hoped it would be a step in the right direction.

AMc - Issues with Steve Harper ticketing

The board explained that a decision had to be taken on Box Office resourcing because the club had to protect its core business which was the sale of tickets for West ham and Fulham (PL games). The club was pleasantly surprised that the Steve Harper game sold out, but service levels online were affected.

Gordon Gilchrist (GG) (via email) - Public address system problems, East Stand

LM explained that the East Stand PA system has been improved but it would still be a few weeks until work was complete. The system had been tested in pre-season and it came back all-clear. Four speakers went down before the West Ham game and the club tried to fix them for Hull City. The feedback was better but full improvement is expected by the time of the Liverpool fixture. £175,000 has already been spent on improving the PA system in other areas.

CF - East Stand maintenance

The club encourages supporters to contact their nearest stewards if maintenance is required. If reports come to Forum members directly, then members are encouraged to pass the information to LM.

GG (via email) - Can club liaise with public transport agencies re. midweek games for those living outside of Tyne and Wear?

LM explained that within Tyne and Wear, the club works very well on initiatives and transport options. Anything outside the region becomes more complex but we will raise our views where possible.

VV - Review of Rainbow Laces participation?

LM explained that the manager wore the laces, which received excellent feedback on social media from Stonewall. Across the Premier League, there was some discomfort with the Paddy Power link and the club would encourage Stonewall to work with PL more closely in future. Vishal got the impression that it wasn't handled well by Stonewall, but that it was good to see the manager wearing them. VV asked if there were any plans for the club to continue to wear them. Similar to the wearing of poppies, LM suggested the message would lose impact if it was run throughout the year.

VV - Player volunteering as the face of equality for the season.

LM expanded on the idea to explain that it would involve having a player who fronts equality issues on behalf of the club, dedicating time to campaigns each season. Newcastle United players are already involved in hundreds of community events each season, but it was agreed that a dedicated player to represent equality issues was a good idea and one that the club will look at.

 

4. Wonga introduction

Damian Peachey (DP), media relations, outlined the company's pride in its partnership with the club. He explained that the company is aware that many see it as controversial and that many have misunderstandings about the business.

About Wonga

DP explained that Wonga is a global digital finance business operating internationally and offering a range of products including online retail payment solution and a business products.

DP acknowledged that Wonga is best known for short-term consumer credit product and its main competitors are overdrafts and credit cards. He explained Wonga's use of technology to disrupt those markets and provide customers with a transparent service.

Stats: one million customers, high rate of satisfaction. Wonga lends to people who can repay, 90% pay on time, company rejects 3/4 of first time loan applications. Arrears rate is 7% which compares favourably with credit cards. APR that has to be displayed online is over 5000% but DP explained using an annual calculation is nonsense. It is effectively 1% interest per day. In terms of dealing with people who get into financial difficulties, Wonga agree an affordable repayment plan and freeze the interest. If they never get in touch, interest is frozen after 60 days.

Partnership with NUFC

DP explained the attraction of partnering with one of the biggest names in world football, highlighting that Wonga is now a global brand. DP acknowledged that there had been concerns from fans that the partnership was about Wonga trying to target potential consumers in the North East but explained that it is about improving Wonga's global reach and improving brand awareness, not targeting consumers. Wonga's ethos is very much about responsibility and the company saw this partnership as an opportunity to get that message out there.

DP gave examples of fan engagement activities so far: Returning the name of St. James' Park to fans, providing money to help the gates initiative happen, away ticket competitions, chartering a plane to the Cardiff game. Many more initiatives are planned throughout the season.

As part of sponsorship deal, Wonga set aside £1.5m exclusively for the Academy and has been working with the Foundation on a pilot scheme called Wonga Codemakers to teach youngsters how about digital coding. DP explained that coding will provide long-term, well paid secure employment.

In summary, the partnership is centred around two elements - global branding and responsibility to fans and the community. Wonga is very keen to listen to fan groups and welcomed fans' ideas.

PR - Proposed flags for the Gallowgate with Wonga backing.

PR, Gallowgate representative, acknowledged safety considerations but was interested to know how the club would view the introduction of banners/flags. He suggested it could be a quick win for the club.

SS explained that a risk assessment on flags would be needed but if they're safe, we'll do it.

Nick Stone (NS) added that Wonga would be happy to commit to funding and has set aside some budget for activities like this.

SH said he has met Nick on a number of occasions and that NUFC Fans United understood the issues surrounding the sponsorship. NUFC Fans United held a panel discussion about Wonga which he said was a very good debate. He saw that as being very proactive from Wonga and the club. NS and LM said they were more than happy to set up meetings between Wonga and fans groups.

PF - "What's the possibility of producing a shirt without Wonga on the front?"

The board stated that this would not happen. The board explained that Wonga pays significant money to see their brand being displayed. As referenced earlier in the meeting, commercial income is massively important to the club and that comes with the requirement to do what we do with the shirt sponsor.

PF - "Why do you need the Wonga logo walking around Tyneside if your aim is global brand awareness?"

The board noted that the kits this season were the fastest selling shirts for six years.

DP - in terms of Wonga branding, Wonga have taken great steps to be sensitive (e.g. renaming of the stadium). He said they are a mainstream digital finance business and are proud to be associated with the club. To provide a logo-free shirt would suggest otherwise. JI added that if clubs offered fans the option to pick an unbranded shirt, then sponsors wouldn't invest.

The board explained the simple process of selecting kits with PUMA to give an insight into how these decisions are made. The board stated that club has already picked the 2014/15 home and away kits. Several designs for next season's proposed third kit were passed around the group and the club asked members to note their preference.

 

5. Singing section

Division '92 not present when called upon. Item moved to next meeting in December.

 

6. Department updates

Safety and Security

SS discussed the feasibility of putting on official club travel to away matches following incidents at Wigan last season and in Lichfield a couple of weeks ago. SS explained that those incidents had convinced him that the club needs to look at an official transport option which would provide a more professional approach to away fan transport. This is something that could be trialled for a forthcoming match.

SS explained that one of the "burning issues" was pyrotechnics. A smoke canister goes off at most matches and the club does a considerable number of appeals in the media, as well as fan searches but there are still a small number of criminals who bring smoke canisters into the stadium. SS said it damages the club's reputation and results in financial penalties. SS said canisters tend to be brought in by away fans across the country. All away fans are searched at St James' Park, but it is a national trend which is causing concern.

Liam Hall - Travel to away matches: "Cardiff bus is an eight hour journey. Would you be able to put trains on?"

The board explained that chartering a train (or carriage) is a very expensive option and that the club doesn't have a commercial deal with a train company. It was suggested that train companies would be unlikely to change their timetable to suit the match time.

Kevin Miles on behalf of the FSFS explained that there is a National Rail Football Forum that has a close alliance on those issues, but the big problem is one of politics (i.e. one rail network but several companies).

SC, being based in London, said all his members rely heavily on trains and their feedback is that there is no spare rolling stock on trains to support fan travel.

LM suggested SC could liaise with Kevin Miles with regard to the rail forum.

 

7. Newcastle United Foundation

Kate Bradley (KB) introduced the Newcastle United Foundation, which is responsible for taking the club out into the community. The Foundation is five years old this summer and has a programme of activities happening over the season, which started with the Steve Harper charity match. The Foundation was overwhelmed with fans' support for Steve and for the good causes.

KB added that next February the Foundation has commissioned a major exhibition at the Discovery Museum running for 6 months from February to October to celebrate the history of the club. LM encouraged fans to contact him or the Foundation if they wished to get involved.

 

8. AOB

GB - "Is there a time limit on the use of £200k away fan initiative?"

The club confirmed that it is funding per season over the next three seasons.

CF - "Is there any point in having a current player on the forum?"

LM said the club wouldn't be averse to it if it was relevant to an agenda item.

LH - "Are we definitely discussing the singing section in the next meeting? Why did the singing section get taken away last time?"

The club noted that it was becoming an issue when flags and shouts were obscene in nature and the proposal by Division '92 seems a far better, self-policed initiative. It was explained that there is not a quick fix and that the club has to carefully consider where it can be located.

Michael McCarthy (MMc) - "What happens with fan correspondence to Forum members?"

LM explained that if fans want to get in touch with representatives, he will administer all the emails and send them through to members. This is to reduce the volume of work that the club is asking volunteer members to commit to. Pertinent issues will be raised as agenda items and LM will feed back to individual fans on the action taken.

 

Dates agreed for remaining 2013/14 Forum meetings:

// Monday, 16th December, 2013.
// Monday, 24th February, 2014.
// Monday, 19th May, 2014.