An empty St James’ Park is the most powerful message this fanbase can send to its owner, the Premier League and the rest of the world. It is the single most authoritative act we can take. Because without fans, there is no Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United.
As we enter the next chapter of this dismal era, scrabbling around trying to understand what our purpose is, and what effect we can have, in this perpetual battle against self-destruction – it is vital to know that other fanbases have tried and succeeded in stadium boycotts. It doesn’t have to be taboo… because it’s effective.
In recent seasons, it’s difficult to look past seasiders Blackpool when it comes to deliberate and effective vacancy. For a good three seasons, supporters swapped Bloomfield Road for the beach, leaving behind wave upon wave of orange plastic: a palpable vision of a malevolent regime headed by the ultimate donkey: Owen Oyston. The achievements of the ‘Not A Penny More’ (NAPM) campaign, led by the tenacious and unrelenting Blackpool Supporters Trust, were recognised nationwide and ultimately made a difference to the club they loved. Their efforts provide something that the Toon Army should take inspiration from, especially given the positive outcome which eventually arrived at Blackpool.
On the 11th of February 2017, only 2046 home fans rocked-up to see Blackpool play out a feeble 0-0 draw with Crawley Town, which represented the Tangerines’ sixth consecutive League Two game without a win. Perennial Football League journeyman Neil Danns was on loan at the time; he whacked a penalty wide in the first half. Little else happened, but that wasn’t the story: the real story was the attendance. Blackpool hadn’t experienced turnouts this low since their dismal days at the foot of the old Division Four in 1990, where barely more than 1000 were turning-up to see them flop to miserable defeats against the likes of Aldershot and Scarborough… two sorry eras which barely differed in their shades of desperate.
The club has risen and then fallen spectacularly since then. Recently, the action taken by the Blackpool Supporters Trust was necessary and – alongside their admirable battles in the courtroom against the Oystons – demonstrated the significant impact of organised protest.
Notably, the Crawley game was played only seven years after Blackpool’s unlikely Premier League campaign. In 2011, Bloomfield Road was accommodating over 16,000 fans which were – amusingly – hitting decibel levels of 85, apparently the fifth highest in the league that season! But, following their immediate relegation, supporters were soon remonstrating as the Oystons ‘illegitimately stripped’ the club of £26.77million – money dropping into their salary packets and conveniently into other businesses under their control. This despicable behaviour came at the expense of Blackpool rapidly tumbling through the divisions; its identity muddled by a board and fanbase in conflict.
Numerous non-attended football matches later and the Oystons are gone, after a court ruled that the club enter receivership on account of the financial misdemeanours. Regardless, the Blackpool Supporters Trust – and their NAPM campaign – established themselves as an example for other supporters to follow – including Newcastle ones.
The Tangerines actually ended their 2018-19 campaign on the wrong side of a 3-0 battering at home to Gillingham but, like the Crawley game, the scoreline wasn’t the story: the real story was the quadrupled attendance. 9,571 people – who presumably sat glumly as Gills’ Tom Eaves notched a quick-fire brace to put the visitors 3 up at the break – knew, above all, that they’d got their club back.
Now, I know the obvious point to counter this is the disparate club size between Newcastle and Blackpool. But these major protest events aren’t only feasible in the lower leagues. For instance, in March 2014, Serie A superpower Lazio played in front of an empty stadium as fans protested against their president – Claudio Lotito.
Bad form. No transfers. A neglecting owner. Banners read “Lazio is ours and we will leave it to our children.” The message was ultimately the same as ours to Ashley, only this one packs a punch. It really hits home. Since then, Lazio have qualified for the Champions League and Lotito has sanctioned impressive signings like Stefan De Vrij, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Ciro Immobile and Joaquin Correa – to name a few. Lotito remains at Lazio and is still unpopular (things flared spectacularly with the bizarre departure of Marcelo Bielsa after four weeks in charge in 2016), but strong and definitive supporter action has made a difference to the immediate fortunes of the club.
Elsewhere in Europe, Borussia Dortmund and their famous ‘yellow wall’ protested against Monday night football (no, not you, GNev and Carra) by vacating an entire stand for games against Wolfsburg and Augsburg in February 2018. Well over 20,000 of their noisiest supporters decided to take a stand because they passionately believed in overrulling something that they felt wasn’t right (it doesn’t always have to be ownership issues!) Come the end of the calendar year, the German FA discontinued the Monday night fixtures. Immediate boycott results.
Back to Italy (and club ownership), in April of this year, the Fiorentina Supporters Association – which represented several thousand supporters – didn’t appear for 45 minutes of a game against Bologna – making a stand against their owners – luxury shoe magnates Andrea and Diego Della Valle – due to a lack of investment. Impactful, meaningful, notable protest.
There are more examples in Europe. The soon to be demolished San Siro has witnessed both Inter and AC fans boycott their respective clubs’ matches. In Spain Valencia fans did the same. All of these are massive and important clubs at the centre of their communities, with unhappy supporters who are entitled – perhaps even duty-bound – to attempt to make a difference.
In order to really emphasise the point (that disgruntled football supporters really do speak the same language, wherever they’re from and whoever they support), let’s go even further afield and consider Kerala Blasters, of the Indian Premier League. This well-supported team normally see attendances of 20-30,000 but played in front of a virtually empty stadium in December 2018, after a long run of really poor results. Their fans, the ‘Manjappada’ (Yellow Army) held up banners during a 0-0 draw against Jamshedpur FC reading: “Supporters, Not Customers. We Deserve Better.” Doesn’t that sound familiar?
But let’s not forget ourselves: in April 2015, thousands of Newcastle fans took a stand together and avoided the Spurs game. A few months later, we had a new manager with a transfer budget of £80million (author note: choice of manager irrelevant to wider point…)
These things work. When football fans make a stand together, they can make a difference. Let’s learn from these examples, Newcastle fans. Let’s be like Lazio. Let’s be like Blackpool. Let’s be like Kerala Blasters. Let’s be like Us.
Make a stand and stay away.