You’re seen by a lot of Newcastle fans that I know as one of the few national journalists who ‘get’ Newcastle United, the fan base and the city. Were you aware of this and where do you think it stems from?
“I think it all stems from me saying something stupid on Twitter about Alan Pardew and having to swim the Tyne! What was great about that was the fans telling me to be careful about which wetsuit to wear because it was the seal mating season! They also said to watch out for brown fish and it took me until I was halfway across the Tyne until I realised what they meant!
Jeff Shreeves from Sky said, ‘This is a proud moment for Sky, we’ve never had a drowning in high definition.’ I had to have this experienced open water swimmer and I remember speaking to him for advice and I told him I had to swim the Tyne and he asked whether I was doing it width ways or length ways! I got about halfway across and thought it was pretty easy and then the current hit me and I felt as though I was being dragged away. I think I grabbed on to the guy’s toe at one point!
I remember walking back through town from the quayside as it was a match day and a couple of Newcastle fans recognised me and came up and gave me money as I was doing the swim for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. Alan Pardew was very generous about it and sent me a note and a towel – he obviously had faith in me as he sent it to the Gateshead side!
What I noticed was the warmth of the people and how proud they are of the city. As a city, you’re not shy of coming up and having a chat! I have huge respect for the club and the fans. It’s such an amazing football city, plus a one club city and that always adds something. Alex Ferguson used to love looking at the local paper when Manchester United were playing there and would laugh about a minor story being a ten page spread! You’re absolutely obsessed but it’s great - going to Newcastle on a non-match day can be like other clubs on match days. I’ve had some big nights out there too, like the revolving dancefloor on the boat, and I remember for Alan Shearer’s testimonial, I left St. James’ Park at about 1am and Les Ferdinand was still on the decks!
Everything I came to associate the club with in terms of the warmth, the football, the passion, Mike Ashley represented the opposite. No warmth, no adventure, no investment. It became cold. It’s my favourite walk in football, though, up from the central station to the ground. We have some great cities in this country but Newcastle is such a fantastic city. I get on the train to head back south and my voice is hoarse from talking to so many people, on the way there, people round the press box telling me I was rubbish on Sunday Supplement, it’s wonderful. From a journalistic point of view, it’s gold dust. It’s remarkable the loyalty, given the lack of success.”
As Newcastle fans, we tire of some lazy punditry and journalism using old stereotypes about our unrealistic expectations, hating Southerners, only accepting Geordies, preferring to lose 3-4 than win 1-0. Knowing differently, does it frustrate you when you hear that?
“When people do slip into those stereotypes, they’re clearly wrong. No Newcastle fan I’ve ever met thinks you should be up there winning the league. You want to see good football and pride in the shirt. Anyone who writes that or says that needs to get out a bit more and speak to Newcastle fans more, or read your website!
I don’t think they’re being patronising but maybe they’re a bit ill-informed. I actually find Newcastle fans a lot more balanced than a lot of other fan bases. I’ve been fortunate to be going to Newcastle for a long time, through the bad and the good and spoken with a lot of fans along the way. I’m still drying out from the rainy derby defeat! I go an average of 8-10 times a season, probably more than that when Rafa, Bobby or Kevin were there. When Keegan was there, I remember going to Maiden Castle and there must have been 3,000 fans there, cars parked along this little road, a burger van set up, all just for training! It took him an hour between finishing training and getting to me because he understood that it was more than just football, more than a business and I think that’s all the fans want to see from the people in charge. He signed every autograph, though, I’m surprised there was anything left of him by the time he left Newcastle!”
In the Keegan and Robson years, the club felt more open and connected with the fans and the city than it does now. The communication is almost non-existent and we’re often left guessing what’s going on and being kept in the dark about important issues. How important is a club’s communication with the media and with its fans, in your opinion?
“I think it’s important that the club has a strong media relationship and takes criticism as well as praise, especially from the local media. I’ve never understood why they would ban anyone. You have to have a strong relationship with the local press as that goes straight through to the local supporters, even if they criticise and they should be allowed to do that.
I feel sorry for the people involved in the media side as they’re caught in the middle because Mike Ashley does not like the communication side of things and it’s not necessarily down to them. The club should be the focal point for community action, representing the city and at the moment because of Ashley it isn’t.
A club with a buzz and an edge about it is so good for the whole city, the morale, the image, the appeal. In the Keegan years or the Robson years, there must have been people who went to Newcastle for university or work because they were drawn to that. That appeal won’t be the same now. The cold hand of Ashley has his grip on it.
What’s so frustrating is that he has such a great strategic mind. I spent a few minutes with him and he picked apart this issue with agents fees, his mind untangled it and put it back together like a Rubik’s Cube. He stood there, with no eye contact, and I thought wow you have such an amazing mind, why aren’t you more involved in this? Why aren’t you more invested? Ultimately he’s there for money but if he invested more and was involved more it would be worth even more.
Personally, I think £300m is undervaluing the club. A stable club with a passionate fan base, a great stadium. It just needs some love and attention and the whole city would be rocking again. I’m sure whoever takes over will invest heavily in the academy and make sure that the days of Shearer heading to Southampton and Carrick to West Ham are over and in fairness to Amanda Staveley, I know that was a priority there.
Mike Ashley will go, though. I speak to people in America and I know there’s interest there. I don’t know about the Mauriss thing, I don’t know if he’s genuine or not and I don’t get that one but there are people over there who are absolutely watching this and weighing things up. I personally don’t understand why the Reuben brothers don’t buy it themselves, they already own the racecourse in the city and could even see it as a five year plan and the club would undoubtedly be worth more than they paid by the end of it.
One thing I will say is that Amanda and Merhdad are completely genuine and they understand the importance of the club and I think it’s sad because those two would have been a real force for good. They understood that the club needed evolution and not revolution and realised the academy was in the top three of priorities.
It will happen, though, you will be liberated from Mike Ashley. I think some of the media hasn’t really looked at the issues of a Newcastle United fan, though. You have to put your mind into the mind-set of a fan who wants Ashley out and wants the takeover to go through and that is a legitimate criticism of parts of the media. If they’re sitting in their office in central London and not looking at it through that prism, they won't understand it because it’s the fans who it really matters to.
There will be a cans moment, though. You will get there. I don’t think some journalists understood what that meant! Some literally thought that it was having a drink and getting cans out the fridge! We’ll have a drink in The Strawberry next time I’m up, though, and hopefully have something to celebrate. Keep the faith.”