A different stripe

One works, the other doesn't. Joe Boyle reflects on the gulf between Sunderland and Newcastle when it comes to the way they treat their supporters

So, Alastair Campbell is worried that new Labour aren’t getting their message across. There is a simple remedy: speak to Lesley Callaghan, press office sup­remo at Sunderland. Callaghan could teach Campbell a thing or two about communication. In fact, she could probably tell him a thing or two about politics too. “Social inclusion,” she told me, “is at the heart of everything we do. Everybody at the club has to buy into that ethos.”

That ethos was on display in March when Sunderland announced details of a statue to be built outside the Stadium of Light featuring three generations of a Sunderland-supporting family. “The main reason why Sunderland AFC is one of Britain’s truly great clubs,” said chief executive John Fickling, “is its supporters. That is why it is fitting that we should produce a monument to the passion of our supporters.”

Whether the majority of Sunderland supporters would prefer a statue to commemorate their loyalty or three points on Saturday is not open to debate. Yet no one doubts the effectiveness of Sunderland’s public relations, be it building statues, letting the supporters vote on the club nickname or consulting them over reallocation of seats during the stadium’s extension.

Their deft touch is further highlighted by the con­trast it offers to what has been going on at St James’ Park, where the insults and writs continue to fly. Even Newcastle’s board has now realised how bad things have got, admitting that “the club recognises the need to improve its communication with its fans”.

The departure of the unpopular chief executive Freddie Fletcher may be a start, though even before that they had brought in the former chair of the Foot­ball Supporters Association, Rogan Taylor, to help sort out the mess. “Newcastle United have the worst PR of any major club in the country,” Taylor says. His task will be to help appoint a full-time liaison officer, possibly a former player, with the aim of repairing relations between club and supporters.

Frank Gilmour, the chairman of the independent supporters association and a key member of the Save Our Seats campaign, is convinced the club will face long-term repercussions after the bitter dispute over the displacement of bond holders within the stadium, which resulted in fans unsuccessfully suing the club. He says the board will pay the price for a basic lack of communication.

“I’m seeing a lot of kids of school age walking ar­ound Newcastle in red and white shirts,” he says. “A lad recently turned up to one of our meetings and said, ‘I’m a Newcastle fan, my wife’s a Sunderland sup­porter and I’m ashamed to say the kids are wearing red and white shirts in the house.’

“The board’s actions are perceived in the north east as sheer greed, an attempt to milk as much money as they can at the expense of the customer base. We’ve always said the club is going to lose a whole generation of supporters over this.”

This gut feeling has good academic grounding. The buzz phrase in consumer relations theory is “learning relationship”, a concept articulated five years ago by a pair of US consultants, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers. “The more customers teach the company,” they wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “the better it gets at providing exactly what the customer wants and the more difficult it will be for a competitor to entice them away.” They probably know nothing about the Tyne-Wear football scene, but the theory certainly seems to apply.

Rogan Taylor’s involvement with Newcastle is surely a good sign. He acted in a similar role for Sun­derland in the last days of Roker Park, when there were fears that the move from the inadequate but revered old ground could alienate many supporters. “My advice to Bob Murray [the Sunderland chairman],” he recalls, “was you don’t take people along unless you invite them.”

Taylor’s words seem to have been taken on board. Talk to Callaghan and you will be bombarded with details about how Sunderland communicate with their fans: media releases are sent to every supporters’ club at the same time as they go to the press; club directors face a “three-line whip” to attend monthly meetings with a liaison group; and there has been a recent spate of question-and-answer sessions with 40 supporters’ branches around the country. Callaghan talks enthusiastically about the need to show that foot­­­ball is “not all grey men in suits… We want to feel like we’re at the heart of the community.”

So does it impress the people it’s aimed at? In the opinion of Brian Mitton of the Roker Liaison Group, yes. “I know disenfranchised Newcastle fans who agree that Sunderland is run with our supporters in mind,” he says. “A lot of Newcastle fans have been priced out and their board have not treated them with dignity. Here, despite the 20,000 new fans who now turn up, it feels like we are still part of the club.”

Sunderland’s current approach is a dramatic change in the two clubs’ attitudes. Even when Sir John Hall was in charge at Newcastle “relations between club and supporters were at a distance”, according to Gilmour. But in Keegan and his cavalier side the sup­porters had the best spokesman they could wish for. Grievances were put aside, only to resurface in the post-Keegan era.

As for Sunderland, Bob Murray’s first decade in charge was a torrid one. “They used to call it the ‘caring club’,” says Mitton, “but it felt like they couldn’t care less.” Unquestionably, the ground move was a watershed, the culmination of Murray’s greatest dream for the club. From then on he seemed to relax – witness the openness on display in the BBC2 documentary series Premier Passions, which aired laundry both filthy and clean in full view.

Whether this good feeling will last when things go wrong on the pitch is another matter. Sunderland’s internet discussion boards are increasingly disgruntled forums (astonishing when you consider what a resounding success the season has been). Angry voices wonder how long they will continue to pay good money for the poor fare currently on offer.

The club’s fine words could be in for their first big test. After all, smooth PR and spin may work when things are going well. But when expectations aren’t met, resentment can quickly take over. Just ask Alas­tair Campbell.

From WSC 159 May 2000. What was happening this month