Monday, 12th May, 2014 - Sir Bobby Robson Suite, St. James' Park
Kate Bradley - Head of Newcastle United Foundation
Lee Charnley - Managing Director
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
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
Steve Hastie - NUFC Fans United
Liam Hall - Young Persons Representative
Mark Jankowski - Gallowgate Stand Representative
Susan Joyce - Milburn Stand Representative
Sharron Lee - Long Distance Fan Representative
Andrew McClay - Members Representative
Phil Patterson - Corporate Representative
Vishal Vedhara - Equality Representative
Michael McCarthy - Leazes Stand Representative
Stephen Tickle - Box Office Manager
The group were welcomed by Lee Marshall (LM) on behalf of the club.
Meeting protocol was reaffirmed, with the group politely asked not to issue reports or public statements until official minutes had been agreed by Forum members.
Apologies were received from Michael McCarthy (MMc) and Stephen Tickle (ST).
LM explained that six pre-determined members would be stepping down from the Fans Forum following the meeting (as scheduled in the Forum's original design) and that a presentation would take place at the end of the evening.
LM outlined updates from the last meeting, including the appointment of Lee Charnley (LC) as managing director. Attendees were provided with a copy of the relevant press release containing LC's statement.
LM also explained in Stephen Tickle (ST)'s absence that a ticketing sub-group made up of supporters would be established once vacant Forum seats had been filled during the close-season to advise on ticketing issues.
LM outlined a planned training ground and Academy visit for Forum members ahead of pre-season.
2. Supporter items/open questions
Steve Hastie (SH) explained that Forum members had collated detailed statistics and questions from the wider fan base into a document and asked for the pertinent issues contained within it to be addressed. LM distributed copies to all attendees.
The board explained that a detailed statement had been issued to announce LC's appointment so that supporters were clear on how the club intends to move forward, but that questions posed by members would be addressed as openly as possible.
In addressing the document, the board stated that Alan Pardew (AP) will remain the club's manager. The board stated that incorrect media reports which claimed Newcastle United had contacted other individuals about the manager position were in the hands of the club's legal team.
Vishal Vedhara: "We are trying to convey where the feelings are coming from in the first section of the document (statistics). In the second part (questions), we want to convey how fans want the club to move forward."
Document question: What is the club's ambition going forward? Given the target this season was a top ten finish and it has been achieved, what will the target for progression be in the league next year? Also, what is the target for cup competitions next year?
The board reiterated the club's commitment to an open and consistent communications process with fans. The board accepted that the second half of the season had been disappointing but underlined its aim of improving on 16th-place finish in 2012/13 with a top ten finish in 2013/14 had been realised. It was stated that the club's aims for the 2014/15 Premier League season would be made public once they had been determined. The board reiterated that the Premier League will remain the club's priority.
Document question: Do you consider AP to be the best man to manage the club bearing in mind the acceptance of gross misconduct charges following the incident at Hull City and results and performances in 2014?
The board explained that it had acted swiftly and decisively following the Hull City fixture and that the manager was left in no doubt that his actions were unacceptable. The statement, warning and club fine imposed indicated how strongly the incident was viewed. The manager also publicly apologised and accepted all sanctions.
Document question: Why are there so many inconsistent messages from the club concerning transfer budgets and numbers of players? We have heard of just two recruits, five recruits and even six recruits. Do these messages take into account the players that are out of contract and players on loan that also need replacing?
The board explained that the message it had continued to convey in relation to transfers - including in LC's statement in April - is, and will remain, its view. It was explained that any other messages or reports were unhelpful for both the club and its supporters and that the club will continue to work to address any issues.
SH and VV underlined that how transfer messaging is managed is important for fans.
The board agreed on the importance of a cohesive message and explained that the club is happy to stand by the general principles outlined in LC's statement in April 2014.
The board stated that it aims to avoid over promising and under delivering and that mixed messaging had to be avoided.
Document question: We are told that money is available; we (have) heard this statement at every transfer window. But in the last two windows we have failed to make any permanent signings. Why is this?
The board confirmed money is available to spend on players but has to ensure the right players are purchased for the right price.
Chris Forster (CF): Why haven't we made any permanent signings in the last two windows?
It was explained that the club had addressed the question in the previous Fans Forum and that its transfer activity in 2013/14 had been the loan arrivals of Loic Remy and Luuk de Jong and the sale of Yohan Cabaye.
Document question: What is the rationale behind Mike Ashley (MA) becoming a director at NUFC after seven years at the club? What can we expect to see from him in his new role? Will this include greater attendance at matches and being visible for decision making and, per all other directors, will he attend the Fans Forum?
It was explained that while LC and John Irving (JI) had previously been classed as the club's board members, MA's appointment to the board was a formality to reflect his role in decision making and would not lead to changes in the day-to-day operations of the club. He will not be attending Fans Forum meetings.
Document question: Can you explain the position concerning the sale of an asset in terms of the land to the rear of the Gallowgate End and the message that it sends to supporters in terms of the club's ambition or lack of, concerning opportunities for ground expansion in the future. The current board of Newcastle United are mere custodians of a famous and historic football club and have a duty of care to ensure that their actions do not cause damage to future ambitions.
The club confirmed that it is public knowledge that the land located beyond Strawberry Place next to St. James' Metro station is up for sale and confirmed there are two interested parties, which it could not name due to commercial sensitivities. The board stated that the land was sold to a joint venture (the club and American media group, MGM) in 2004 for a casino site and that MA had purchased the land back in 2008 once the casino plan had been scrapped to bring it back into 'group ownership', not specifically 'club ownership'.
SH: "Would it inhibit your ability to expand the ground?"
The board outlined that it was a potential option but not its only option. It was explained that the club had not pursued expanding onto the site as it did not make commercial sense to outlay approximately £30m - £40m to expand for the sake of an extra 6,000 - 8,000 seats. It was also explained that the club did not own the road between St. James' Park stadium and the land (Strawberry Place) and would have to purchase the road in order to fully expand the Gallowgate End. The board stated that building a hotel or similar development on the land would require a huge cost outlay.
Document question: Why - when we have largely played one game per week and had far fewer injuries to key players - have we been much worse than last season when we also played in the Europa League?
The board again accepted that the team had underperformed during the second half of the season. It was noted that the better performances had been witnessed by fans away from home.
SH: "Fans want to know why that has occurred and how we are going to put it right. We should want to be the best we can be."
The board agreed and explained that while a top ten finish was the minimum aim, everyone at the club wanted to finish as high up the table as possible.
CF: "It seems the club isn't willing to take the leap forward after we got top six two seasons ago."
Liam Hall (LH): "When the manager says we can't challenge the likes of Southampton, that's quite offensive."
The board stated the club's aim is to be the best it can be pound for pound and that the club's aims for next season will be made public in due course.
GG questioned if the club was doing enough to better those clubs and cited a problem with the club's stadium retail store as symptomatic of its lack of challenge.
The board outlined the financial distributions from the Premier League to clubs for the 2013/14 season. It was stated that clubs such as Liverpool receive far more PL revenue than Newcastle (£20.3million more for 2013/14, excluding commercial and matchday revenue which will also be higher). This disparity means it is impossible to compete with the traditional 'top six' financially - they have the resources to outspend us. In order to compete on the pitch, the club has to continue achieving value in terms of recruitment and stick to its principals.
Mark Jankowski (MJ) suggested buying players in January may have helped in ensuring more Newcastle United games were selected for live broadcast.
Steve Cole (SC): "With regard to the money received for being selected as a 'live' game, wouldn't we have expected to see more TV money if we'd have maintained our good form?"
VV: "If we played more entertaining football, would we not be much further up the list in terms of TV revenue?"
Everton were highlighted as an example to disprove the theory. Despite finishing much higher up the table than Newcastle and being perceived as 'entertaining' by many, they finished the season with only two more 'live selections' than Newcastle and their TV revenue equated to only £1.5million more.
It was suggested that BT Sport's fresh challenge to Sky Sports' dominance had resulted in more selections of traditional 'top six' clubs and that this had also squeezed the club's chance of greater TV revenue, despite excellent relationships with both broadcasters.
LH: "What if we had a cup run? Would that affect TV revenue?"
The board suggested that this would not be the case due to significantly lower TV and prize money. These competitions are not covered by the Premier League TV contract.
Thomas Concannon (TC): "What would you say to fans who walked out of St. James' Park early?"
The board accepted that performances in the second half of the season were disappointing. The board outlined that the responsibility of planning in the best interests of the club is their overriding focus and hoped fans would continue to support the club as it moves forward.
SC: "How many season ticket holders have not renewed for next season?"
The board stated that approximately six per cent of season ticket holders had not renewed to-date; similar levels to previous seasons.
Phil Patterson (PP): "Derek Llambias promised a five year plan to get NUFC back into the Champions League if possible."
The board outlined the club's fifth-place position in 2011/12 and subsequent 16th-place in 2012/13 to add context to last season's objective of a top ten finish. The board will communicate its targets for next season in due course but their overriding aim is to make the club the best it can be pound for pound.
GG: "Will the club lift the ban on NCJ Media?"
Document question: Will you implement a lifting of (the) ban on NCJ Media starting next season? The intransigence is a huge distraction and is detrimental to both parties.
SJ: "The Chronicle is damaging the public's perception of the club with its coverage."
CF: "It is mentally ingrained in some people to believe what they read in the local media."
The club confirmed its position will remain unchanged. Decisions made by the board are not - and will not be - influenced by media coverage, however negative.
GG: "Can the club look to include supporters' comments on official website stories?"
Wendy Taylor (WT) explained that this has been tried in the past and that it would require significant resources to moderate a comments section in addition to the resources needed to service the club's existing digital and social media output.
TC: "Fans were disappointed that the players received their bonus given some of the performances in the second half of the season. Will the club continue with the current structure or include bonuses on a game by game basis?"
The board explained that the players' and staff bonuses were dependent on league position i.e. the higher the club finished in the table, the larger the bonus in relation to salary. Players were heavily incentivised to finish in the highest position possible, with tenth representing the minimum bonus available.
TC commented that many fans were not necessarily aware the bonus system was graded per place, which is where some unhappiness had stemmed from.
LH: "What is the situation between the manager and Hatem Ben Arfa?"
The board stated that it is the manager's responsibility to pick the team that he feels can achieve the best result in each match.
Document question: Is the club still available for sale if the right offer comes in and have there been any offers or interest shown from any group or individual in the past 12 months?
It was stated that the owner is not actively trying to sell the football club.
Document question: Does the club support the findings of the FA Commission and particularly the involvement of Premier League clubs in developing a 'B Team' operating in the lower divisions of the football pyramid?
The board explained that it was consulted on behalf of the commission in advance of the report being published and, while the club feel there is some merit in a strategic partnership with a lower division team to give players some experience, the club is currently unsure of the merits of fielding a 'B Team' in the formation of a new league.
PP: "Were the reports linking Newcastle United with Oldham accurate?"
The board stated that reports linking Mike Ashley with the purchase of Oldham Athletic were not true.
VV suggested New Zealand was a long way to travel.
The board outlined that the club's pre-season plans ahead of the 2014/15 season work well commercially and will help to expose the Newcastle United brand globally.
SH: "Are you going to do anything for ex-pats in New Zealand?"
The board confirmed the club will be committed to particular activities in New Zealand and would confirm details in due course.
LM confirmed the club is in contact with supporters groups in the region and has already been working with Wellington Phoenix in relation to ticketing and potential activities.
SH: "Will there be a Newcastle United section in Gelsenkirchen or is it an open ground?"
LM stated that the club was originally instructed to direct its fans to the Schalke 04 website and has since been advised otherwise by tournament organisers. The club will release ticket information for Newcastle supporters shortly and has worked with Schalke to ensure supporters who have already purchased tickets directly are contacted and moved to the appropriate seating blocks.
LH: "Is there any news on a singing section?"
LM stated that a formal singing section was not in place and that further contact would be made with Division 92.
CF: "Do the club not think it is worth a cup run next season?"
The board outlined research into Premier League clubs in relation to domestic cup competitions in the last five years, with Swansea City the only club outside the traditional top six to win a domestic cup and not be relegated in the same season (Birmingham and Wigan Athletic were both relegated). Independent research into the cost of relegation over the past ten years showed there is a 50% chance of not gaining promotion back to the top flight and a 30% chance of being relegated to League One or further. In addition, if clubs do return to the Premier League, it takes four years on average.
GG: "If the club finished higher in the Premier League, would they aim for a cup?"
At this moment in time, the club's priority is the Premier League.
SH: "I would expect the current squad of players to be professional enough to be able to get into the quarter-final or semi-final of a cup, as well as Premier League success."
The board reiterated that the team selected to play Cardiff in the FA Cup in 2013/14 was strong enough to win the game (while the club were knocked out of the League Cup after extra time by the eventual competition and Premier League winners, Manchester City).
VV: "What's making fans more despondent are performances on the pitch. We're not seeing performances that represent the fans. Can the club target players with the mentality needed for this club?"
The board underlined the depth of the scouting process is uses to assess potential new players.
TC: "Are there any more plans for reciprocal ticket price deals for next season?"
The club outlined its aim to strike deals again during the 2014/15 season. The ticketing sub-group would look at this as well as generating ideas on how the Away Fans Fund could be spent. In 2013/14, NUFC were one of only five Premier League clubs to increase their own travelling support and the number of away fans at their own ground.
The club also confirmed that its spending of the Away Fans Fund equated to approximately £189,000, with any deficit from the ring-fenced £200,000 per season carried over to the next.
SJ: "There appears to be only one block of female toilets in Bar 1892 and it leads to huge queues at half-time. Will the club look at converting one of three male blocks for female use?"
Eddie Rutherford (ER) confirmed the club would look at the situation in the new season and would assess the ratio of male to female supporters in attendance before taking appropriate action.
LM thanked Forum members for all questions and feedback.
3. Communications/fan engagement review
LM gave a presentation on fan engagement across the Premier League and Newcastle United's activities during the 2013/14 season, including the design and inaugural year of the Fans Forum and how it helped to shape initiatives such as spending of the Away Fans Fund. The club's Twitter account was outlined, with 20,000+ followers added in eight weeks since the account was renamed and re-launched. The presentation also outlined the club's community outreach through the Newcastle United Foundation, fulfilling of Premier League media requirements and wide range of activities with sponsors including Wonga's Away Days and player visits to supporters' homes.
Forum members gave recommendations for the Fans Forum in 2014/15, including proposals to increase or decrease the number of meetings in line with important periods of the season.
LH: "Will Shola Ameobi be given a testimonial?"
The club confirmed it does plan to mark the player's length of service to Newcastle United but has not yet discussed its plans internally or with the player.
Forum members asked for additional time to respond to meeting minutes with their amendments or approval. The group asked the club to delay publication by an additional 24 hour period, meaning May's minutes are scheduled for release on Wednesday 14th May 2014 or later.
Damian Peachey (DP) gave a brief overview of the company's community activity this season, stressing the importance of local engagement in its partnership with the club. DP explained that Wonga will be commissioning a fan survey to get their views on the sponsorship.
Activities in 2013/14 included purchasing the stadium naming rights and returning it to St. James' Park, significant investment into the Academy, sponsorship of NUWFC, providing seed money for the stadium gates initiative, Away Days flight to Cardiff and stadium flags (large surfer flag held until next season).
DP stated Wonga remains open to new ideas for next season and thanked Forum members for enabling them to liaise closely with supporters.
SH: "Do you plan to revisit the Codemakers programming scheme for youngsters?"
DP explained that it was part of the company's corporate and social responsibility programme which it is currently looking at.
TC: "On behalf of the fans who rode from Newcastle to Southampton (as part of NUFC Cancer Cycle), can I put on record my thanks to NS, DP and Wonga for their donation of £100 and two signed shirts. They helped us to raise £5,000 for charity."
SH mentioned the Joe Harvey memorial plaque which was unveiled at the Gallowgate End in May and welcomed the efforts of the Fairs Club and Newcastle United to see it come to fruition. SH spoke positively about the number former players who attended the unveiling ceremony.
5. Department updates
Newcastle United Foundation
Kate Bradley (KB) thanked fans for their support throughout the season.
KB outlined the Foundation's forthcoming eBay auction, which will see players' kit and memorabilia auctioned online to raise vital funds to assist its work with 50,000 young people and families in the region each year. The Newcastle United official website, www.nufc.co.uk, will publicise the auction in May.
KB gave an overview of the Foundation's summer schedule, including Soccer Schools across Tyneside.
Finally, the Newcastle United Foundation is organising a golf day at Slaley Hall on 4th September. Interested parties can contact the Foundation via email@example.com or by calling 0844 372 1892.
ER gave details of redevelopments in the Leazes End, with the new 'Park Grill' set to open for the 2014/15 season.
ER explained that new floodlights are being installed during the close season to satisfy requirements of the new television deal via the Premier League.
Finally, ER explained that new rooftop tours have been launched at St. James' Park, giving supporters the chance to get a view of some of Newcastle's skyline and famous landmarks from 150ft above the pitch. Local media had been invited to preview and promote the tour on Tuesday 13th May.
Safety and Security
SH mentioned that Northumbria Police will be holding a supporters' meeting in June regarding supporters groups' views on policing.
Steve Storey (SS) will make enquiries into the meeting and the club hopes to send representation.
SH asked the club's opinion on "inconsistent and heavy-handed" stewarding that occurs at away games and particularly the way that Newcastle United supporters are treated in comparison to their counterparts in the home end. The group felt this was again evident at Liverpool on Sunday and SL provided anecdotal support of incidents at Anfield.
SS requested that supporters report all such incidents back to the club so that they could be taken up with the respective home clubs by Newcastle United.
TC: Do NUFC have any input into how long fans are held back at Sunderland?
SS explained that NUFC do not have an input into that decision.
SS encouraged Forum members to feed back on their experiences away from home so that the club can share views with safety representatives within clubs.
LM thanked supporters for their attendance and contributions during the Forum's inaugural season.
A presentation was made to the attending Forum members who are departing the Fans Forum as scheduled, with each receiving a signed, framed club pennant from club ambassador, Bob Moncur (BM).
CF and AMc thanked the club for the opportunity to be involved with the Fans Forum.
N.B. The following newly-vacant Fans Forum positions will be advertised in the summer:
- Away fans representative
- Black & White members representative
- East Stand representative
- Gallowgate representative
- Leazes End representative
- Milburn Stand representative
Next meeting: 2014/15 season, date TBC.