Can fan ownership be a reality?

There is a lot of negativity, passion and anger swirling around this week surrounding our possible exit from the Premier League and is there any wonder? In the 8 years we have had to endure Mike Ashley’s tenure – notwithstanding his many off-field fiascos – we’ve suffered one top 8 finish, a smattering of mid-table bore-fests and a couple of serious relegation scraps. That alone should make the purist want to see the back of Mike Ashley, because make no mistake folks, Ashley is to blame for everything that is happening on the field. He is the one who flogged M’biwa and Santon in January when we were desperately short of any cover. He was the one who loaned out the “Rangers 5” further depleting our threadbare squad. He was the one who refused to invest in a decent short-term or long-term managerial option when Pardew left. He was the one who has consistently flogged top players only to replace them inadequately, or in most cases, not at all. Everything that is happening on the field, right now, is down to Mike Ashley. Agreed? Good.

Mind you, Carver isn’t doing a bad job in trying to take some of the stick for his boss! He is woefully inadequate, but he shouldn’t ever be in that position. At better run clubs, someone like Carver wouldn’t be let within 100 miles of the top job, so my focus will not be on Carver.

Neither will I be focusing on this weekend’s game, or our possible relegation, because I largely think it doesn’t really matter. That might seem utterly absurd to some of you, if not most of you, but what matters more to me is the next step. What comes next regardless of whether we stay up or go down? Do we hope Ashley changes his ways? Do we pray for a Geordie billionaire to come save the day? Or a Russian oligarch or Arab Sheik?

None of those are likely, and in this era of the increasing sanitisation of football, I wouldn’t want to see it at my club. Mike Ashley is a cancer at our club, but he is also a symptom of the wider problem that pervades football in our country – multi-millionaires and billionaires buy our football clubs and run it as their own personal play things because they can. Some clubs like Man City or Chelsea get philanthropic owners who want success, glory, and the pursuit of sporting excellence. Some get misanthropic chancers out for a quick buck. The list of football clubs who have suffered at the hands of businessmen out for themselves is long – Cardiff, Blackburn, Portsmouth, Leeds, Hereford, and Newcastle United. The list goes on and on.

For me, there is only one option that is both sustainable, and worth pursuing, and that is fan ownership. There has been some discussion in certain spheres about fan ownership but it has never really been talked about in the main. It has been encouraging that in recent times we have seen the Labour party, as part of their election manifesto, make the fantastic pledge to enact legislation enabling football supporters the chance to buy up to 10% of their club the next time their club changes hands – too bad they won’t be able to enact it! This was probably a pre-election “open goal” (forgive the pun) and a token football policy to appeal to that arena without any serious willingness to legislate – as is too often the case. However, it was encouraging that this plastic promise was in the field of supporter stakehold. A step in the right direction.

Whilst many of us know (or should know) of the success that has been achieved in many countries through continental Europe under various models of fan ownership, the situation in our own nation’s game on the issue is considerably different. With fan ownership of football clubs in this country either coming from the ashes of financial ruin (Wrexham, Portsmouth and even Swansea) or by dissent (F.C United of Manchester and A.F.C Wimbledon) it is clear that there is currently no working model of how supporters can claim a stake in their club without going through a hell of a lot of heart ache to do so.

That is what makes the ambitious announcement from the Newcastle United Supporters Trust yesterday so interesting. Here is a snippet of what NUST had to say:

Why can’t we be the biggest truly community club, owned by and run by the people who care the most, you the fans? Sir John Hall isn’t everyone’s favourite ex-owner but he brought to the club a vision and ambition to awaken the Geordie nation. He wanted to create the concept of Sporting Club Newcastle, embracing basketball, ice hockey and rugby, with football at St. James’ as the jewel in the crown. Now it didn’t all work but didn’t we have a great time during the Hall/Keegan years and beyond. We had a vision and ambition, Alan Shearer and Sir Bobby came home and we challenged the top of the premiership, we tried to win cups and we didn’t accept that anybody was better than us. Where has that spirit gone?

The Supporters Trust wants to get as many fans as possible on board. We want to raise the funds to buy a share in the club. We want to work with the right kind of partners to make Newcastle United the best community club in the country;

  • ­ a club that will work with local football clubs and schools to develop local talent and keep that talent in the North East,
  • ­ a club that will work with supporters on fans issues like ticket prices, safe standing and subsidised away travel for example,
  • ­ a club that will work with our MPs, the city council and local businesses to play its part in regenerating our area rather than simply billboarding a national sports retailer,
  • ­ a club that says we can compete, we will compete, we don’t reward mediocrity, we strive for excellence and to be the best we can be in everything we do.

We know that at the moment we don’t have a willing seller, we don’t have the money or the expertise in place to buy a share in the club even if Mr. Ashley wanted to sell but we have a vision and we have ambition and we believe the fans of Newcastle United, whether you’re still going to games or not, have the power to bring about change.

Do you want to be part of it?

We know there will be pitfalls along the way. The naysayers will tell us it can’t be done. But if it works we’ll have a fan voice on the Board of Newcastle United, elected democratically by all of us working with new owners who have ambitions we can all buy into.

The Trust is currently taking advice about how to create the right structure to give fans the chance to raise the money needed. It will be done through a separate holding company, protected by legal articles, safeguarded by a special bank account and advised and assisted by specialists who will help us to do it properly.

There’s much to do and nobody thinks it’ll be easy. We’ll put more details out as soon as we can but right now we want to hear from everybody who wants to be part of this. Now is the time to buy into the idea, the concept, the vision that a club can truly be owned by people who care about the club and want the fans to play their part as true custodians of Newcastle United.

Later we want you to back that up with your money, real investment in an exciting project that will make a real difference. Money talks and without raising money we’ll never be able to influence what happens at the club. We won’t ask you to do that without having the information you need to make an informed decision. But now is the time to start the discussion, have the arguments, tell your mates about it and have your say. Tell us what you think.

It’s time to move on from the moaning and complaining about the current hierarchy and do something about it. So again…… you want to be part of it?

“Best community club in the country” – sounds impressive doesn’t it? They’re not aiming to pick up the pieces from financial ruin, nor are they speaking of creating an F.C United of Newcastle. They want to ambitiously try and raise the funds to have a stake in our club and make it accountable again to the people of the city, the region and the wider Newcastle United family – which is exactly the way it should be.

For full disclosure, I must state that I was a board member for NUST for 12 months, and I was impressed by the hard work, diligence and knowledge of the board members. These are good people with the good of the club at its core. This is a monumental undertaking, and by pinning their flag to the mast NUST must now deliver. They must capture the hearts and minds of the ordinary Newcastle United fan. They must try and take the negativity and despair that each and every Newcastle fan must surely be feeling and turn it into positivity and hope.

I will be giving NUST my backing in this campaign to strive for something better. Some people will criticise and say that it cannot be done. Maybe they are right. Maybe this particular mountain is too high a climb. But at least someone has shown a willingness to provide alternatives and step up and be counted. That at least deserves respect.

I don’t imagine this announcement will be heeded this week, of all weeks, given that we all have much more pressing concerns. As such, I do think NUST will need to keep banging at this particular drum over the coming weeks and months in order to spread the message far and wide. I wish them all the best, and would urge you to give them your backing…and if you can’t do that, at the very least, give them your money! 😉 [I should point out, that last bit was light hearted…]


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