Mark Douglas: Could Newcastle City Council really buy Newcastle United and turn them into a modern day Barcelona?

It sounds like pie-in-the-sky but recent developments around Newcastle United illustrate the need for direction

Newcastle United fans protest against club owner Mike Ashley outside of the stadium before the match against Liverpool last year
Newcastle United fans protest against club owner Mike Ashley outside of the stadium before the match against Liverpool last year

Chris McQuillan acknowledges he chose the wrong moment to log on to Twitter.

Having spent a cold morning handing out leaflets to fellow Newcastle United fans about how they can help change the unhappy, loveless marriage between Mike Ashley and the club he owns, he was confronted with people who he feels were decrying the honest efforts of those trying to build a better, more inclusive club.

“It was frustrating. The first thing I saw on Twitter were people putting down people who had gone out in the wind and rain to try and do something about the situation. A fair few were saying it was pointless.

“Well if you do nothing, nothing will definitely happen,” says McQuillian, who is a key member of the Time For Change movement that held the march against the owner back in September. “I think the worst thing to happen to Newcastle fans was the bed sheet with boycott mispelled [as ‘boycoutt’].

“It tarnished the protest movement and it has proved difficult to get people out – even those who sing ‘Ashley out’,” he said.

“I am a bit worried about it. We had five straight defeats before Aston Villa, we had sold our best player – what is it going to take for people to speak out?”

For those who remain sceptical about those handing out leaflets around the games – and McQuillan and the rest of the Time For Change movement plan to do it at every home game between now and the end of the season – five minutes with him might assuage fears.

He is an honest, erudite supporter who doesn’t like what he sees and is trying to do something about it.

McQuillan noted an almost funereal atmosphere before the Aston Villa game. “The only songs I heard were from Aston Villa supporters – not one Newcastle supporter was singing.

“Even in the relegation season there was singing and chanting and a sense of pride and defiance. I don’t know where that has gone.”

Not every Newcastle fan believes that a change of ownership is the answer. Some believe that a change of manager is a greater priority.

A number of people go to the ground just yearning for a winning team, and don’t want to bother themselves with the protest movement. Football is a release, a chance to unwind and socialise with like-minded friends. It is parked for a week when not at the ground.

What cannot be denied is that there is a growing sense of frustration and unease – even among those who would never think about not renewing their season tickets. In a memorable fire and brimstone editorial in True Faith, editor Michael Martin summed up the mood brilliantly under the title ‘No Love Now’. It is worth a read so seek it out.

But one line stood out, when discussing the principle of throwing away season tickets: “I’m sceptical not because I’m against action against Ashley’s deplorable running of our club, but because I lack belief in that action being supported by the main body of our support.”

Here is the problem: assessing the mood is easy. Directing that sense of frustration and unease into something more formidable has proved difficult.

The Newcastle United Supporters Trust, the Mike Ashley Out Campaign and the coalition group NUFCFansUnited are all staffed by good people doing excellent work.

Things are in the pipeline. As McQuillan points out though, there remain plenty of sceptics. “But it doesn’t involve being anti-Newcastle United. It is about giving Newcastle fans something to believe in again,” he said.

Liverpool’s lofty place in the Premier League is not the only success story at Anfield in recent times. The Spirit of Shankly supporters group is seen as the model to follow after a sustained, non-violent campaign against unpopular former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

That, too, was derided and written off at first. Slowly but surely it built momentum. “It was January 2008 when Spirit of Shankly formed and a key part of it was the growing opposition to Hicks and Gillett and the way fans were being treated,” James Pearce, chief sportswriter of the Liverpool Echo explains.

Unhappy Newcastle United fans at the Mike Ashley protest march
Unhappy Newcastle United fans at the Mike Ashley protest march

“It was essentially 350 fans crammed into the back room in the Sandon Pub near Anfield. To behonest at the start most fans were not really with the group and they were looked at as a militant section.

“But more and more fans realised Spirit of Shankly were absolutely spot on in their fears about the owners and the successive transfer windows crystallised their fears.

“It built a lot of momentum.”

As successive transfer windows passed without signings (because of arguments at board level and a lack of available finance), the moodcurdled. The Liverpool model saw supporters becoming active in their campaign against the owners. Anyone prepared to work with Hicks and Gillett were targeted by emailcampaigns and the supporter base was mobilised.

The group recognised that a club with huge local support and global support could make a huge difference. They utilised the idea that a united support could put pressure on the business interests of Gillett and Hicks. This is something supporter groups on Tyneside pressing for change are looking to tap into.

There are key differences though. Firstly, manager Rafa Benitez spoke out against the owners after seeing the damage their own clash ofpersonalities was doing to the club.

Secondly – and this is surely most important – the warring owners ran out of money. They were relying on the banks to re-finance the £350m loan they had used to buy the club but the supporters group bombarded both private equity groups and the major banks that the owners approached, causing the deals tocollapse. That paved the way for a takeover that supporter pressure had been central to.

As the newly-released accounts show, Ashley’s grip on Newcastle remains vice-like. He will not be required to re-finance his own loan, so the golden opportunity Liverpool fans had will not present itself on Tyneside.

Interestingly, Pearce points out attendances did not drop significantly at Anfield. Perhaps it isn’t as simple as simply walking away.

So where do Newcastle supporters go from here? The long, slow drift into apathy?

It would be wrong to equate the current situation as meaning that there aren’t creative and original ideas coming from the black and white supporter base. New initiatives are popping up all the time, some from an unusual or seemingly left-field space. How about this one: Newcastle City Council should buy Newcastle United and run it along the Barcelona model.

Sounds like pie-in-the-sky, right? Can’t imagine how a football club could ever slip into the council’s portfolio? Perhaps you’re right, but there are lobbyists beginning to construct a case that it makes sense for bothparties to have a closer workingrelationship.

Given the bridges burned between the two parties over the last five years, it is unlikely Ashley and thepeople who run the club will ever start to cosy up to the authorities. The alternative is investment or even a buy-out.

It does sound like a remarkable thing to suggest. But The Journal spoke to one supporter with in-depth knowledge of the machinations of local government and if you strip away the emotion of the issue there is some logic behind a proposal which, at the very least, needs to brought in to the public domain.

“There is a real need for a debate about where the club and the city intersect and how both need each other in order to fully realise their potential,” he said.

“The city council and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership need to be thinking about how one of the region’s most successfulbusinesses grows because I personally think we’re missing a trick by not considering the role of the club as a business striving to succeed in the region.”

This is not an emotive appeal to the council to ride to the rescue of Newcastle United on the behalf of the 50,000 who have witnessed the team’s travails at close quarters this season. Instead it is a proposal to mirror previous partnerships that have brought together enterpriseinitiatives and councils to take a stake in a business that makes money and boosts the local economy.

Councils can access large amounts of finance through the Public Works Loan Board – provided they can prove the money is for the well-being of the local community.

Linda Robinson, far left, with other Time 4 Change fans outside St James' Park
Linda Robinson, far left, with other Time 4 Change fans outside St James' Park

The seven North East councils have a controlling 51% stake in Newcastle Airport. And Northumberland County Council gave a £100m loan to Northumbria NHS Foundation Trust to allow it to buy itself out of an expensive Private Finance Initiative.Would a buyout of Newcastle United be judged as for the well-being of the local community? It could be argued it would.

Newcastle United turns over roughly £96m a year, but the thinking is that this could be grown if a business model that doesn’t involve Sports Direct and Ashley’s other businesses can be developed.

At the moment Ashley’s Sports Direct take up a sizeable proportion of the advertising hoardings around the stadium. That was explained away at Monday’s Fans Forum as a by-product of the owner’s £129m interest-free loan – effectively an admission that he is using the club to further his brand.

Now re-imagine Newcastle United as central to the city, it’s facilities used at low or no charge by local businesses and charities thanks to a business model that generates advertising and commercial revenue that isn’t linked to the owner’s huge “interest-free” loan.

“Councils need to develop revenue streams in the age of austerity and they have a very privileged position because they can access finance at extremely competitive rates,” the source continues.

“As a business, Newcastle United is currently a strong and well-performing asset but with a renewed strategic direction it could perform so much better and more effectively.

“If the council was a major or significant stakeholder in the club, it would be possible to develop an exciting, fan-owned business model along the lines of many of the German clubs.”

The German model has been well covered over the past couple of years but boiled down to its simplest parts, the “50 plus 1” rule dictates that more than half of the club must be owned by its members or supporters. The other part can be owned by major corporations, as happens at Bayern Munich, but the board is voted for by its members and has to make decisions thatbenefit them.

It is not necessarily a panacea. German football has its problems, but low ticket prices and success on the field suggest it might be a better route forward than Newcastle’s current status quo, which is an environment stalked by suspicion and mistrust.

This principle is enshrined in local Bundesrat laws. Any attempt by a private company to launch a hostile takeover would be blocked in the local parliaments.

Perhaps trying to transfer this model to the English game is flawed. No doubt the idea that the council should take a more hands-on role will be shouted down before it has been given the chance to germinate among the Newcastle United supporter base but it should be applauded for trying to take the debate beyond the parameters it currently occupies.

Whether it is with or without Ashley, the current course of action for Newcastle does not appear particularly sustainable.

One of the alternatives is to hope for the sort of windfall that befell Manchester City in 2009 when Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan ordered his Abu Dhabi United Group to launch a takeover and changed the course of Premier League history. There was a pot of gold at the end of that road for Manchester City but plenty of others who have walked that path have found the promises have frittered away to dust.

In the week that United posted financial figures that boasted of a £9.9m profit, the one thing that Ashley could not be accused of is risking the viability of the business. Failing to fulfil its potential? Certainly. But it is the need to reconnect the club to its people that appears more pressing with every week of this particularly loveless marriage.

The lesson of this season is that hopelessness rather than apathy, venom or anger is the greatest enemy.

The city yearns for optimism and creativity and doesn’t see either coming from its football club, despite the recognition that there are good people (staff and professional footballers included) who are working tirelessly for the cause.

Into that void, the idea that Newcastle United could somehow become supporter-owned – or at least allow its people a significant stake – is something that should be revisited in greater detail.

This can be done in alliance with offering loud and lusty support for the team on a Saturday: these two things do not necessarily diverge from each other.

Ask yourself whether the first response to the suggestion that Newcastle might be bought by the Council was a weary, resigned sigh. If so, perhaps a reassessment is needed.

Journalists

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