The opening weekend of the Premier League season provides the annual Year Zero for fans of top flight clubs. Restored by a summer free of football, thousands of supporters donned their sparkling new replica shirts and made pilgrimages to stadiums home and away, filled with the hope that their new million pound idols might be the men to drive their team onto the next level, before the sunshine gives way to the harsh realities of mid-winter, and all but the fortunate few feel foolish for placing their hopes in the hands of a bargain from Belgium. But before dreams are dashed by December, we’ve all got August to look forward to. Unless, of course, you support Newcastle United.
Much like this time last year, any atmosphere approaching optimism at St James Park has been pervaded by protest. A typically turbulent summer on Tyneside, now a trademark of Mike Ashley’s twelve-years-and-counting ownership, resulted in fan groups banding together to organise a boycott of the opening weekend clash with Arsenal.
Initially gaining traction thanks to the hierarchy’s inability to renew Rafa Benitez’s contract, allowing the club’s most popular manger of the last decade to walk into a money-spinning job in the Chinese Super League, the boycott’s cause received a further boost when Steve Bruce was unveiled as the Spaniard’s replacement. Taking on the reduced title of Head Coach, and arriving after four years away from the top flight, Bruce’s appointment provided further evidence of the lack of ambition across Ashley’s dozen years of ownership that have seen such luminaries as Joe Kinnear, Alan Pardew, John Carver and Steve McClaren darken the dugout at St James’ Park.
As discontent in the fanbase increased, so too did the profile for the planned boycott. Thousands of season tickets were left unsold, local media quickly picked up on the story, and before long the professional wind-up merchants on Talksport were rallying their cheapest rent-a-quotes together to ridicule supporters willing to sacrifice their passion in order to push for change. Meanwhile, Ashley sanctioned the club-record signing of Brazilian forward Joelinton for £40m – the kind of purchase that, in years gone by, would have seen thousands of Geordies descend on Barrack Road in celebratory mood, but now is met with quiet approval. The Smarm Offensive had returned in earnest, and the support for a boycott began to waver. Come Sunday, the action on the pitch wasn’t the only damp squib.
Depending on who you ask, the boycott was a great success or a drab failure. The story was covered by every broadcaster showing the match, cameras panned to pockets of empty seats, and any notion of that Famous St James’ Atmosphere was conspicuous by its absence. But even using the generous estimate of 10,000 empty seats – the official attendance was given as 47,635, but accounts for ticket sales rather than seats filled – the dint in turnout will barely have caused a dent in Ashley’s ego.
The reasons given by those opting against taking a stand ranged from the personal to political. For many, attending a football match at the weekend is simply leisure time. Others believe in the mantra of ‘supporting the team not the regime’, while there is a section of the Newcastle support that simply don’t see what the fuss is about. For them, this summer’s £30m net spend is proof of Ashley investing in the team. What they’ve learned from the previous eleven years of his ownership is a question for another day.
Overwhelmingly, the attitude towards the proposed boycott was ‘What’s the point? It won’t make any difference.’ Which begs the question: at a time when supporters of teams at the top end of the sport have never been less intertwined with the clubs they support, can fan action force change in football?
On the continent things are a little different. In Spain, the Presidential Model gives power to supporters through the electoral process. In Italy, as seen in recent years by the powerful and effective boycotts from fans of Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina, club owners are open to communicating directly with supporters in the face of protest, with ticket prices and squad investment both the subject of negotiations between Ultra groups and club hierarchy in recent seasons. The Bundesliga ownership rule of 50+1, whereby club members must retain a majority stake, prevents external investors from riding roughshod over supporters. Even TV companies are beholden to supporters in Germany, with mass fan protests over the movement of fixtures to Monday nights resulting in the extra day’s broadcasting being scrapped for the new season.
There have been cases of successful fan action in the UK too. The 77th minute walkout staged by Liverpool supporters in February 2016 led to owners the Fenway Sports Group performing a u-turn over their plans to increase ticket prices, while back in the early 80s, Luton Town supporters prevented the proposed move of the club to Milton Keynes by staging protest marches and petitioning the club. Wimbledon FC weren’t so lucky.
Perhaps the most famous example of fan pressure providing results is the story of Blackpool. Top flight renegades less than a decade ago, the club was in freefall when it emerged that the Oyston family, who had owned the club since 1988, had used the £90m windfall from the season in the Premier League to loan money to other companies in which the family had stakes. The situation quickly snowballed as communication between owners and supporters turned sour. Fans were personally abused by the Oystons, and in some cases served with legal action. In response, supporter groups began the NAPM campaign, where they pledged to spend ‘Not A Penny More’ on supporting Blackpool. Slowly but surely, more and more fans were recruited and attendances at Bloomfield Road began to drastically decrease. After five years of boycotting, protesting, pitch invasions, court appearances, relegations and promotion, Owen Oyston’s ownership of Blackpool FC officially came to an end in March this year.
We caught up with lifeflong Seasider Tangerine Dave to get an idea of the impact Blackpool’s fans had in forcing change at their club, the difficulties supporter groups faced, the amount of planning and effort necessary to make a stand, and whether their model could be adopted by fans further up the football pyramid.
“Personally, the decision to boycott was extremely hard, especially as my son was 9 at the time so I lost some important father and son time. Across the fanbase, supporters were divided, regardless of what happened at the club or how dreadful the team were. After relegation to League Two about 1,200 initially carried on going but at its lowest point it was down to around 600, and there was animosity with those still attending being called mushrooms by the stay away fans.
“The planning put into the boycott was outstanding, with different groups working together and putting on a variety of protests, from gathering outside the ground to marching on the chairman’s home and picketing the EFL headquarters, we knew it would take time and lots of effort but the belief was there that eventually the Oystons would be forced out.
“For us fans, the biggest challenge was standing firm. To miss five years of football took a lot of commitment from everyone but the organisation and commitment shown by various supporter groups coming together is what made it work. Being lower down the leagues made it harder to get attention and for people to take note. The biggest problem we faced was getting the media to understand what was going on, with most outlets not wanting to probe too deeply. It was The Daily Mail who gave it national coverage, while the local media stepped on eggshells for fear of being sued by the owners.
“The boycotts were clearly a major factor in removing the Oystons. It wasn’t just the club we targeted, but every business with a Oyston connection in the area became toxic. Only last week the Oystons estate agency closed down due to the constant pressure applied. A lot of thanks has to go to Valērijs Belokoņs, our Latvian president at the time, who saw all the money being removed from the club without his consultation and decided to take court action against the Oystons and once that happened it really was the beginning of the end.
“As for being replicated in the Premier League? I can’t ever see that happening. Fans come from a wider demographic and will always attend. The only club I can see that could cause change is Newcastle, but then again they are die-hard supporters. For it to work the club has to be a true community club. If a supporter group managed to pull an effective boycott together, I think change would come about quicker in the Premier League than it did for us. During our solitary year in the top flight, Owen Oyston was told by the Premier League that if we managed to stay up he would have to sell his controlling stake of the club as he wasn’t fit and proper. Relegation that year condemned us to a near decade of hell. But we won our club back eventually.”
While the situation in the North-East may be a world away from the mess that Blackpool supporters had seen their club become (and a far cry from the sorry state that Bolton Wanderers and Bury now find themselves in), it should be said that there is nothing wrong in supporters wanting the best for the institutions they have invested their own time and money into. It’s easy for the likes of Simon Parish and Richard Keys to take a fleeting glance at St James’ Park and turn their noses up at a fanbase looking for a little hope. Newcastle United hasn’t been a cornerstone of their lives.
In a practical sense, hitting their owner in the pocket – and let’s be honest, Ashley has been doing a fine job of that himself in recent times – is an unrealistic goal for Newcastle United’s supporters. The money now floating around the Premier League is too great for any owner to just walk away from. Mike Ashley’s pride may be another story altogether, and it’s perhaps here that the Toon Army have the biggest opportunity to wage an effective war. If we’re to take anything from the experience of Blackpool’s support, it’s clear that a sustained effort from the majority is required, and recruiting the doubters is the biggest challenge those boycotting fan groups face. At the time of writing, Newcastle is divided.
To echo the words of a Wor Flags display, whose contribution to the atmosphere was so badly missed on Sunday, “Where There is Unity, There is Always Victory.”