Wonga's NUFC sponsorship another sensible decision

YESTERDAY'S sponsorship announcement capped a busy fortnight for Newcastle United. Managing director Derek Llambias talks to chief sports writer Mark Douglas about how the club is laying firm foundations for the future.

Alan Pardew, Derek Llambias, Errol Damelin, Shola Ameobi
Alan Pardew, Derek Llambias, Errol Damelin, Shola Ameobi

THERE was a moment during yesterday afternoon’s hastily-convened Press conference when Errol Damelin, the CEO and founder of Wonga, announced that his company had purchased the naming rights to St James’ Park and you feared that Newcastle United were heading down a well-worn path.

You know the one by now: the crisis cul-de-sac that the Magpies have revisited far too often for comfort in their recent history.

When, with his next breath, he announced that the company would not be inflicting a corporate monstrosity on us but rather bringing the club into line with everyone else and reverting the proud stadium back to its birth name, it revealed an emerging trend on Tyneside.

Newcastle United: club of stability and sensible decisions? With the ink barely dry on the eight-year contracts handed out to key staff just over a week ago, managing director Derek Llambias would certainly like to think so.

“It’s been a big fortnight – a very big fortnight,” he said.

“For me it’s all about stability. To be able to get the coaching staff on side for eight-year deals and the manager on side for eight-year deals and then complete our sponsorship deal with Wonga, plus the stadium naming rights as part of that . . . it’s a good two weeks – it’s a very good two weeks for the club.

“It’s all about the season for us now. It’s about getting the injuries cleared up, but that’s Alan’s job. Thank God I don’t have to get too involved in that!”

For so long, Llambias and owner Mike Ashley were associated with taking unpopular decisions (“We started off poorly,” he admits) but the announcement of a controversial deal with Wonga yesterday was significantly sweetened by news about the stadium name.

Of course, few referred to it as the Sports Direct Arena anyway. You certainly never saw it called by that name in these pages, but a few media organisations did and it was a significant sore for many proud supporters, who bristled at the garish signs that adorned their “cathedral”.

Just over a year on from the first controversial announcement, United have taken a “significant” amount on top of the shirt sponsorship deal merely to change it back to the name that it was called for more than a century.

Wonga, for their part, get the good PR, while United get money that may mean the difference between getting another signing in January or not.

Llambias said: “The naming rights were a very difficult pick, but it was one we felt we had to do to. Today we feel as if we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve and calling it St James’ Park again is a massive plus.

“The deal they have negotiated would not have given them naming rights. It is on top of what they’ve paid with the shirt. They’ve bought the naming rights on top of the shirts and that’s a big difference. It’s the biggest deal that we’ve done so far. We’re still working on others, by the way.

“It was an always an option (to rename it St James’ Park). We looked at all the options for a sponsor, whether they wanted to call it whatever they wanted to call it or whether they wanted to give it back to the fans. There were a lot of different options.

“The best option was this one. For Mike and myself we’re absolutely delighted.”

Newcastle shied away from revealing the exact figures yesterday, but Llambias confirmed it was the club’s biggest sponsorship deal, and said that quoted figures of £8million per year over four years of the deal were “not far off”.

In news that might not please so many supporters, Sports Direct’s name will be taken from the external visage of the stadium, but will remain inside the ground, and on top of the stadium.

There was a stoic defence of their association with a pay-day lender which has been criticised by the city’s Labour MPs though.

“We have done our background (research) into Wonga. They are a legal company, they have licences,” he said.

“They have 30,000 customers in the region. Their complaints are next to zero. There are banks and institutions with far worse feedback than Wonga. There are enough people saying Wonga is a terrible brand, but why?

“People buy in to Wonga because they buy into it. You are not forced to sign a deal with Wonga, you are not forced to sign a deal with any bank or lender. People in the North East or anywhere have a mind themselves to decide whether they want to sign a deal or not. I am delighted (to have this club associated with this brand).”

For their money, they are agreeing to spend £1.5million to help Newcastle’s Academy and Foundation.

That means that Category One status for the Academy will be forthcoming – as revealed in Saturday’s Journal – and United continue to strengthen their foundations. It is a trend that Llambias is proud of, a healing of old wounds.

“We started off poorly. I came in after the first year: I picked up from there and it’s been a difficult, difficult period.

“We’ve been plugging away, slowly. You don’t understand what we’ve done – we’ve done a good job. We’ve been realistic about what this club can do and what it can do in the future.

“Financially we are stable and we will get stronger and stronger. Financially we don’t take anything out of the club, remember that. We don’t charge the club any interest on the loans – we’re not interested in that. What we want to do is bring something to the club and eventually, with eight years’ stability, hopefully we’ll do that.

“You have to understand, we’ve got an owner who’s not used to failure. What we’ve got now is a very good format moving forward.”

DEREK LLAMBIAS ON . . .

SPONSORSHIP CASH GOING TOWARDS SIGNINGS:

“It helps. No money will go outside the club, we’ve always made that commitment. It adds to a pot and that pot can only get better. It’s a question of what we do on the pitch now.

“People haven’t given us enough credit for what happened in the summer. We didn’t lose any of our players and that was a massive plus – and we bought in Anita, who’s a world-class player. He just needs to settle in like everyone else. I think we haven’t changed our policy as far as our team’s concerned.”

THE WONGA PARTNERSHIP:

“Generally we’re delighted that we’ve got a sponsor on board that wants to connect with us, connect with our fans and the community. It’s a big statement by Wonga to say: ‘We want the naming rights and we’re going to give it back to the fans and the community’.

“It’s a pretty big statement. We’re excited for all those concerned. It was always about bringing more income in and we’ve achieved that.”

NAMING RIGHTS:

“It wasn’t a decision we ever took lightly because of the history and the tradition and the passion in Newcastle. It was something that we felt we needed to do to bring in extra income.

“The naming rights were a very difficult pick but it was one we felt we had to do to. Today we feel as if we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve and calling it St James’ Park again is a massive plus.”

THE ACADEMY:

“We will have Category One status, there’s no question of that. We’ll have that.

What the investment in the Academy is that they’ll invest in different types of technical equipment which is expensive. We’re talking about pitches, we’re all talking about different things they can do for our Academy and maybe opening one or two more centres of excellence from the Foundation.

THE CLUB WINNING SOMETHING:

“Knowing Alan Pardew as I do, that guy wants a trophy. This club deserves a trophy – FA Cup, whatever, it deserves a trophy. That’s where Alan is at, that’s where we’re at.

“You have to understand, we’ve got an owner who’s not used to failure. What we’ve got now is a very good format moving forward.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer