Monday 6th January 2014 - Joe Harvey Suite, St. James' Park
Kate Bradley - Head of Newcastle United Foundation
Lee Charnley - Club Secretary
John Irving - Finance Director
Lee Marshall - PR and Supporter Liaison Manager (chair)
Bob Moncur - Club Ambassador
Eddie Rutherford - Head of Facilities
Steve Storey - Head of Safety and Security
Wendy Taylor - Head of Media
Stephen Tickle - Box Office Manager
Damian Peachey - Wonga, Media Relations
Nick Stone - Wonga/Sportquake
Gareth Beard - Newcastle United Disabled Supporters Association
Steve Cole - Supporters Branch Representative
Thomas Concannon - Away Fan Representative
Chris Forster - East Stand Representative
Gordon Gilchrist - Over-65s Representative
Liam Hall - Young Persons Representative
Steve Hastie - NUFC Fans United
Mark Jankowski - Gallowgate Stand Representative
Susan Joyce - Milburn Stand Representative
Sharron Lee - Long Distance Fan Representative
Michael McCarthy - Leazes Stand Representative
Andrew McClay - Members Representative
Phil Patterson - Corporate Representative
Vishal Vedhara - Equality Representative
Jonathan Foster - Division '92
Lee Marshall (LM) welcomed and introduced all Forum members.
Recent changes to the Forum (namely the removal of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) representative and the introduction of a new Gallowgate representative, Mark Jankowski (MK)) were noted.
Meeting protocol was reaffirmed, with no tweeting or live updates to take place and the official minutes to be the first account published, pending pre-approval of all supporter members.
It was explained that NUST's exclusion was not due to its Forum questions or what it had reported, but the timing of its report; breaking protocol that had otherwise been respected by all other Forum members. NUST's report had unfairly become the primary influence on supporters' and the media's perceptions of what had been discussed.
Members were again encouraged to ask challenging questions throughout.
Thirteen items of correspondence for Forum members' attention received via the club's official website were listed, with most questions of an operational nature and therefore answered quickly by the club before being forwarded to members. Remaining issues were forwarded for members to ask at the Fans Forum meeting.
2. Singing section' presentation
Guest Jonathan Foster (JF) gave a presentation to the Fans Forum on behalf of 'Division '92', a group created by fans to enhance the match atmosphere at St. James' Park. The presentation contained information on Division '92 and its desire to see a singing section reintroduced for like-minded fans to be together to sing and support the team.
It was explained that its aim is to work alongside club to ensure rules and regulations are abided by, with evidence of success at other clubs including Manchester United, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace. JF also outlined that Old Trafford's is based on loyalty points.
JF stated a preference of being located at the back of the Gallowgate stand, away from visiting supporters, where around 10% is occupied by season ticket holders.
Questions to JF from Forum members
Andrew McClay (AMc): "Are you wanting to include a standing section too?"
JF explained that the issue of standing is out of club's hands due to legislation but that he would like to see a safe standing option in future.
Gordon Gilchrist (GG): "A few years ago there was a singing section but it was closed down, he believed, because Mike Ashley was getting some abuse and the stewards didn't have any real control over the area. Could the people in that area self-police, as it's very difficult for stewards to do so?"
Mark Jankowski (MJ) added that a couple of smoke bombs had been set off where Division '92 had congregated against Cardiff City.
JF accepted that it is difficult to police and stated Division '92 would try to eliminate this concern by singing section members signing up to - and abiding by - self-written guidelines.
Steve Hastie (SH) added his backing to the plan. GG added that the previous singing section was next to the Family Area, so obscene language would need to be addressed.
Chris Forster (CF): "What is the club's position on it?"
LM explained that the club had initiated meetings with JF and Division '92 regarding potential locations and safety and security issues. The question remained of whether it is in the club's interests to create an area that is difficult to police (due to smoke bombs etc.).
Steve Storey (SS) added that the threat of illegal pyrotechnics remains a concern, with most set off in or around the area in which JF's group is currently located. SS explained that the club supports JF's intentions and had trialled it for European matches, but there were pyrotechnics ignited and other incidents.
AMc: "Could sniffer dogs be used to detect pyrotechnics?"
SS stated that they had been deployed in European matches but that smoke canisters were still smuggled into the stadium.
CF stated that it's difficult to deliver a great atmosphere at all times with various factions dotted around the ground.
Vishal Vedhara (VV) asked for a show of hands, with all of the Fans Forum members supporting Division '92's idea.
LM proposed another meeting between Newcastle United and Division '92 following members' support.
3. Open questions to club representatives
(Includes several pre-requested agenda items)
Questions from members adjudicated by club ambassador Bob Moncur:
AMc: "Does the club plan to reinstate NUST to the forum?"
LM reiterated that the club's decision was final, explaining that it was taken due to NUST breaking protocol and to therefore maintain the integrity of the Fans Forum.
AMc and Steve Cole (SC) shared their view that it was a harsh decision.
LM explained that time and care had been taken over the decision and that contrasting views had been expressed by Forum members regarding this issue.
CF: "Is there any group that could feasibly replace NUST?"
Steve Hastie (SH) suggested that NUFC Fans United had offered to take some questions from NUST but that they had failed to respond. SH encouraged other groups and individuals to put questions to forum members in a useful way in the meantime without putting pressure on those individual members.
VV asked if the club could make it clearer that Forum members can take questions from fans via the club website. CF agreed that it would be a positive step for the club to promote their positions more.
LM explained that the club had to guard against putting too much pressure on individuals volunteering their time, but that the club will further promote communication options.
Michael McCarthy (MMc): "The FA Cup game didn't go as planned. What's the target for the rest of the season, and are we going to push for Europa League place or is tenth acceptable?"
The board (LC and JI) explained that the strongest available players had started the cup defeat to Cardiff City (with the exception of substitute Loïc Remy) and that it was a case of a poor result rather than poor team selection. The board repeated that its aim this season remains a top ten finish, clarifying that everyone at the club naturally wants to finish as high as possible.
CF: "What is the club's ambition in relation to its fans? It was made clear that the Premier League is the most important but we have to be careful what message the club sells to the fans. People are becoming disenchanted that club isn't focussing on silverware."
The board explained that NUFC had played 14 extra games due to Europa League last season, culminating in a quarter final but ultimately adversely affecting the club's league campaign. While several other clubs had recently suffered relegation after winning a domestic cup, NUFC still put out a strong team against Cardiff City which was capable of progressing into the next round of the FA Cup.
MMc: "The perception fans have is that the club would be happy with any finish under a Europa League place. Would tenth be acceptable?"
The board suggested that this perception had been driven by reports published prematurely from the previous Fans Forum, which had misled the public about what was actually said and the context. It was restated that the club's intentions are top ten as the minimum standard, with every place higher representing a better outcome.
Phil Patterson (PP): "We had a heavy schedule over Christmas but have senior players who seem to have disappeared from the squad."
The board explained that it is the manager's prerogative as to who he selects for the squad based on what he observes in games and in training.
Liam Hall (LH): "Regarding strength of the squad, if we did qualify for the Europa League this season, would we strengthen where we didn't last time?"
The board explained that the Europa League generated circa £6m last season and that was not a significant amount to strengthen the squad. Any funds available would be used to strengthen for the Premier League and not for the Europa League.
GG: "The club needs to communicate to quash rumours (e.g. players recently spotted in the airport)."
Club representatives explained that it would be impossible to clarify every rumour or sighting.
AMc: "We learned recently that Sports Direct don't pay for stadium advertising. Has a new sponsor been lined up for next season who will pay?"
The board outlined that the club is constantly working to bring in sponsors across all platforms and that if a company is willing to pay, the club will secure the right sponsor at the right value. It was outlined that partnering big brands is not straightforward and that multi-million pound partnership deals do take time.
AMc asked if Firetrap, which advertises on LED boards, receives its advertising exposure as part of Sports Direct. It was confirmed that it is part of the same group.
TC: "Can you say anything about the Luuk de Jong transfer rumour?"
The board explained that it would not comment on specific rumours, stating that 95% of what has been written about the January transfer window is not true and is simply driven by agents and the media.
CF: "Does the club expect or hope to strengthen in January?"
The board explained its view was that the current squad is stronger than it has been for some time. It was stated that if the right player became available for the right price, perhaps the club would bring someone into the squad. If not, it would not add to it.
SC: "Is it possible for fans who live away from the North East to provide an alternative address to have tickets delivered to?"
Stephen Tickle (ST) stated that he would look into it and added that supporters can continue to arrange to collect tickets at the stadium in the meantime.
SC: "There used to be a regular mention in the programme for supporters clubs and how to join. Can that be looked at?"
LM outlined an existing programme feature on global supporters ('Where in the World') but stated that the idea would be passed to the club's managing editor for consideration next season.
CF: "There is to be a big investment in training facilities. What is the strategy for local talent?"
The board stated its strategy is to not bring in players from outside of the region for ages 16 and below, with only rare occasions for the higher development age categories in order to give local players the opportunity to play for their local club.
SC: "We're in the Joe Harvey suite but there are no photos of Joe Harvey."
Eddie Rutherford explained that when the room had been refurbished, the desired artwork had been unavailable. JI stated that the club had been working with a Fairs Cup group to secure a large plaque dedicated to Joe Harvey outside, which is to be installed at the stadium later in the season.
AMc: "Does the club plan to continue the ban on NCJ Media?" AMc also noted his disagreement with the decision.
The club confirmed the ban is indefinite. It was explained that the key issue was not that a protest march had been reported on, but that it had been afforded an unacceptably disproportionate level of coverage which was neither fair nor balanced. It was explained that negative coverage will not be an issue for the club providing it stays within the letter of the law.
SH and VV shared the view that the club would be "bigger and better" by relinquishing the ban.
The club's stance was politely reiterated.
AMc asked what had contributed to the club's "disappointing results" in terms of commercial revenue falling.
The board stated that perception is vitally important in this issue, with stark comparisons drawn between what is often written in blogs and fanzines and the reality.
It was stated that outsourcing the club's catering operations was the key factor behind a reduction in turnover, meaning the club went from £7m annual turnover via in-house catering to £1m when operations were switched to Sodexo Prestige.
However, the club reported that profit levels were massively better as a result of fewer overheads. Turnover went down, but it went down for the right business reason because profits went up.Bottom line is better, regardless of turnover being down. Getting Wonga on board and working hard on other commercial ventures (e.g. concerts) means the club expects performance to be even better moving forward.
Susan Joyce (SJ): "Is there an update on reciprocal away ticket pricing. Have any other clubs come on board?"
ST stated that the club had pursued a reciprocal deal with a number of clubs but most had declined the offer. ST stated that deals were agreed with Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion but that NUFC will continue to try to strike agreements. It was stated that this may be more difficult with bigger clubs who are reluctant to compromise on price.
SC: "So the clubs who charge extortionate prices, will you match that?
The club explained that it did so with Southampton and Norwich City, raising away ticket prices at St. James' Park to match their prices for travelling NUFC supporters. It was outlined that a club's willingness to get on board is related to the number of fans travelling and the unique structure of its stadium.
SJ: "Did NUFC veto public slides next to St. James' Metro Station and if so, what were the other plans for the land?"
The board explained that the proposal was initially made by NE1. The club accepted the proposal but it didn't get planning permission from Newcastle City Council. The club remains open to ideas and suggestions for commercial usage.
4. Club retail / Sports Direct
How does the club's retail operation work in relation to Sports Direct?
The board explained that the club altered its retail operations in February 2013 for business reasons which simply benefit Newcastle United financially.
Firstly, by switching its warehousing from the club's former smaller premises to Sports Direct's vast central facility, the club benefits from hugely improved supply chain management without the costs associated with operating its own warehouse.
Secondly, clubs do not receive kits from the manufacturer free-of-charge as part of sponsorship deals. They still have to purchase all kit in order to sell it to supporters. By outsourcing the buying of that kit and other products for NUFC stores to Sports Direct, the club benefits from far greater buying power. In effect, Sports Direct buys direct from sporting goods manufacturers (i.e. Puma) in far greater quantities than NUFC would need to, achieving even greater value for buying in bulk.
Sports Direct warehouses that stock and as soon as it comes to the NUFC store, the club buys it at cost price plus a handling fee. The handling fee represents much better value than the warehouse fee, warehouse staff etc. that the club would otherwise need to incur.
Accordingly, 100% of the money paid for goods in NUFC stores goes into the football club's bank account.
The board reiterated that there is nothing hidden and no secrets to the process; it is just a very simple business decision. The idea is that the club should generate more profit. The cost profile of items changes because Sports Direct can buy cheaper than we can. It should make us more money over time and it is likely that more clubs will do it in the future.
SH: "When you buy from NUFC Direct and take it back to store, you only get a credit note for the store."
The club explained that it is the seller so 100% of funds paid for an item go to NUFC. The management of the stock, however, remains with Sports Direct which is why items must be returned to their warehouse. Sports Direct operates the NUFC Direct website and is therefore responsible for a much-improved online shopping experience.
TC: "Why was our retail website selling some Rangers items?"
The club agreed that should never have happened and explained that because Sports Direct fulfils a similar operation for Portsmouth and Rangers, there had been a human error in the coding behind the website.
AMc: "In Sports Direct's annual report, it states NUFC made a payment of £498,000 to Sports Direct. Can you explain it?"
The club stated that as per the previously explained process, the payment was for the purchase of stock at cost from Sports Direct's warehouse in Shirebrook plus distribution to NUFC stores and retail customers. The fee is for stock purchased within that financial period.
In September's meeting, Nick Stone (NS) said that Wonga would be happy to commit to funding stadium flags proposed by supporters and accordingly, Wonga set aside some budget.
Damian Peachey (DP) explained that a big part of Wonga's partnership with the club was demonstrating a commitment to the community and fans, such as reverting St. James' Park to its original name by purchasing the naming rights, investing in the academy in conjunction with the Newcastle United Foundation and funding the stadium gates. The next step is activity within the stadium itself.
Wonga produced three designs for two large flags which will be located at the Gallowgate End, which were voted on by Forum members. They are set to be revealed at the Sunderland fixture.
Forum members were encouraged to submit additional ideas for stadium activity for the second part of the season.
CF, MMc and TC all praised the scarves and flags initiatives which had been used in previous seasons.
6. Department updates
Safety and Security
What is the club's stance on standing?
SS stated that current rules require all-seater stadiums and that persistent standing is a breach of ground regulations. SS explained that he is aware of all the petitions and rail seats, but until the legislation changes, the club would be unable do anything about it.
SH and AMc proposed that the club could fit "1.8 people per 'seat'" into a standing section and therefore sell out in excess of 52,000 supporters.
SH: "In terms of public relations, there's no problem with the club saying that they would be in favour of it if the legislation changes.
The board explained that the club did not have a view on 'safe standing' in the current circumstances and would firstly have many considerations to evaluate before announcing its stance.
SH outlined NUFC Fans United's 'safe standing' survey results, which reported very positively in favour of safe standing from a survey of 1,200 people.
PP stated: "A lot of families come to games and there are lots of people who would not wish to stand. Football audiences have changed."
CF added that if there was enough demand from certain groups of fans, his preference would be for a standing section in a "specific area".
Gareth Beard (GB), on behalf of NUDSA, added: "Since all-seater stadia, facilities for the disabled have improved massively. I wouldn't like to see standing at all."
Crush incident at Sunderland's Stadium of Light
SH: "We had an issue at Sunderland this season getting into the Stadium of Light, such as problems with crushing and getting into the ground. Was there any response from Sunderland?"
SS explained that the police did a full debrief and it was concluded that the whole operation was a success. CCTV showed a turnstile was jammed and an exit gate was opened causing a large number of Newcastle fans to enter the stadium. The Sunderland safety officer investigated this and the matter is now closed. Unfortunately, there is not much more we can do. FA safety advisor also made a comment about this issue.
TC: "Sunderland fans will have to get on coaches when they come to St. James' Park. If they stay in the Premier League, will that be the case for us next season?"
SS stated that this would not be the case as there has been no requirement made or justification for it. SS noted that the location of the Stadium of Light and its infrastructure are different.
GB: "There's a light out in a particular area of the car park which is especially dangerous for disabled supporters."
ER stated that parts have been ordered since this issue was first raised and it will be fixed shortly.
Newcastle United Foundation
Kate Bradley (KB) outlined the Toon Times exhibition, which will span Newcastle United's entire history. The exhibition opens at Newcastle's Discovery Museum on 8th February 2014. The club and Foundation would like to encourage all supporters to attend throughout the year.
PP: "The Foundation is potentially losing money on its raffle because the posters are no longer clear."
KB stated that this had been noted and will be monitored for forthcoming matches.
VV suggested the group would like to hear the positives from the Foundation given that negative issues are more likely to be discussed.
LM encouraged Forum members to sign up the Newcastle United Foundation's newsletter via the club's official website or follow a link which had been emailed to Forum members. LM spoke about the hospital visits made by players over the festive period, with the entire squad covering three hospitals across Tyneside - North Shields, the Freeman and three separate groups across the Great North Children's Hospital.
SH: "Did the club's Academy achieve the highest category status?
The board confirmed that a further update will be made available in due course.
SC: "Why are the half time scores not shown on the perimeter LED advertising boards?"
The club explained that this had not been done since the LED boards were replaced because the content/graphics come pre-downloaded and it is not a 'live' feed.
CF: "If current form continues and the club qualifies for Europe, would the club learn the lessons and strengthen?"
The board reiterated that the squad is stronger than last year. Given that the Europa League can be a drain for clubs for very little financial reward, the club believes the structure of the competition needs to be reassessed.
VV suggested that while the league is the priority, the club would go to another level if it won a cup. TC added: "If we don't compete in the higher positions and we are eighth, will we keep the likes of the top players?"
The board suggested that financially, the club is not under any pressure to sell players and remains an attractive proposition to players.
CF asked about the club's current commercial performance.
The board explained that the club is in the strongest position it has ever been in commercially. However, while the 'top four' can attract significantly larger funds, NUFC has to try and compete with that and, in-turn, outperform the clubs around it.
SH: "We need to get the message out there that we're competing for it, challenging for top four. It's good to be aspirational."
The board reiterated that 10th is not the highest it wants to achieve, it is the minimum target.
No further questions posed.
Proposed dates for remaining 2013/14 Forum meetings:
- Monday 24th February 2014 (post-Aston Villa)
- Monday 19th May 2014 (end of season)