Star’s In Their Eyes?
A rather strange story appeared on the front page of “Non-League Today” this week. Under the enthusiastic headline “It’s Toon Army II”, the paper reported that a group of Newcastle United supporters have grown so disillusioned with their club that they hope to follow in the footsteps of FC United of Manchester and form an “AFC Newcastle United”. So far, so unsurprising. This is a story of a type that is set to become a fairly regular feature of the weekly non-league papers. As supporters of big clubs get more and more disenchanted with the Premier League and its faded glamour, one or two people may look to the grass roots of the game and to the level of involvement of engagement and participation involved by those that follow supporter owned clubs and think that this may be the way forward for them, too. There was, however, a small difference to this story. Whereas disenchanted supporters of Manchester United formed the wholly admirable FC United of Manchester and AFC Liverpool was founded as a new club in the in midst of protests about the involvement of Gillett and Hicks at Anfield (although this has been peculiarly watered down by “big” Liverpool’s adoption of them as their “little brothers”), the talk surrounding AFC Newcastle United has been somewhat more worrying, because the rumours coming from Tyneside are that this new club will not be a new club at all. Instead, the story asserts that it will be an existing club, re-branded to take advantage of the disaffection currently felt by NUFC supporters.
According to the story, Newcastle Blue Star of the Unibond League Division One North were approached by a group of Newcastle United supporters with a view to changing the name of the club. Closer reading of the article didn’t seem to add much meat to this story. The protests at St James Park have been adversely affected by a lack of cohesion on the part of various supporters groups over the last few weeks, which led to the formation of the Newcastle United Supporters Club last month, as an umbrella group for them all. This organisation’s own website is pretty scant on information at the moment, but the story in “Non-League Today” seems to add two plus two to make approximately eleven. It quotes only from an anonymous member of NUSC with no official statement having actually been made, and only adds at the end that Bob Morton, the Director of Football at Blue Star, has described the proposal as “premature” and that the club’s current supporters would almost certainly veto any proposed name change. In addition to this, the most popular Newcastle United forums don’t make any mention of the story (in spite of several lengthy conversations about the nature, aims and intentions of NUSC), and the story has hardly been mentioned anywhere else.
To say that Newcastle Blue Star live in the shadow of Newcastle United would be something of an understatement. Founded in 1930, they spent most of their history playing in regional leagues in the north-east, although they have achieved some success, most notably winning the FA Vase at Wembley in 1976. In 1986, they joined the Northern League and from there progressed to the Unibond League, but the financial cost of promotion looked like being too great for them. Earlier this year they volunteered themselves for relegation back to the Northern League before withdrawing their request and, with average home crowds of 130, it’s easy to see why. In spite of this, however, they have had an encouraging start to this season and currently sit at the top of their table with games in hand on the teams sitting below them. They are also through to the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, and have a home match against BSP club Altrincham to look forward to in that. In some respects, they are ripe for colonisation. They share the comparatively palatial Kingston Park, the home of Newcastle Falcons Rugby Club, which holds 10,200 people and is currently also the home, somewhat ironically, to Newcastle United’s reserve team. The stadium is owned by Northern Rock, the flaccid bank that sponsors Newcastle United. What they would think of a team of disaffected Newcastle supporters using their facility is anybody’s guess.
It seems unlikely that there is anything of substance behind this rumour. The local newspaper story the seems to have prompted the front page of NLT is here, and you’ll note the fairly swift rebuttal from Blue Star’s Bob Morton. Morton, however, is canny enough to recognise an opportunity for some cheap publicity and gave an interview to the same paper, extolling the virtues of his club and offering a relatively stress free existence to more disaffected Newcastle supporters. There is, however, some concern that anyone would think that it is appropriate to take over a non-league club and rebrand it as Newcastle United’s more affordable sibling. Newcastle Blue Star have got seventy-eight years of history, and they’ve won more at Wembley in the last forty years than United have. Newcastle United Supporters Club should adopt trust status as soon as possible. It will offer them a clear and democratic framework, ensure transparency in their financial dealings and they will be able to rely on a wide network of support from within the game, as well as giving them access to the not inconsiderable support of Supporters Direct. If they do, however, decide that they are angry enough to set up their own club, they should do exactly that and not seek to cannibalise someone else’s. No-one would ever suggest that jettisoning Newcastle United would be an easy decision for anyone to make. Will they stay loyal to the cause and try to fight a battle that they can ultimately only win to a very limited extent, or have they got the strength to see through the false virtue of loyality? They, arguably more than any other single group of supporters in Britain, know what it is like to be taken for granted by club owners that treat them like morons and with little more than barely concealed contempt. Will they stick it out at St James Park, or do they dare to go it alone and fall back in love with the game? The ball is firmly in their court.