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Why Newcastle United Fans Forum is a complete sham exercise from start to finish

12 months ago
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In 2015, at a Newcastle United fans forum, the minutes confirmed how they like to “control and reinforce the positive messages the club wished to deliver.” The approach to the forum is very similar to their approach with the media.  In Mike Ashley’s words: “If you want to refer to dealing with the media as lying, then I would say yes, but I don’t think it’s lying in the true sense of the word.”

Anyone that goes into a forum representing fans, or reading the sanitised minutes that are belatedly released afterwards, must therefore take a sceptical approach.  Assume they’re telling you only what they want you to hear.

With this in mind, what misdirection have the club engaged in at the most recent forum?

Sports Direct sponsorship

The club state “Sports Direct is only allocated what the club doesn’t sell”, a point I queried on Twitter.

Anyone with eyes in their head can see that Sports Direct don’t just take what’s left of unsold space.  It’s an insult to the intelligence of anyone that has sat in St James Park to suggest otherwise.

Sports Direct retail agreement

Apparently, in comparison to the club shop “online sales are accounted for differently but the net profit for the club is unaffected.” Which is a very vague statement, after all, considering that the costs associated with websales are much lower, the profitability should be much higher, shouldn’t it?  Not just unaffected. Sports Directs accounts call what the club receive from websales a “service fee”, the pertinent question that springs to mind is what exactly is that service fee?

Unfortunately, while the minutes include a very innocuous statement – “During the meeting is was agreed that further clarification would be provided on online sales subsequent to the meeting” – in the meeting itself the question of what this service fee is, only became a requirement for a follow up  because the Chief Executive did not know how much the club receive from online sales.  It seems he has not been able to find out or tell us in the fortnight since either, despite taking it away.

Justin Barnes and Keith Bishop

These are two highly contentious individuals and the minutes tell us nothing about their roles, while claiming to clear up exactly what they do. It’s generic language that fills a few lines but tells readers nothing whatsoever.

Whose interests do they represent?

If the club don’t, who pays them to spend their time at the club and why?

Why don’t the club employ people to represent the club’s interests in those roles?

Why have they attended Rafa’s press conferences?

Why do they not attend the Fans Forum?

Why does the owner need a conduit to the Chief Executive?

Why doesn’t the owner replace the Chief Executive if he can’t work directly with him and needs a conduit?

If Keith Bishop is engaged in PR on behalf of NUFC, why is the club’s name in the mud?

Shouldn’t he be relieved of his duties and be replaced by someone that actually listens to fans and engages with them, to facilitate a stronger bond between club and “customers”?

Where’s The Money Gone?

The answer to this question provided the most alarming revelation of the forum, public confirmation from the club that they’re prioritising repaying Mike Ashley’s debt above improving the training facilities, the academy or the squad.

Newcastle United did not try to disguise the fact that there was money in the bank to sign players in August.  The minutes confirm “deals were not possible despite the money being available for these players.” Indeed, vast sums were apparently available, as was made clear “players were pursued, some of which were well above and beyond the club’s current transfer record.”

They did however try to muddy the waters about when cash can and cannot be spent. Pages are dedicated to a discussion about cashflow, about when the club receive premier league payments, about instalments for players, both in and out, but ultimately, that’s all redundant, a smokescreen.  The club have said they could have broken our transfer record if they wanted to, they chose not to though, or failed to do so (more on that later).

What should infuriate any Newcastle fan though, is that despite having all this money available, cash flow might have subsequently become an issue of the club’s own making.  That the money we had and didn’t spend in the summer, might not be there in January.  Not because we’re waiting on payments, but because we chose  to repay  Mike Ashley some of his loans – “The amount owed to the owner was disclosed in last accounts (£144m) and the figure is currently less than that.”

How do I know this repayment was made after the transfer window closed and not before?  Because on 7th August Mike Ashley wrote to MP Jeremy Wright and stated “As owner of Newcastle United, I have provided the club with interest-free loans, the outstanding balance of which as at today’s date is £144 million.”

So, between 7th August and 24th September some of the loan to Mike Ashley was repaid.

At a time when the manager is desperate for a few quality signings, Newcastle have conceivably created a cash flow shortage of their own making going into the January window. We’re waiting on future Premier League payments and transfer instalments to replenish funds we could have spent on the squad or training facilities, had Ashley not took them for himself.

Inability to sign players

Why, if the club had money to spend, was the manager left so dissatisfied in the summer.  The club covered this – “several clubs simply did not want to sell their players, or the players did not want to make the move.”

Is that not the most inadequate response you could come up with if you were trying to annoy supporters?

In mid-September The Magpie Group tweeted a damning list of the many statements from Newcastle United that have followed disappointing transfer windows.  For those of us that have heard these pathetic excuses for a decade now, to hear the same sort of thing repeated again is as inevitable as it is insulting.

These sorts of answers have always been dispiriting to Newcastle fans, but what’s most dismaying, is that the club see this as the end of the conversation.

Our Chief executive doesn’t further consider our inability to buy players for “well above” the record fees previously paid because “players did not want to make the move.”  This is ok by him that 19 other clubs in the league are more attractive to players.  There is no self-reflection whatsoever.  No cause and effect considered between running the entire operation like a discount tat store and not being able to attract proven talent.

For sale?

What the club found it important to relay to us on this matter is that it’s the fans’ fault no one is buying – ”There have been groups who have expressed an initial interest, but who have been discouraged with proceeding, due to the visibility and scrutiny that comes with the football club.”

This is nonsensical.  The visibility and scrutiny of the club is well-known and is one of it’s biggest assets.  Which top club with ambition to be a great club could (or would) hope to fly under the radar of media and supporter scrutiny? Any prospective buyer would be well aware of this at Newcastle and would embrace it.  They certainly would not contact the club and only then realise it was a big deal after having done so.  The only thing that would discourage a prospective buyer after they made an approach would be their interactions with Mike Ashley and his people.

The scrutiny that comes at Newcastle would only be an issue to a buyer if their intentions for the club were as insincere as Mike Ashley’s.  It’s a very good thing if such people think twice about making an approach.   It’s something that might have made Ashley think twice, if only he’d known anything about the history of the club when he bought it.  He now finds it problematic that he’s not been able to pillage the club quietly, hence his frequent pronouncements that he wants to sell.

All told, I like the fact that the fans forum, no matter how inadequate, cannot shield the club from the weakness of it’s positions being exposed.  There’s a range of people that attend with a range of perspectives, many of which I disagree with and I have a lot of sympathy with those people that take criticism despite their best efforts and genuinely held beliefs.

I think even club representatives are just as much victims of the process rather than necessarily part of the problem.  For example, Lee Marshall’s work day (and Twitter feed) would be much easier to manage if he was just allowed to dump a three hour mp3 onto the club website rather than poring through the audio for publishable snapshots.

Unfortunately, there are people at the club who will not allow that, they believe they can better manage the message coming from the club by sanitising the conversation. Considering nothing whatsoever above reflects well on the club, you have to worry how bad it would be if we could hear the audio.

You can follow the author on Twitter @bigchrisholt

You can also keep in touch with all of Chris Holt’s blogs via NUFC Miscommunication, NUFC-Ashlies Blogspot and BigChrisHolt on Tumblr
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