Take a moment to imagine a world where Mike Ashley would arrange an event with supporters and allow those supporters to ask his top dogs questions about how he’s running the club.
Impossible, isn’t it? But this is our new reality under our new ownership. On Wednesday night, I joined 199 other supporters at St James’ Park, plus 1,000 online attendees, to do just that.
We heard from Eddie Howe, Becky Langley and Shola Ameobi in a wonderfully light-hearted first section. Sarah Medcalf stepped up to tell us more about the forthcoming Fan Advisory Board before we rounded off with some challenging questions put to Peter Silverstone (CCO), Darren Eales (CEO) and Dan Ashworth (Sporting Director). Here are seven things I learnt from the event.
1. Stadium expansion plans are in the works
Before we got into the panels, Darren Eales gave us an early update that included a little insight on the St James’ Park expansion. As The Athletic has now reported, the club has begun the formal process; but we know little more than that.
Eales emphasised that supporters will be consulted as part of the process and that a survey will be going out next week – so keep your eyes peeled on your inboxes. I could be reading too much into it, but his repeated insistence that all options are on the table and no decisions have been made yet lead me to believe they’re leaning towards a new ground. But that could be the anxiety talking.
2. Shola’s passion for supporting the youth players shines through
The Mackem slayer has come under fire for some of his loan deals, like Garang Kuol’s failed stint at Hearts. But then you look at Yankuba Minteh’s impressive stint at Feyenoord and argue that he’s getting to grips with it.
In and amongst some evidently practised answers around the club building sustainable foundations, his passion for creating the right atmosphere and environment for our youngsters shone through. When we approached him after the event, he was warm – he spoke once again about the club’s sustainable foundations and we had a good laugh about how far we’ve come since the Ashley days.
3. We got little insight on ticketing – but the club seems open to more conversations
Unsurprisingly, ticketing was a hot topic at the event. Questions ranged from home ballots to uncapped memberships and recent season ticket holders who gave it up out of principle under Ashley. The answers Eales, Ashworth and Silverstone gave didn’t offer much; but they reiterated multiple times that they’re open to feedback and willing to make changes.
The party line was that we can’t please everyone, and that demand is far outstripping supply – which is undoubtedly true. I’m certain people will have submitted questions on away ticketing, but they weren’t put to the panel; I can’t say I’m surprised at that, but I am pleasantly surprised that multiple ticketing questions were asked.
A lot of the answers around ticketing sounded rehearsed – and the question around bolstering box office staff was skirted around and replaced by answers on digital ticketing.
4. The club and Premier League are investigating ticketing tout sites
One of the more interesting titbits to come from the night was the news that the club, in conjunction with the Premier League, is investigating ticketing tout sites. The frustration on Twitter is that hundreds of tickets are appearing on these sites at inflated prices, but according to Silverstone, those tickets don’t exist.
Silverstone made it clear that season ticket holders and successful members aren’t selling their tickets in droves, but scammers are putting them up when they don’t exist knowing that people are willing to pay through the nose to see the mags right now. It’s a little like Ticketmaster letting you search for tickets when there are none (yes, I’m salty about missing out on the Definitely Maybe tour…)
5. Becky Langley can’t STAND to lose
It’s fantastic to see Becky Langley given a prominent role in club activities these days. It’s easy to forget that not so long ago, NUFC Women weren’t even formally affiliated with the main club. And her achievements have been phenomenal.
She spoke about her fantastic achievements and what motivates her to continue the lasses’ strong start to the season, and her answer was clear: she can’t STAND losing. It won’t be an uncommon feeling amongst managers in both the men’s and women’s games, but it’s refreshing to hear her speak so honestly about that drive. Having met her on a boozy night out after the lasses won the FA Women’s National League – Northern Division One and hearing her speak, I find Becky Langley incredibly relatable.
6. The Fan Advisory Board is coming
Sarah Medcalf gave us an overview of what we can expect from the forthcoming Fan Advisory Board. There are nine positions available, four of which will be filled from United With Pride, Newcastle United Disabled Supporters Association (NUDSA), an under-25 member and an international supporter.
Prioritising underrepresented groups is excellent – but a glaring omission here is female representation. We’re still outnumbered by men in football circles, but our numbers are growing; and our matchday experiences are undoubtedly different. Myself and a couple of friends raised this directly with Sarah after the event, and she suggested that there may be a women’s group forming too – music to my ears.
7. Graeme Jones has a trainer superstition!
I felt vindicated when Eddie Howe revealed early into the evening that, while he’s not especially superstitious, Graeme Jones is. His superstition is in his matchday trainers – and, according to Howe, they aren’t age-appropriate trainers. Poor dad Graeme. As someone who went from August to February of last season in the same outfit, save for swapping into my winter coat for a few months, I feel SEEN.
All in all, there weren’t many groundbreaking revelations from the event – which is to be expected. Ultimately, the club knows that almost everything said in that room would make it into the public domain.
I’d like to think we’ll get more insight at future events, but it felt like a special occasion to be a part of, and it feels like supporters will be heard. My favourite bit? Hearing Eddie Howe speak in person – the man’s voice is like silk…