Kevin Miles arrives breathless for our interview at a central Newcastle coffee shop, sitting under the shadow of St James’ Park.
But in a week when Bury were thrown out of the Football League and the spectre of a ruinous European Super League seems to be looming ever larger, it is perhaps understandable. One of the most prominent supporter advocates in the country has a lot on his plate.
Miles is the Chief Executive of the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), the North East-based national supporters’ collective which represents the loudest voice for fans of the national game. In football’s current febrile climate they have arguably never had a more important role to play.
Bury, he feels, was a wake up call for the sport’s power brokers. It was a road to ruin signposted by issues the FSA has been raising for years and, Miles feels, has “sharpened the focus” of the FA, the Premier League and EFL in the battle for an independent regulator of football clubs – which would ensure more influence for fans who have watched on with limited power as their community clubs are taken over by owners with questionable motives.
Miles feels they’re getting somewhere. The FSA believes in engagement with the game’s authorities: they speak out about problems but recognise the solutions come from working with those who can make the changes. It is a difficult path to take when many suspect the motives of those at the top but it is at the core of the FSA’s mission statement.
To engage or not? That has long been the issue at Miles’ own club Newcastle, where supporter group’s suspicions of Mike Ashley mean there is now a voiceferous section of the fanbase who feel cutting all ties with the club is the only way forward. Others feel talking, cajoling, attempting to influence can affect some sort of change for the better.
Miles is a Magpies’ supporter so he’s fully aware of these issues.As a home and away die-hard who has suffered through contentious ownership in the past, he doesn’t need to be lectured about the issues that have seen thousands walking away this summer.
'Be careful what you wish for' - a message to NUFC fans
But for our hour-long chat he speaks with his FSA hat on, just as he did last autumn when he stood up in front of the first Magpie Group meeting and warned fans “to be careful what they wish for” when it came to a takeover of the club. As part of one of the most compelling speeches of the night, it was the first time the consensus of the night had been challenged and for this correspondent it was well worth listening to.
Don’t get it twisted. His argument was not supportive of Ashley: far from it. But it was an attempt to recalibrate the debate and urge people to focus on the job of somehow finding a unified, credible voice for fans’ concerns rather than a satisfying but ultimately fruitless howl of protest.
It was certainly an intriguing comment – and not something you’d expect to hear at a protest meeting. But it did strip some of the emotion out of a movement that has, in the past, suffered from being more heat than light. Successive attempts to coalesce around one flag – be it a boycott, the supporters’ trust or any number of new movements – have proved fiendishly difficult for Newcastle fans. Too many protest ideas have disintegrated in the decade of Ashley and it is not due to apathy or people not caring.
The FSA’s mission statement is to amplify fans’ voices and Miles’ viewpoint on what is unfolding at Newcastle is fascinating. “I completely understand the discontent around the club. It doesn’t match the aspirations of the supporters,” he says.
“One of the points I made at the (Magpie Group) meeting is that sometimes you go on gut feeling about this things. I said at the time: ‘A lawyer would look at it and say there’s nothing illegal going on’ which you can’t say about some of the other clubs in the Football League. An economist or accountant would look at it and say ‘OK, you might be able to squeeze a bit more money from things like pitchside advertising but generally speaking it’s in sound financial health’.
“From a purely sporting point of view people might say ‘They’re too close to getting relegated for comfort but your status is looking fairly secure’. Even when they’ve gone down they’ve come straight back up. Supporters of other clubs might say ‘What are they complaining about?’
“But even though the majority are still going, there’s a sense among many supporters than this club is not doing everything it can to be the best it could be. I don’t think it should spend money it hasn’t got – and one of the biggest ironies of the modern game is there are more rules regarding putting money into a club than taking it out – but it’s just generally a feeling that money isn’t being spent as effectively as it should be.
“It’s a difficult thing to quantify. But fans can smell it. That’s a very unscientific thing to say but that’s it.”
A difficult message: Engage with the club
So what does the FSA propose? Hard as it might be for some to hear, he thinks an element of engagement is necessary.
“Regardless of who your owner is, you’ve got to have a strong, organised, collective voice if you’re going to be taken seriously,” he said.
“You’ve got an enormous amount of influence and power but you’ve got to find a way of articulating that in a sensible way and a representative way as well. That’s why the idea of a democratic supporters organisation is absolutely crucial. That organisation, to be taken seriously, has to engage with the club – regardless of who the owner is.
“A lot of the work we do nationally as an organisation is about helping fans engage with their clubs and with the football authorities about regulation. One of the breakthroughs in regulation was the government’s working report on supporter engagement where it’s now a requirement for a club to engage with supporters. That’s been built into the rules.
“Now there is a question about whether Newcastle United have lived up even to the Premier League’s rules. If you took that to the people at the club and said ‘You haven’t done this’ they’d probably say ‘That’s a fair cop’. They have to stick to those rules so it’s something they must do.”
When the excitement of a possible takeover mounted in the summer, the rush of elation was difficult to begrudge for supporters who feel Ashley’s ownership has turned Newcastle into something they can’t support. But the idea of healthy scepticism around the motives of anyone interested in Newcastle is a message, however uncomfortable, that is worth heeding.
Miles says: “If there’s a genuine prospect of a takeover, be careful what you wish for because it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person or people who have managed to get enough money together to buy it are necessarily going to be any better than what went before.
“The history of takeovers is littered with people who have come in and done far worse – because football is an industry that has been plagued by chancers, profiteers, asset strippers and people who see football as a soft target – precisely because they do have a supporter base who are so fiercely loyal. And there are no competitors.
“What’s crucial to a successful football club is that you manage to engage supporters in a meaningful way – that they get an idea of what the club is about and cherish that link. If they do that, the ownership becomes a secondary matter.
“There’s so much money coming into the Premier League that you don’t necessarily need to be a millionaire to subsidy it. A Premier League club should be able to survive with sensible husbandry.”
One feature of this season has been the changing relationship of the club's fans with United in the wake of Rafa Benitez's departure. Lower crowds, more anger, unsold season tickets and even a measure of apathy are very different to the unified front Newcastle had in Benitez's time.
Here are some of the latest stories on fan issues at St James' Park:
In many ways, it says it all that most are now hoping that a benevolent billionaire sees something he likes in Newcastle. He says: “Football clubs aren’t just business. As long as our attitudes are that we want a different, richer businessman coming in then we run the risk of the same problems.
“What you need is someone to come in who understands what a football club means to the people and the people and the community. There’s not that many people knocking about who combine that sort of understanding, appreciate the history and have billions of pounds.
“What you’re looking at is millionaires or billionaires if you’re talking about owners now and it’s a sad state of affairs. There’s a powerful case for – at every club – there being a requirement to at least have a partial fan ownership stake through a properly run, democratic fan organisation.”
Why Bury FC problems need to start the ball rolling
The situation at Bury was a “moment in time” for football, Miles believes. “Bury FC have been the victims of first of all bad owners. People who have used it at the expense of the football club without a thought for history, community, tradition, what a football club is all about,” he says.
“The second problem is that they’ve been able to come and do that in a regulatory regime which is powerless to prevent them from doing it.
“So there needs to be much tighter regulation around these things. Clearly that regulation needs to be independent from the owners of clubs. We cannot be in a position where owners of clubs are the ones deciding which regulations they should be subject to and which ones they aren’t.
“It should be independent of interests but not devoid of knowledge of what the game is. Our argument is there should be an independent regulation unit, sitting in the FA with a clear set of rules that the FA has a responsibility to administer and sanction.
“It impacts on everyone in football when a club like Bury go out of business. Apart from it being yet another tear in the fabric of the football landscape that we’ve been used to, it impacts on the reputation of football as a whole. There’s an assumption that builds up that’s what the owners of football clubs are like but there are a lot of good owners out there.
“Our idea about independent regulation is not just about sanctions and punishments, it’s about having a regulatory unit that acts as an early warning system when there’s problems, which provides support and advice to owners, it encourages the development positive business plans that embed a football club in its community and creates a solid, long-term plan.
“Regulation shouldn’t be regarded just as a big stick. It should be seen as something to encourage the healthy development of a football club, giving it a place in the heart of its community.”
It is no longer a pipe dream. “We are getting somewhere with it,” Miles says.
“We’ve been engaging with authorities for last few months and because we’ve approached it in a constructive way, we’re getting a more sympathetic hearing. There are people in football who know it doesn’t reflect well on them what has happened.
“The football authorities aren’t evil overlords, they want it work. And now there’s fresh impetus because of what happened with Bury.
“It saddens me when you see the desperation of fans. Far too many things develop without fans feeling they have any power or influence to shape things and that’s our big mission as an organisation: to try and ensure the voice of fans gets organised, is marshalled effectively and they get an input.”
The perils of the European Super League
A bigger issue looms over the horizon. Plans for a European Super League in which 24 of the 32 teams would be guaranteed qualification may have been knocked back this week, but Miles worries deeply about what is being cooked up by the ECA, the influential cabal of the most powerful clubs in Europe.
“I go to every NUFC match, home and away, I’ve been working on Bolton and Bury yet the biggest issue on my desk at the moment is a competition proposal for five years hence,” he says.
“The proposal as it was – and it is shape-shifting plan that keeps altering – would have had the most dramatic impact on the nature of football in this company since the formation of the Premier League in 1992.
“It will have a negative impact on the entire football pyramid. It may be starting in 2024/25 but the decisions will have to be taken this season.
“What it represented was an attempt by UEFA and the big European clubs who have looked enviously at the Premier League’s TV revenue and thought ‘We want some of that’. It’s been driven by Agnelli at Juventus and the idea was to create a semi-closed European league of three divisions where qualification is not based on your position in the domestic league the year before. There would be a big increase in the number of European fixtures and potentially the movement of European football to weekends and domestic football relegated to a midweek afterthought.
“That’s the impact. There’s an understandable attitude from some fans in the pyramid to say ‘Let them go’ and ‘Nobody will be interested’. But that is to overlook the impact on the rest of the pyramid. At risk is the League Cup as a competition because of fixture congestion.
“At risk is the FA Cup as a weekend competition and the prestige that goes with it. At risk is the solidarity money paid down from the Premier League to the Football League. There are probably 20 clubs in the Football League is dependant on the money that trickles down.
“The competitive basis of the Premier League would be totally undermined because you’d have five big clubs who would become effectively permanent members of that European Champions League, who would have revenues year in, year out which the rest of the division wouldn’t have access to. So they would become untouchable.”
The FSA have drafted six principles that any future competition must stick to – which include fairness, a sporting element to qualification – that have been backed by the Premier League. But he is digging in for a long fight.
“We’re being presented with a moving target. Every time something emerges and is challenged, UEFA and the ECA say ‘That’s not the definite proposal’. We’ve got to make people aware of it. It makes Bury situation much more likely in the future,” he says.