Happy Face Posted March 2, 2009 Share Posted March 2, 2009 Dear Chris Derek Llambias is not a fan of the NUSC. That much was clear at the end of an always interesting, sometimes petty, but often surprisingly candid exchange of views between NUFC’s Managing Director and a Supporter’s Club (with a membership of 1000+ strong and growing) who remain critical of his regime and who were once more dismissed by Llambias as “the breakaway group”. Let’s set our cards on the table from the outset. We are not a “breakaway” anything. We do not, will not, nor have we ever advocated anything but unswerving loyalty towards the black and white shirt of NUFC. Forged, as we were however, in the fury and anger that surrounded the events of September 2008, it’s an easy stereotype to portray us as a one trick pony. Llambias would fall prey to that trick towards the end of a charged meeting that ended up being far from the simplistic “meet the fans” he perhaps expected it to be when he arrived, early and flanked by local journalists, at around 5:45pm in the director’s suite of St James Park on 24th February 2009. His quiet introduction of “Hello, I’m Derek” was met with handshakes from some members of the Newcastle United Supporters Panel and with reserved stares and mild suspicion from others (including the four representatives of NUSC who were present). It’s perhaps important at this point to pop the bubble on another rumour. NUSC was never initially invited to be a part of the Supporter’s Panel by the club. We made that happen for ourselves when it became clear that issues involving the behaviour of match-day stewards were growing increasingly unacceptable to fans in the Leazes Corner. As a result of this proactive attitude to fan issues we were invited back on a permanent basis but in limited numbers to attend the monthly Supporters Panel meeting held by Simon Esland, The club’s Head of Customer Operations. It was left to Simon, a fundamentally decent man doing a thankless job under difficult circumstances, to begin the meeting with an introduction and agenda. Derek was here to answer any questions however there was to be no mention of Keegan (something that would be stuck to neither by the people in attendance nor the Managing Director himself as the evening wore on) due to the ongoing legal issues involving our former manager. Llambias began by apologising for not coming to the last meeting but revealed he would be “More than happy in future to come to these meetings and that as you come to know me you will find you can ask me a question and I’ll give you a very truthful answer...we want to be transparent” On the silence that has engulfed the club since September last year he ventured the following: “We kept our heads below the parapet so that nobody would shoot us...we weren’t prepared for the force of Kevin leaving. The backlash was so huge we thought we’d just back off and let everybody calm down...although it didn’t really happen” One word that Llambias was keen to stress was “inherited”, there was no culpability or admission of wrongdoing in the Keegan saga; these were all referred to interestingly as “problems we inherited”. Sticking with the theme of inheritance Derek moved on to discuss the debt inherited from the previous regime: “buying the club for £134M then £110M (To pay off the debt, which the club now owes to Ashley instead of a bank) which Mike doesn’t take any interest off...if in 6 or 7 years Mike sells the club it becomes capital...part of the price of the club”. The subject of that debt was something that would later cause Derek to become increasingly annoyed with those asking about it. Llambias then went on to confirm the clubs Academy budget as being £10M per year with £5M spent so far. Derek explained the hierarchy’s unhappiness with the business model they inherited which meant players were signed on credit and paid for over a period of several years. “Were still paying for some of them now” he complained, referring to players who had long since left the club. Interestingly he then claimed “We (Ashley) won’t clear the debt for those players as it will take us until 2011”. So there is debt still uncleared then? The club’s new policy, apparently, is to buy the players outright so that “we own them”. Unfortunately, when questioned further on this by NUSC Derek admitted that it didn’t reciprocate to a policy with outgoing players. Our question was this: "While we were giving clubs our money up front, would we be asking them for their money up front if they purchased one of our players?" “No” was the answer. For anyone wondering what happened to the James Milner money herein lies your answer: Villa havn’t given it to us yet. Further probing brought out that “they (Villa) are paying us in bits” and as Ashley will only spend money as and when it arrives this seems to suggest we would never have been able to reinvest it in the way KK talked of to begin with. A cautious approach to debt is all well and good, but the complete refusal to partake in it seems to be a peculiar eccentricity that has no proven model of success within football and left us wondering what the point in selling someone to raise transfer funds is if you’re unable to spend the money straight away on a replacement. We continued to probe asking how it made sense to shell out all of our money upfront and let other clubs pay us in instalments. At this point Llambias changed his tune and said that while we try to buy all our players up front it’s not always possible. Sticking with the club’s unusual reluctance to have any debt we asked why it was necessary to pay off the club’s mortgage and debt completely. The analogy was presented of a person who uses all his money to wipe off his mortgage but then has nothing left for food and essentials. That person has no debt, but he also has no money to spend on anything else either (in our case, players). Llambias’ response was that by paying off the mortgage (or rather transferring the debt the club owed from the bank to Mike Ashley) they have saved £7m in interest over the next 8 years which could be used for transfers. This seemed to be the main justification, saving a little under £1M a year on interest but severely restricting your owners spending power on players instead of having manageable debt with increased cashflow available for player purchases. However, it seemed “manageable debt” was the issue. “We couldn’t make the repayments” confirmed Llambias “We lost £30M and £20M in the last two years” This year they are hoping to lose £5-10M “which Mike is quite happy to put in each year”. “The club makes £100M a year in revenue of which 76% goes on salaries” he added. Onto the famed “five year plan” then and once again it was reassertions of the “Arsenal plan”. Yes you heard that correctly, Arsenal not Aston Villa. “That was a misquote” argued Derek and demanded the journalists present confirm this, which they begrudgingly did. He stated that he simply admired the progress Aston Villa had made this season and under Martin O’Neil’s stewardship. That was what they wanted to emulate. We pointed out to Derek that Aston Villa have spent £30M this season and around £80M under O’Neil whereas his club have spent £6M in the recent transfer window and made a profit in every transfer window under Mike Ashley’s stewardship. How would we hope to emulate them with such different strategies towards spending? After all it is easy enough for a West Brom fan to say they want to be like Man Utd, but without matching them financially isn’t it just a pipe dream? “I didn’t say about being Aston Villa” Llambias retorted, looking flustered. Okay so what about Arsenal then? Mike Ashley asserts that “Arsenal is the shining example in England of a sustainable business model”, the problem being that their manager, Arsene Wenger along with a certain Sir Alex Ferguson were both quoted following Keegan’s exit as saying they would “not accept” working under a director of football. Was it fair to say that they were two “top class” manager’s who wouldn’t be in danger of damaging the woodwork on the door to Derek’s office? Llambias looked ruffled “That’s the first I’ve heard of that one” he sighed. Not a problem Derek, we have the quote from Wenger right here it goes like this: "If I go into a job and someone says to me that you have a director of football who buys and sells the players, I accept or dont accept it. If I accept it, I cannot complain. I would personally not accept that" It was left for Simon Esland to jump in with the save. The Arsenal model simply referred to the football plan (i.e being a self sufficient club only spending what they make in player sales and/or internal revenue) not the internal structure of the club. However as Derek confirms NUFC intend to run at a loss of £5-10M (covered by our benefactor Michael Ashley) it looks like player sales will be the only source of future transfer funds. This led onto a discussion about the role of Dennis Wise which, itself, led to one of the most interesting answers to a question we expected to be “off topic”: Who signed Xisco and Gonzales? “Xisco was Kevin, don’t believe everything you read in the press, Gonzales was a...well, I won’t go into that because we’ve still got legal issues there” stumbled Derek. Suffice to say jaws dropped on that one, not just for the remarkably candid nature of the revelation, but for the insinuation that we are supposed to now believe that Kevin Keegan walked out on Newcastle, not because he was unhappy with £6M being blown on an unwanted striker, (all his own work apparently) but that he was so fundamentally opposed to the club bringing in a player on a short term loan to help an injury hit squad that he walked out on a multi-million pound contract! Apologies that we didn’t probe that one further, we were too busy dusting away the fairy’s from our eyes. Wise was then described by a supporter’s panel member as being “as popular as the plague” and discussion was raised over the PR battle the club has with fan feeling towards the diminutive Director of Football. Would he attend such a meeting as tonight, we asked? The answer said a lot about the fear factor the regime seem to have about football fans and angered pretty much all within the room. “If you bring Dennis Wise into this room what are you going to get?” asked Llambias rhetorically; the implication clearly being a lynch mob. “I just mean he’s not very popular” he wailed. It was pointed out to Derek that neither is he...but that at least he had made the effort to face his critics. We thought this might be a good time to try and get the club to own up to precisely which players Wise was responsible for unearthing and signing. “Who’s been your top player?” came the reply. This time it was David Williamson (NUFC Executive Director of Operations), previously silent by Derek’s right hand side, who was speaking. “Bassong” came the universal reply “He was Dennis’ ” confirmed Williamson. Jonas was next to be named as a Wise buy. “Pick your top five players this season and you’ll see that they were Dennis’ players” Our suggestion of Shay Given as a contender for that role was met coolly by the officials and with black humour by the attendees. Llambias chimed in “All those players are Dennis’, they’ve been picked...sorry, Dennis has brought them in...with the knowledge of the manager” he belatedly added. Phew, good job you confirmed that bit Derek! There was then some discussion of Joe Kinnear. Llambias confirmed that Joe was still very much part of the future at NUFC, they have pleaded guilty to his latest disciplinary hearing and hope to just get a “slap on the wrist”. If Joe is unable to return then Derek isn’t worried. He brushed any such concern aside (seemingly forgetting the problems we had replacing the previous manager) saying, “If I could tell you the number of top class manager’s banging on my door right now...Top, top”. Of course, legal requirements meant that he couldn’t but we are confident Alex and Arsene won’t be among them. Speaking of top managers, what about the situation with top players and the likes of Shay Given leaving? “We never wanted to lose Shay, we made that clear from January” sighed Derek “whatever the price they offered. They came in with £3M and we politely told them to go away. Somehow Shay got it into his head that he wanted to move on because he wanted to win trophies. City then came in with a £5M bid that we rejected but then ...when a player decides they want to go it’s very, very difficult. We offered Shay a new contract that would take him to the age of 39 but that wasn’t good enough” So what in Derek’s opinion was the “could have done more” Shay insisted the club could have done in his post transfer interview? “Maybe we could have matched the contract with City, which we just couldn’t afford”. We then heard that Ashley flew in to make a last minute pitch about the club’s direction but “it wasn’t successful”. No kidding, Derek. Llambias did however promise to answer the question of whether Shay would get a testimonial “at the next meeting”. We thought this might be a good time to ask the question “considering NUFC had the man MCFC desperately wanted, how were they unable to get the player they wanted (Michael Johnson) in return via a swap or some similar arrangement”. Llambias’ answer inadvertently revealed just how little we got for Shay in the end. “Once they came in with a £5M bid we then looked at their team. We tried for their right back, Michael Johnson, Elano on loan to get the deal that suited NUFC. Unfortunately it was difficult”. Alarm bells started ringing here. £5M? Was that all we got for the league’s top goalkeeper? Again the reply surprised us in its candour: “No, we got £5.9M plus add-ons, not paid until 1st of July” In effect this would have denied us the money to spend in the window under Ashley’s “wait till it comes in” policy. “We asked Man city for £15M,” continued Derek “thinking they would just go away but they got away cheaply, was it good business on our part? Not really ‘cos we never wanted to lose the player cheaply” In our minds there’s a problem with this logic. If City were unable to pay upfront, couldn’t we have used that as an excuse to hang on to Shay until the end of the season? If we’re not getting cash up front but paying out to others that way then what’s the long term plan to make sustainable revenue available for the manager? Llambias offered the following: “Our commercial side is important, we’ll be out there from March trying to bring in better sources of revenue. Our revenue on retail is down because the economy is suffering, our revenue on food and beverage, we’re quite happy with that. We’d like to expand our brand and we’ve taken on commercial directors” Translation: Sell more pies and chips and hope for the best. At least he spared us “blue sky thinking” Apologies if we’re out of touch but it came across as first class management waffle designed to mask substance. Does the club have a contingency plan for relegation then? “Yes” came the simple reply followed by an actual show of humour in asking yours truly whether I was any good at football! The answer to that is no, but I am somewhat passable at maths which meant that when Derek moved on to mention player wages of £59M it gave me an rough idea that from his earlier quote that “The club makes £100M a year in revenue of which 76% goes on salaries” that must leave a good £17M on non-player salaries. It would be interesting to see how much of that is spent on Directors of Football and the like. One person no longer drawing a salary was (former chairman) Chris Mort and his name was next to be raised as a subject, with unfavourable comparisons drawn between himself and Llambias. “Chris was a good guy,” said Derek “he came in as a lawyer as all of our computers were confiscated in the second week (we’re presuming this was during the police enquiry into corruption in football) so we thought we should bring a lawyer in to settle things down. I’m more of an operator so it’s a different type of approach. Chris was fine, he was out there in the media, maybe he did too much as sometimes you can do too much. We decided to be more generic, it was pretty faceless. We’ll try and get Mike himself more involved” On this note we asked why Ashley comes out with statements such as “we are going to be in Europe by the end of the season” and “what price to finish in the top six?” Llambias questioned where these quotes were coming from and we duly informed him of the source: His own club’s programme on the day NUFC were comprehensively taken apart 5-1 by Liverpool. The guy in charge of the programme defended this as “an attempt to pick up on the feel good factor”. Let’s get one thing straight, these quotes were made with NUFC 3 points from the foot of the table. The only “feel good factor” generated that day was by NUSC and the £3000 it raised for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation before kickoff! We tried to make our feelings clear on what we felt was a patronising attitude and asked Llambias why Ashley couldn’t just be honest with the fans. Explain the club has debt, explain the limit on transfers and drop the unrealistic rhetoric about finishes to the season we know are impossible. Unfortunately the mention of the “d” word rather riled him “Just print that we paid £250 Million for the club” he snarled. We should probably express our disappointment with some of the supporters in attendance who actually seemed to welcome Ashley’s utterings as “positive” and as for the ludicrous comparison one Sunderland supporting local journalist made that “It’s the same as Keegan saying “watch out Sir Alex we’re after your title” what utter rot. NUFC finished 3rd that season, still a record finish for a debuting Premiership side, they were not marooned deep in the relegation zone for the best part of the season. What we personally want, and what we assume most sound of mind NUFC fans want from the owner is truthful, realistic statements to go with his optimistic outlook. What we don’t want are any more patronising, glib soundbites. As it stands we’re unconvinced Llambias and co got the message. A similar stubborn attitude was shown on the question of season tickets. The VAT will not be returned “as it would cost more than £12 (per person) in administration to do so”. Blimey, stamps must be canny expensive these days. What about those who signed up for three years thinking they were getting a better deal but are now (thanks to the reduction in next year’s ticket prices) no better off for their loyalty? Would they get something extra, a free cup ticket perhaps? Again, the answer appears to be no as “All they (those who signed for 3 years) were doing was guaranteeing a frozen price”. However, they will get a letter from Derek thanking them for their loyalty, so that’s alright then. There were no plans to reduce matchday tickets in line with season tickets although the club would “consider” having one off games where they would lower the price. Whether “We’ll consider it” turns out to be the footballing equivalent of “we’ll see” remains to be seen. The failings of the club to properly communicate the season ticket price reduction and how it impacted onto those who had already signed up for three years led to a suggestion that the club hire a permanent PR guru. This was dismissed by Llambias who said “Do we need to spend £200k a year on PR”. One member of the supporter’s panel thought so, drawing the excellent analogy of needing to buy a striker if you couldn’t score any goals. We asked Derek if having decent PR in place might have prevented the exodus of 5000 fans this season, a figure he vehemently contested. “Let’s make a comparison with the rest of the league,” he argued “everywhere is down other than the big boys”. This assertion that NUFC is not a big boy went down like a ton of bricks and led to much backtracking and fawning over the “great atmosphere” at St James. Llambias concluded his point by saying that “We did have a PR agency” before adding (jokingly or not we’re not sure) “they’ve just been fired”. Llambias went on to state that “If we are short 3,500 seats (his estimate not ours) that is reflected everywhere in the North East. "People are struggling to pay for tickets” It seemed evident here that Derek was missing the woods for the trees and attributing a handy credit crunch excuse to what in reality is a deep underlying dissatisfaction with the running of the club. As for comparing us with downturns in the half empty Stadium of Light and Riverside...oh dear, better get that PR team back on the phone and tell them they’re rehired. As the topic returned to summer transfer activity, Derek was unable to let us know precisely how much the club’s budget would extend to (although presumably the Given money will have cleared by then at least) and remarked that he expects big outlays in the coming months on “KK and Jonas”. This suggests he isn’t hopeful of winning the case against Keegan and that our bargain Argentinian may end up costing us an arm and a leg after all. Owen’s replacement was speculated on and when we jokingly suggested another Ashley “Wow signing” was on the cards Llambias confirmed that Collicini at £12.5M was the “Wow signing” previously spoken of by Ashley. At this point one of our members raised the issue of problematic stewarding, discussed at the last Supporter’s Panel, and in doing so mentioned that representatives from the NUSC were here. “The new breakaway?” queried Llambias and then seemed to fit the pieces together over the level of some of the questioning he had received throughout the evening. “Oh, you’re from the supporters club?” he asked. Clearly he either hadn’t been briefed or was feigning ignorance of our presence. Discussions were held about the leaflet distributed recently about standing at the match and comparing it with the one issued by Boro. The point being not the ludicrous wording of the Boro leaflet’s final paragraph but the overall manner in which they individually contacted season ticket holders explaining the council’s objections rather than the aggressive “sit down or else” of the NUFC’s leaflet. We spoke to David and Simon after the meeting and were invited to work with the club on future fan communications. An offer we are more than happy to accept on our mandate to work constructively with the club on important fan issues. Privately we have been assured that the steward who was causing the problems at the Tottenham game and others has since been removed from matchday duty. This is a positive result for NUSC and those who contacted us about this issue. As the meeting drew to a close discussions turned more and more to playing staff with the Managing Director perhaps getting a little too drawn on his opinions on certain players. However, this report not being a stitch up, we won’t embarrass him by making those comments public. Discussion continued to focus on how the club could involve the fans which seemed like as good a time as any to reminds Derek that there exists a supporter’s club with 1000 members only too happy to get involved and give their opinons. Derek’s response to this left a lot to be desired and revealed a pent up frustration with the NUSC that had first surfaced in his initial press interview. “Why do they pay for membership?” he queried. “Why do you ask people to pay up to £30 for a club membership” we countered “What administration costs do you have? Where does the money go?” he snapped back, not answering the question. We told him: "the money goes into a paypal account which immediately costs 59p per deposit, members then receive a car sticker, pin badge, membership card and keyring all of which have to be paid for. Leaflets are printed at a cost as are newsletters. We have a website which has running costs but that nobody on the committee makes a penny"...and so it went on. Changing the subject from an issue that clearly hadn’t worked out for him, Llambias preceded to tell us what we were (despite our numerous valid objections). “Your ethos is boycott our stores, boycott our stadium...yes it is, yes it was and yes it is! Your statement was ‘Ashley Out’, it’s still on your website (it isn’t actually Derek) it’s negative, you’ve been very negative. I’ve read your letter (we’ve actually sent him 3, the last 2 perfectly pleasant) and it was absolutely disgraceful and that’s why I didn’t acknowledge you” One of our number then gave a lengthy explanation to Mr Llambias, busting a few myths about NUSC and the rally at the weekend in the process, unfortunately all Derek could reply with was yet another petty dig asking whether NUSC will “issue books at the end of it”. Yes Derek, that’s what we have an accountant for. And with that the meeting drew to a close, there was still time for Derek to issue a few more bizarre comments to one of our number in a private chat. We won’t bother giving them credence here. Suffice to say they were all a bit James Bond villain-esque. So then, dialogue at last but clearly still a long way to go. Some credit is due to Llambias for finally showing up, we hope he honours his promise to attend these meetings regularly. He clearly remains deeply suspicious of the NUSC, although he really has no need to be. Our cards remain on the table, we want what we’ve always wanted; a small slogan that Derek apparently missed among all the “Ashley out” and “sell up and go” campaigning of last year. It was reflected by the only banner NUSC actually brought to the Sunday’s rally. For those that didn’t make it to that event let us tell you that it didn’t say “Cockney Mafia out” (that one was never ours anyway) nor did it say “Ashley Out”, “Keegan In” or anything so blatant and specific. The banner had one simple word. The word we’ve been fighting for since all this began. “Change” That’s what we want most of all Derek, a positive change for the better at this football club. If you and Mike can’t or won’t deliver that, then as we’ve stated previously we’d rather you were on your way. If you feel you can, then great, but be aware that we’ll be watching your progress like a hawk and we won’t stop asking questions when we think there’s something wrong. That’s not being negative Derek, that’s striving for positive change. That is what NUSC is really all about. Link to post Share on other sites More sharing options...
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