I’m not the first person to use the term ‘soap opera’ when talking about a football club. Whether clumsy-oafism, or intentional mess-making, it isn’t just true at the top. It’s true at every level of the English game.
I spent over 12 years seeing it up close both at Supporters Direct (SD), and as a campaigner at my own club Wimbledon. Sadly there’s a lot of people still involved in the game for less than admirable reasons.
There are also too many people who claim that’s our lot as supporters, even activists who with glum authority tell me that winning is all that matters to fans. That destructive cynicism (often by worn-out campaigners) could be a bit tiring.
For those of us who achieve, say, ownership (AFC Wimbledon in case you wondered), or Swansea City’s part ownership, the critics get to have it all ways: Do the ‘impossible’, and it’s just luck, won’t last and was only done because the club was small; yet it’s not really that much of an achievement anyway, and you’ll inevitably need to sell up to meet a notional idea of ‘success’ (a couple of years in a higher division, or a few extra bums on seats in a slightly bigger stadium, usually).
Newcastle United has become not so much a club in crisis, but one in ‘managed decline’. Mike Ashley, the king of trainers, thought football was a cinch. Back to the Future and Brigg Market were his downfall. He thought that Kevin Keegan and a few beers and would do the trick. But oh, King Kev. You really don’t mess around with the heroes – especially up at St James’s Park. It won’t turn out well.
Ashley just thought that their fans were a bit daft. They’re not, and although supporters have disagreements from time-to-time, we do unite over the basics, as their fans have begun to do – witness the impressive boycott by around 10,000 fans the other week.
The net result wasn’t good for Ashley; he’s looking daft himself. Yet he has managed to produce a well-functioning business. Failure? The failure is that everything is for sale, including it’s soul; free with a Lonsdale bum-bag.
So you might think it a bit odd to start comparing one of the biggest clubs in the country with one in the South London suburb of Dulwich. But I’m going to. And I’m going to suggest that it might hold the secret for a good ending, and a restoration of Ashley’s own reputation. Bear with me. What has recently set Dulwich apart has been something of an interesting tale of what you’d call ‘the exit route’.
Something’s stirring in Dulwich. Not what I expected from the circumstances in September 2013. Dulwich is one of those parts of South London that just melts into the next in the way that South London does. I’m a South Londoner myself, and spent most of my previous 40-odd years until recently in one part or another of the area.
There’s been plenty to cheer about at the club for several years – the ‘Rabble’; passionate, engaged, excitable; Gavin Roses’ Pink and Blue Army, churning out the talent on the pitch. Yet everything was coming to a head in 2013. Massive borrowing against their ground at Champion Hill coincided with the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust (DHST) securing an Asset of Community Value (ACV) listing against the ground.
The net result was a very odd meeting with two interesting but quite nervous gentlemen at the ground, which I attend alongside DHST. The two concerned were a bit excitable, but insistent that their client needed to get it’s money back. It wasn’t sinister, just bizarre. The Trust conducted itself almost perfectly in the face of what I can only describe as ‘cabaret’.
Like so many times before, I instinctively reached for my crisis management plan. But it wasn’t needed. Months later, and a twist in the tale. Several. The first after a company called Hadley, property developers in London and an official partner of the Mayor, purchased said loan.
Not long afterwards in April 2014, myself and a colleague were meeting their representatives (a meeting they requested), being told by them that football was not where they wanted to operate, that they wanted to clear up the finances and club management, develop the site, and provide a new ground. It was nice to hear that the new ground would be a big improvement on the existing one. The final twist? That the club should be owned by the supporters and community of Dulwich.
To be fair they accepted everything we said: Openness & honesty about the finances, keep fans informed – properly, and don’t try to hoodwink them. We told them that it would be for the fans & community to make the decision on ownership, and that’s where SD would focus its work.
So what has this even got to do with Newcastle United? Remember the point about reputation. Mike Ashley, likes making money; a property development company, pretty much the same in that respect. It’s what they do. Both of them with a reputation earned by a combination of their own actions, but also because of the sector they’re in.
Except one has made the decision that to make money doesn’t necessitate bulldozing an entire history – literally or metaphorically, or by undermining those who matter to your ability to make the money. The sums are bigger, but accept the premise, and the rest kind of falls into place.
I’ve not suddenly become a cheerleader for every whim of the property development sector. What I have seen in this South London suburb is what an exit route looks like. If Mike Ashely wants to recover his reputation, he need look no further.
Kevin Rye was until April Head of Policy and PR at Supporters Direct. He is now advising Hadley Property Group on the project towards supporter ownership at Dulwich Hamlet FC.