CR writes: 15 years ago, a bright spark on the Telegraph news desk decided a Sunderland supporter was the best man to cover the Shepherd/Hall/Dogs/Mary Poppins fallout. One of the first people I interviewed was Kevin Miles*, prominent in a Toon campaign to force the two culprits out. I liked him a lot, enough to say ‘of course’ two years later, despite the head thinking ‘no way’, when asked to join his team of England supporters for a friendly against Germany before the minor storm of Charleroi at Euro 2000. Now he’s a big wheel at the Football Supporters’ Federation and, as an unreformed Mag, offers a mixture of wit, wisdom and partisanship ahead of the Wear-Tyne derby …
Salut! Sunderland: You are mid-table, we are rock bottom as I write. Gleeful at your reasonable comfort and Sunderland’s predicament, or regretting the highly possible loss of the Wear-Tyne derby (and vice versa) for at least a season?
You’d have to have a heart of stone, as a Geordie, not to permit yourself at least a quiet chuckle at Sunderland’s predicament at the moment, not least because it’s brought about the complete fall from any semblance of grace for the mad Italian fascist. Football doesn’t get much more tribal than in this corner of the world, so as a general rule of thumb if it’s going badly for you, then that’s got to be good news; I suspect the days of people going to games on Tyneside one week, Wearside the next, and wishing all North East clubs well, are long gone.
That said, I’ve been around long enough to know that the old adage “what goes around, comes around” is based on bitter experience, so I try to steer clear of gloating. We’re only eight games into a season of 38, and while yours may be the worst start ever at this stage of a Premier League campaign (is it OK to mention that?), there’s a long way to go. Equally, 10th place isn’t such a lofty perch that we can’t see the bottom from here and while I’ve seen us play some excellent football so far, I’ve also seen us look dreadful at times, and the relative thinness of our squad is hardly a state secret. I actually enjoyed our season in the Championship, a change of scenery did us no harm. It helps that we won it at a canter, and I wouldn’t want to be down there long, like Leeds or Boro, but it proved that a season without a derby isn’t the end of the world.
And what of your own travails? Is Mike Ashley forgiven or is he a chairman from hell with a managerial duo that can only end in tears?
I’ve never been keen on the idea of autocratic millionaire (billionaire, these days) owners having total control of something which in my mind still, morally at least, belongs to the people. There’s something tragic about a situation where supporters boast about having a richer, better or more benevolent overlord than their rivals, and very often that comes back and bites you on the arse. Nationality is irrelevant: whatever their provenance, owners tend to see football clubs either as sources of income to line their pockets, or even worse in the case of the super-wealthy, as vanity projects or playthings, as easily dropped as they were picked up in the first place.
Any temptation to “forgive” Mike Ashley when we somehow finished fifth and qualified for a European jaunt or two was well on the way to evaporating by the end of last season, and surely finally disappeared with the return of the insult that is Joe Kinnear. As things stand, Ashley still owns the club, and we’re stuck with him; most worrying is the clear lack of ambition for anything but Premier League survival. Winning a cup might be a dangerous distraction to him, but it would be the highlight of my entire football life.
When supporters of other clubs tell us they laughed at your most recent relegation, are they reflecting a widespread dislike of alleged Geordie Nation arrogance or just sucking up to a Sunderland site?
While I’m sure you’re too wise to be taken in by the flattering attentions of others telling you they don’t like us and they like you better, I like to think that when it comes to our relegation, there was an element of rejoicing in the fall of the once-mighty, more than there would be in another drop by a yo-yo club like, dare I say it, yourselves. There were a few clubs whose fans surprised me: Villa, on the last day of the season, took great delight in witnessing our demise. Now I enjoy a touch of schadenfreude as much as the next miserable sod, but Villa? There had never been anything between us and Villa that I can think of, but some of these sad individuals had stayed up late, probably on a school night, turning their bedsheets into banners about Ant and Dec. Now that’s tragic.
What were your minimum and maximum expectations as the season began and how essential is it to NUFC to keep Cabaye?
Pessimism appeals to my miserable nature, and if done properly can mean that you’re never disappointed, only ever pleasantly surprised. I approached the season as gloomy as ever: well aware of the thinness of the squad, conscious of conspicuous gaps and weakness, all against a background of a very poor finish to the previous season. Add to that mix the appointment of Joke Kinnear and the subsequent almost complete inactivity in the transfer market, and you can imagine how subdued the trip to Manchester City was on the opening weekend. Not to mention the journey back. I’d have settled then for survival.
But having said that, it wouldn’t be Newcastle United if they allowed you any degree of certainty about anything, and there’s no denying we have some fantastically talented players. In fact, I’d say our first choice line-up, on their day, could give anyone in the League a run for their money: a midfield with Cabaye, Tiote, Sissoko, Ben Arfa and Gouffran is full of potential, and Remy looks a class act, always dangerous. But injury problems on the scale of last season would show how thin that veneer of quality is, and already we look like coming to you with only second-choice centre backs available.
Yohan Cabaye is a genuinely top-quality player, and marshals the game so well that we really notice a huge difference when he’s not there. I was chuffed he didn’t leave in the summer, and he’s forgiven his little temper tantrum. Players come and go though, and no-one’s irreplaceable, but if we want to achieve anything approaching success, we need to build around players like him, not just cash in on the rise in his value.
Where do you stand on whether the regional rivalry is mostly harmless banter or too often elevated to poisonous malice?
I love the tribalism that makes up football, the atmosphere it can generate, and the scathing humour that can accompany it: I’d hate to lose all that. Derby day is special too: I’m not entirely sure I like it, I look forward to it and dread it in just about equal measure, but it certainly gets the adrenalin going. There’s got to be limits though. I work with Mackems – our national HQ is based in Sunderland – and I don’t hate them, not even on derby day. They’re a cracking set of lads (and lass), and one of things I like best about them is that they give as good as they get.
Some of the stuff the last few years as been way over the top, and it’s on both sides. Singing about wishing Steven Taylor was dead was over the top for me; likewise, the idea of Jimmy Savile being Lee Cattermole’s dad wasn’t just in bad taste, it was witless and unfunny. And when it turns into violence for the sake of it: no thanks. I personally was less ashamed of one man punching a horse than I was at the hundreds of daft, drunk kids who hadn’t even been to the match pouring out of Bigg Market pubs to look for Mackems. Not a lot of class there, and it’s as bad on Wearside. We should both be better than that (with us better than you, of course).
Cast your mind back to 1998 and the shame Freddy and Dougie brought on club and city. What was your genuine first thought when you realised The Daily Telegraph had sent a Sunderland fan to report on it?
At the risk of denting your ego, Colin, in the middle of the storm of embarrassment that Hall and Shepherd’s inadvertent brothel “interview” caused, and the efforts we made to get them to resign, the allegiance of one of the press pack to a then lower-division team didn’t really register. The Telegraph’s coverage was first-class though (that’s my street cred shattered – ed).
And was it a case of suitable revenge to press-gang the same ageing hack into turning out in Charleroi for England supporters vs Germany supporters at Euro 2000?
No revenge involved; my team selection was based as always on ability and attitude, and the team needed an experienced old head in that white-hot atmosphere. Purely ability, attitude, and shortage of other options.
Back to business: who are the greatest players you’ve seen – or wish you’d seen – in black and white stripes, and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
This is the part where I start to get a bit smug, because it’s my sincere belief we have the edge here, by a distance. Everyone has their own heroes, but I’ve been privileged to see some genuinely brilliant players turn out for us. I have a bias towards some of the local heroes: Gascoigne, Beardsley, Waddle, Shearer – and I wish I’d seen more of Tony Green. Some generally recognised national heroes and high achievers, like Keegan, and Andy Cole. I’m also easily seduced by a flair player: I loved watching Ginola, Asprilla, Laurent Robert, now Ben Arfa. Then there’s the ones you just have an affection for; in some cases it’s easily understood by others (Nobby Solano, Sir Les Ferdinand, Steve Harper), in others less obvious (Paddy Howard, Alan Shoulder, Ned Kelly).
On the other side: I got very frustrated by players who were supposed to be great, and never really showed it for us: step forward Patrick Kluivert. Or the Spanish international striker with 17 caps who managed only one league goal for us in 21 games – Albert Luque (mind you, it was a memorable goal – we still sing about it). And if we were going to sign a French World Cup winner, why couldn’t it have been Zidane instead of Stephane Guivarc’h? Actually, there’s been a few memorable disappointments along the way: we signed the only Brazilian professional who couldn’t control a ball, Fumaca…
What have been your personal highs and lows as a NUFC supporter?
Well, I’m only 53, so I’ve not actually seen us win anything, but it’ll surprise no-one that the Keegan years in the mid-90s were a joy to experience: I can remember leaving grounds after a game already impatient for the next one to start. European trips were always memorable – one great night was beating Feyenoord 2-3 away to qualify for the second group stage of the Champions League: we were still in it until March! Supporting Newcastle has just been the source of so many of my best social occasions too, regardless of on-the-pitch events.
There have been lows in abundance too. Dark days in the early 80s, when top scorer was Bobby Shinton, bless him; the 1990 play-off defeat wasn’t great either. All the football defeats you can take on the chin though: it’s the constant off-the-field embarrassments caused primarily by greedy and/or incompetent and unfit owners that have spoilt things most.
Any special thoughts on Shack, Moncur, Stan Anderson, Jeff Clarke, Lee Clark, Chopra, Stokoe among players and officials who have crossed the divide, either from one club to the other, joined the enemy or otherwise served both?
No, not really: they’re all just pros, doing their job wherever they’re employed. I’m as fickle as the next fan, cheerfully embracing the likes of Bracewell and Venison as long as they performed for us, and no resentment harboured to the likes of Ned Kelly or Lee Clark either.
Name this season’s Premier League top four in order, and the three going down. I suspect we may figure in one of your lists but tell me in which position each club will end up?
I’m not Nostra-bloody-damus, and if I thought I could predict with that degree of accuracy, I’d be at Ladbrokes now, not typing this. However, entering into the spirit: Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool for the top four, from what I’ve seen. I like to think I’m neither an impolite guest nor a childish point-scorer, but I do actually suspect you might go down, I just can’t see enough quality in your new signings, and this is one sphere in which quantity doesn’t make up for quality. I’d say Palace and maybe Fulham to go with you, though I’d shed no tears over either Stoke or Norwich taking that last relegation spot instead.
You are chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Federation. Do the football authorities, police etc treat you with respect, what do you regard as your most worthy achievement for all supporters and what work still needs to be done?
I think we’re getting there, though it’s taken long enough; there’s truth in the old cliché that respect has to be earned, and a lot of people have worked very hard to try to get the supporters’ voice heard, and listened to. We’ve made progress this last year or two with our Away Fans Matter campaign, particularly on the issue of ticket prices, and for the first time for a long, long time we’ve started seeing clubs reducing prices and implementing other schemes to encourage away attendances. It’s been a long slog on the issue of safe standing too, but we’re starting to get real progress and I’m confident we’ll see standing areas back in top-flight football within a decade.
I’ve personally been involved for 15 years with fans of the England team, particularly around away games, and I think we’ve made big strides forward there: the behaviour and image of England fans abroad has been completely turned around, and we’re much more likely to be welcomed now, which makes for a much more enjoyable experience.
Club versus country: which means most to you and why?
Given that I’ve not missed an England game for 15 years, it may surprise some people when I say it’s unequivocally club first. I’m no longer quite sure why, but it’s definitely the case: maybe just because I’ve been a Newcastle fan longer, not really getting into England till the 1990s. There’s a lot of similarities, in that neither team looks likely to win anything; England can’t just sign loads of cheap Frenchmen though. I’ve made a lot of mates following England though, including several Mackems – banter apart, club differences are set aside when we travel with England.
What most inspires you about modern football, and what appals?
It’s a lot easier to pinpoint what’s wrong: it’s far too expensive, with so many genuine and devoted working class fans being priced out and just losing the habit. The all-seater thing has had a detrimental impact on atmosphere, and there’s way too much money concentrated at the top of the game, while grassroots football and even League clubs face real financial threat. And still supporters don’t have sufficient representation in the game’s structures.
There’s a lot of misplaced nostalgia about though – I don’t really miss people pissing down my leg, and as I get older I quite like sitting down (while defending the right of others to stand, of course – and I never sit away from home. Facilities are vastly improved, and that’s made the game more accessible to some – if they’ve got money. And for all the problems it brings with it, the success of the Premier League does mean we get to see the world’s best players, to the extent that I think we take it for granted now.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
Of course I’ll be there – it’s a family affair, my two sons and my daughter will be there with me. I’m notoriously crap at predictions, but I have a sneaking feeling that it’ll be a bit like last season, in that we’ll be by a distance the better side, and end up with a draw.
* Kevin Miles on himself:
After 15 years as the Football Supporters’ Federation’s international director, I’m now the chief executive. Not that anybody care, but I’m 53, am a father to four and have two granddaughters. I first attended Newcastle games with my dad in the late 1960s, before I was allowed to start going with my mates, beginning with Leeds United at home on Boxing Day 1973. (We lost, 0-1). I’m a season ticket holder, and travel to the majority of away games. I’m now about to set about the task of preparing to support England fans at the World Cup in Brazil – it’ll be my 10th international tournament in a fans’ embassy role.
Interview: Colin Randall
** See also:
Good tribalism in the Wear-Tyne ‘Who are You?’ (1)? https://safc.blog/2013/10/the-sunderland-v-newcaste-united-who-are-you-geordiedoonsooth-unmasked-and-smarting/
‘Sunderland Fans? Very similar to us though I don’t think they just turn up willy nilly like we do.
The city? Sorry but Sunderland will never be a city, it is just a large town’
*** Buy Ian Black’s Geordies Vs Mackems: v. 2: Why Tyneside is Better Than Wearside & Why Wearside is Better Than Tyneside for just over a fiver at Salut! Sunderland‘s Amazon link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/184502320X/salusund-21
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