An Interview With: Alex Hurst

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of catching up with the chair of Newcastle United Supporters Trust, Alex Hurst. Can you explain for those who are unaware, what the NUST does and why they should join? The Supporters Trust is a fan organisation and it exists solely to represent the interests of the Newcastle United support. It wants to represent those interests with Newcastle United football club, with the Premier League and with the Football Supporters Association. The main aim of the Supporters Trust is essentially to make sure those fans are heard by those three authorities. The reason fans should join is, the Trust cannot have any kind of influence within those three authorities without a mandate from Newcastle United supporters to speak on their behalf. It's a bit of a cliché but united as a fan base, with one voice, we're much louder than we are with a hundred thousand different people all trying to talk at the same time. That doesn't mean that every member of the Trust has to agree on everything, in fact it's quite the opposite.

I think everyone that is involved in the Trust now wants the best for Newcastle United and by definition the fans of Newcastle United. If people don't join us it makes it easier for people at Newcastle United to ignore us, and I think the last thirteen years in particular has shown that the club have become very good at not listening, we have to through various means try and make them listen, and we can only do that as one united body through the Supporters Trust. Despite another failed takeover, can you take a crumb of comfort from how well NUST responded to it? How happy were you with the response? There are positives from that period from when it started in the spring and throughout the summer, obviously for me personally and the vast majority of the members of the Trust didn't get the outcome we wanted.

What we did do is number one, we worked with the prospective buyer, Amanda Staveley, which means a lot to me and to the Trust that she felt that we could help. I had a couple of conversations with her, she asked me if the fans could try and get some answers from Richard Masters because the buyers couldn't get answers and the media couldn't get answers. I think for a group of Newcastle United supporters, even speaking now at fourteen thousand strong (we weren't at the start of that process), it’s a great achievement.

If only say, ten thousand of us were able to achieve what some very powerful, influential and very rich people couldn't do and what the whole of the UK and world's football media couldn't do, imagine what a hundred thousand of us could do? That's how I think of it, so there are positives to take from it and I think the fact that we decided to go political through local MPs helped too and we're still receiving responses from them now. Over one hundred and twenty MPs, that's quite a lot and it's all over the country. Boris Johnson's office responded, Rishi Sunak's office responded. So it wasn't just the support of the local MPs and I think what we did, and we did it in a professional and polite manner. We didn't talk about corruption, we didn't talk about anything that we couldn't be sure of and that got us the response that we wanted.

I think it's important as fans that, you know, from the stuff you've seen this week, Graeme, we realised that we are actually speaking to people. Going to Richard Masters and saying "Are you corrupt?" or "You are corrupt" wouldn't have got us anywhere. It would have been easy to do that and it would have been good for internet points and likes but it wouldn't have got us anywhere and actually that period, August, in particular was hugely stressful but it was worth it because we got the answers.

We didn't get the answers that people necessarily wanted, but we can't control that. We got in front of Richard Masters and Bill Bush, the two highest people at the Premier League and took our questions and I'm grateful to them for that because they didn't have to. I also think that public pressure and political pressure forced that and that was born out of nothing other than ordinary football fans in their spare time, trying to make a difference, and they did that.

It was a very long way to answer your question, but yes, there were positives to take from it.

The fan base is as divided as I’ve seen it in a long time, what do you put this down to? Is there a message you’d like to put out there? Well I think it's a hard one, isn't it? It's very difficult to determine where the match going fan base is in relation to the online fan base. You saw that countless times and I've been part of it myself when I walked in late or not gone to a game, due to the stuff on Twitter and Facebook you expect there to be nobody in St James' Park and you go in and it's pretty much full. I walked in late for that West Ham game under Rafa Benitez, and I was convinced that there was going to be at least twenty or thirty thousand people doing it. There was less than two thousand in the end wasn't there?

That game was actually what motivated me to relaunch the Trust, and because there was a lot of anger on social media, it doesn't necessarily reflect real life. Having said that, you know, it doesn't mean it can be discounted completely but I look at social media and yeah, there's a lot of strife and there's a lot of people at each other's throats and I don't know why that is, to answer one part of your question.

I also think it's got a lot to do with what your social media feed looks like because I don't follow many people on Twitter and, apart from things I Tweet, I don't tend to look at the timeline. For whatever reason, different people use social media in different ways and there is definitely some sort of issue but I think it goes beyond football, doesn't it? If you look at politics at the minute, if you look at loads of different things, there's a lot of aggravation on social media and I don't think that's good for society. I do think the fan base is united in Steve Bruce not being the best! I think that unites people. In terms of a message to try and bring people together, it's that a lot of these people on social media are only interacting positively or negatively because of their shared passion for Newcastle United. Sometimes we forget that because sometimes you see opinions where one person is a little aggressive and the next person takes it to the next level.

People just need to remember that our shared passion is Newcastle United and I get some really wonderful emails and direct messages and stuff saying, "Why doesn't the Trust do this?" The Trust doesn't exist to police Newcastle's social media, I don't want to do that! Personally, I have no interest in that at all. Considering I'm an unpaid volunteer like everyone else, that is not our remit at all. What we can say is that, I don't know anyone whether it's you, Graeme, or any of the other lads at NE1's Game or people at different fan organisations that acts that way. There doesn't seem to be the same level of aggression between them.

I keep hearing "Why are the fan groups at each other?" I don't think it's true, I think the vast majority of Newcastle United fans on social media have never insulted, abused or trolled anyone. For whatever reason, there has been a bit of a light shone on it, so it's easy to assume that everyone out there is bad. In fact, because we are all on there for one purpose and that's or common love of Newcastle United, there's much more that brings us together in that respect than divides us. Moving onto a cheerier subject, what are your thoughts on Steve Bruce and how the team have performed so far under him? I think the team have largely been dreadful under him!

Statistically that will be born out and statistics can be used in a number of ways, but there is little doubt that Newcastle United create fewer chances and concede more chances than any other club in the league. I think he's been very lucky, I think some of the attributes he has as a manager are possibly overlooked at times.

He's a good man-manager, he manages to keep the players on side, I can't think of any job where he's lost the players and I think that might not sound like a lot. However, there's a lot of managers out there who would've loved to keep hold of their dressing room. Steve Bruce does seem to have that knack and the players like him and that does count for a lot, you know. Steve McClaren would've liked the players to like him a bit more by the end probably, John Carver too and Alan Pardew to a certain extent.

It isn't like Bruce is the worst manager in the history of the world, but ultimately his detractors would say that when he was brought into the club, the team would regress. Not just from the previous five years, but they would regress in style of play and in organisation in terms of defensive ability, all of those things so far seem to becoming true and the team seem to be getting worse not better.

The longer he's here the worse we're going to get which is a concern, but the great thing about being Newcastle United manager is the next game is his, it's not ours it's his. Bruce can impact things, we can't, so I really hope he turns it around.

Why do you think Newcastle United don't really seem to attack now? I've seen videos on social media lately of a 0-2 win at West Brom under Alan Pardew, there were players getting forward, getting into the box. Under Steve Bruce there's nothing there, why do you think that is? I think the biggest issue is he doesn't know the best formation to suit his team is. If you look at the number of formations he's played I think we've used more players than anyone else in the league or close to it.

There's just not consistency in approach so for example, Newcastle started the season with an old-fashioned 4-4-2, I was going to say with two wingers but it's one and then with Hendrick on the other side. Two central midfield players and two full back who can get forward. Fast-forward to Southampton and we're basically playing 5-3-1-1 and that's got to be quite hard for the players to deal with.

Every team has injuries but the sheer number of players that start in the league for us, is indicative of a manager who manages game to game rather than two or three games ahead.

Rafa Benitez completely changed his formation halfway through the season in 18/19 and you saw progression. I think if Newcastle lose the next two games heavily, we'll see the formation change again.

If I don't know what they're trying to do or you don't know what they're trying to do, Graeme, how are the players supposed to know? How can players make positions their own or build partnerships if the formation changes all the time? It must be very difficult for the players to work out what they're supposed to do apart from to not concede goals.

I think the players go into a mindset of don't get humiliated, don't get hammered and we'll try and nick a goal. Like I said, the more we play under this manager, the worse we seem to get.

If the supporters were still allowed to attend games, do you think they would have an impact on Bruce's future? It's a good question because you'd normally say that the crowd would always have a bearing. With Mike Ashley keen to sell the club and while the club remain in the Premier League, it'll retain its value or something close to it you'd say it could easier for Bruce to lose the fans than ever. However, I mentioned before that he always manages to keep the players on side. If he started to lose the dressing room then that would be a big issue and players are intelligent, they will know that if St James' Park became a hostile environment, the manager wouldn't survive.

We have seen it previously with Alan Pardew when he got real grief from the crowd, it was the end of the season when we played Cardiff. There were some issues when we played Hull where Pardew was really getting some grief but I don't think it really turned in the way it did against Steve McClaren. I think the club wanted to keep McClaren on longer than they did but ultimately the crowd decided there and then that, that wasn't going to happen. If the same happens under Bruce, I think it would be very hard for him to keep his job.

To bring it back to your original question, I think he is lucky that there are no fans in the ground.

What are your thoughts on safe standing and would you like to see it implemented? I love safe standing and I would love to see it implemented, it was in the Conservative Government's last manifesto that they would introduce safe standing. I appreciate that they've got bigger things going on at the minute but you really hope that it will be realised in the next four years.

It has been demonstrated across the world, not just in Germany that it's safe. It is already in place at Spurs and Wolves, so it is here and it's happening. It is a bit of a farce that it's not happening everywhere, I think the issue that Newcastle have is, for the current owner, the cost of it. We have spoken to them about it before, they are not anti-safe standing or anything like that but who picks up that cost?

We had the singing section at St James' Park for the first two years back in the Premier League, it was great and I was very much involved in creating that. The club were supportive of that. It can and it should happen but who knows when we will se a full house at St James' Park, so it becomes less of an issue until after that.

Has the emergence of social media helped or hindered fanzines?

Oh it's hindered it as there's hardly any left! There's only us left (True Faith) for Newcastle. There's a handful of long standing ones left across the country but hundreds have gone and you very rarely see ones in print. It hasn't just happened with fanzines but also in journalism. That's not my area of expertise but the fact there is so much put out for free, The Athletic charge for it and I think a lot of organisations would wish they could do something similar.

It has definitely harmed it, it's whether it's harmed football culture is a different question.

To end on a happy note, What is your favourite NUFC game/moment that you’ve seen live?

That is a really hard one! I think it's a strange one but the 4-3 (against Norwich) one under Benitez. Despite being 1-3 down Newcastle actually played alright, hit the bar a few times. I think Jacob Murphy actually scored in this game.

I just think that, that game is the personification of football. The fact that anything can happen, it was football in its purest form, you forgot yourself, you forgot where you were and you forgot who you were next to. When we were 2-3 down in the 90th minute and to win 4-3 in such a big game as well. It was against a promotion rival at that time, or so we thought. That game was everything we love about football.

To see Benitez lose himself and sprint onto the pitch - the calmest man in the world, it was just one of those nights where you were just walking on air when you leave the ground, you know what it's like. It's not a trophy or beating a big side or anything like that but it makes it all worthwhile, when you think you might have a chance of witnessing something like that.

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