Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Newcastle fans launch takeover campaign

From The Times, another one from George Caulkin...

The emails were dispatched at 2am on Tuesday morning. All 40,000 of them, which the Newcastle United Supporters Trust [NUST] believes might just make it the biggest-ever mail-out to football fans. In spite of the bleary-eyed hour, within the first 20 minutes, 120 people had signed up for more information and pledges of financial backing had come from as far afield as Australia.

There was a humbling message from an orphanage in Ghana, where the NUST have previously sent Newcastle shirts to disadvantaged children, kids whose lives put notions such as sport, victory and defeat into its proper perspective, with an offer to invest £5. In emotive terms, a value could not be placed on their gesture and at that moment, their challenge felt that bit more manageable.

Eight hours later, the NUST officially launched a six-week campaign to raise awareness about their ‘Yes We Can‘ proposal to buy Newcastle United from Mike Ashley. Organisers stood on the Millennium Bridge their backs to a mural on the exterior of the Baltic art gallery. “Victory to the miners,” it read. “Victory to the working class.” It felt like a symbolic message.

Their scheme is bold and it has to be, but it has not been formulated on the back of a cigarette packet. Over the past few months and weeks, they have spoken to fans‘ groups, local businesses (it is understood that Barry Moat, whose recent takeover attempt failed, is not one of them), institutions and politicians about the viability of their project and how to take it forward. As they put it, “It’s about reclaiming our football club for the city".

They mean business. About £35,000 will be spent on an advertising campaign, the initial aim of which is to raise enough money (£10million would be a decent start) to demonstrate their intent to larger investors who, the NUSC insists, are already committed in principle. And, indeed, to Ashley. They have, they say, some impressive partners on board, whose identities will be revealed over the coming days.

The ultimate goal is fan ownership of Newcastle, a model operated, famously, by Barcelona, but also elsewhere, with a president voted for by members who would themselves be able to stand for election to the trust’s board. It will require investment from individuals, from a minimum £1,500 in cash or the reallocation of pension funds. All of that information can be found here.

Could it work? Yes. Will it? That, of course, is the £80m question (or however much Ashley now values Newcastle at), and it is not coincidental that the NUST have appropriated Barack Obama’s optimisitc, against-the-odds campaign slogan for last year’s American presidential election: ‘Yes we can’. What cannot be doubted is that they are good, decent, serious people who adore their football club.

A lot has been written and said about Ashley’s stewardship of Newcastle (even he has called it “catastrophic”). Most depressing about it is that alternatives have dissolved away. Aside from apathy or anger for the sake of it, only one remains. What follows is a brief chat with Mark Jensen, editor of the respected fanzine The Mag, who is acting as a spokesman for the campaign.

What is ‘Yes We Can’ all about?

MJ: “Everybody has seen the protests, both verbal and visible, against Mike Ashley and what’s happened at the club, but it’s not just about him. For years before him, the club wasn’t run in the way it should have been in most people’s eyes and the biggest protest comes now: the fans are leading the way in looking to buy the club. It sounds very ambitious, but everything we’ve done in the last few months behind the scenes - the research we’ve done with businesses and supporters - leads us to believe that it's definitely achievable. We’re putting the final touches to the business plan and this six-week campaign will see us advertising in the local media and doing various events to raise awareness. The first base is to get a seat at the table whereby representatives can negotiate with Mike Ashley the full amount to buy the club then that would become the target. In private, we've been meeting with very, very credible local businesses and people. They’ve assured us that as long as the fans have the appetite to raise X amount, they’ll come in behind it and make this all a reality.”

How do you persuade people that buying the club is a viable proposition?

MJ: “You only have to go back to 1997, when the club was floated on the Stock Market: the fans bought 10 per cent of the club then and, actually, the offer was oversubscribed. They were prepared to raise money then. The point has been reached now where everybody who is willing and able to could and should invest in the club. We’ve got an opportunity for Newcastle United to be the shining light in this country, as to how a club should be run. That’s the carrot being dangled in front of everybody; as well as having a club that could hopefully go on to win things, it would also be run in the right way and for all the right reasons. It isn’t just a few fans expecting to turn up and the run the club. It’s about fans giving the platform whereby fans, businesses and local institutions could all invest to make a viable club and then appoint people who could run it on a day-to-day basis. Nobody could tell me that what we’ve got in mind wouldn’t end up being better than what we’ve got now.”

So it’s about giving the club back to the city?

MJ: Reclaiming it, yes. That’s it in a nutshell. People are so fed up. But it’s been unbelievable this season. If you’d told me in the summer that Newcastle would be averaging crowds of more than 40,000 in these circumstances ... People are showing their opposition to Mike Ashley but also showing their support for the team and there was no better example of that than on Saturday. The atmosphere was brilliant and we were playing Peterborough United with nearly 44,000 people there. It was more than Liverpool had at home in the Premier League on Monday night. If anybody asks ‘how can Newcastle be a success in the future?’, that tells you everything. The fans desperately want to go and support their team and this is their opportunity to have much more than that.”

Newcastle are top of the league, but how perilous is the club’s position away from that?

MJ: “In the short-term you can look at the results and how we’re doing in the Championship and think that things aren’t too bad, but the more games we win and the more that promotion becomes a reality, the more it looks as though we would have to buy pretty much a whole new team. Judging on their past performances, I don’t think anybody would have faith in Ashley or Derek Llambias to successfully do that. People have been hoping that some white knight would be out there, but they have to accept that it’s very unlikely to happen. And that’s how we once felt about Ashley, too. He’s proved to be anything but. Maybe the salvation for Newcastle United is with the people who care most about it, ordinary fans and business people.

You’re asking for a big financial commitment from people. What guarantees do they have that their money will be looked after properly?

MJ: “Firstly, it’s not a case of fans looking after other fans’ money. It’s about appointing proper professional people, the best people possible, to do that job. As things stand, is Derek Llambias the best qualified person to be in control of the money that comes into the club now? I think we know the answer to that. We would emulate what successful clubs have done and learn from them - up until now, Newcastle haven’t done that and that’s why we’ve ended up in this position.

So you have substantive people waiting in the background who will become involved?

MJ: “Yes. Newcastle is a damaged brand - that’s one of those phrases we have to use these days - it’s a business and to be successful on the pitch, it has to be successful off it. There are very, very credible people from the local business community - names that people will recognise - who are committed to coming on board. But they need the fans to show they’ve got the appetite to do their bit and then, together, we can turn the club around. Maybe it wouldn’t work for those businesses to come in by themselves. Why can’t we create something much bigger and better than just expecting local businessmen to come in and do everything? Why shouldn’t we do our bit and, potentially, have a really sound, long-term investment in a club we all invest in week after week?

Long-term is the key, isn’t it?

MJ: “How quickly things can happen will depend on how many people respond. We’ve sent out 40,000 emails to names we’ve collected over the last few months and we’ve already had a very good response from them. The financial plan will be ready in six to seven days’ time, whereby people will have all the information they need as to how they can go about making an investment. We’ll be pointing towards independent financial advisors, because the level of investment possible depends on individual circumstances, but if it’s right for them, hopefully they’ll come on board. The committee members are all putting money into it - it's not throwing money down the drain, it’s about investing in what could be a great club again and a very successful business.”