EXCLUSIVE: Newcastle MD admits he still calls their stadium St James' Park
Published 22:31 08/03/12 By Simon Bird
Newcastle chief Derek Llambias has sensationally admitted that the club's owner Mike Ashley still calls their home ground St James’ Park - and says the fans should too.
But the Toon have vowed to press ahead with finding a new naming-rights sponsor for the historic 52,000-seat stadium, explaining that it will help fund a top-class new signing every season.
Llambias revealed the club's latest financial figures for the year to June 2011 on Thursday - and the numbers show Newcastle are in a healthy, virtual-break-even position at a time when many of their rivals are losing tens of millions.
Despite that encouraging news, managing director Llambias insists the only way for Newcastle to compete at the sharp end of the Premier League is to up their “commercial revenue”, which is lagging milllions of pounds each year behind clubs they aim to compete with, such as Spurs, Chelsea, the two Manchester teams and Liverpool.
In his first ever interview, Llambias has told the Mirror he and Ashley are not “riding roughshod” over the club’s history and traditions, and stated they will always be there and owned by the fans.
The ground was officially renamed the Sports Direct Arena in November, sparking fury from many fans.
But Llambias said: “Do you think me and Mike call it the Sports Direct Arena? We call it St James’ Park, because it is St James’ Park.
“The naming rights is such a passionate thing. It’s not about being disrespectful or taking away the tradition or the history of the club - it’s about trying to get another Yohan Cabaye out there on the pitch. That’s how we see it.
"To optimise our commercial side, we needed to get that in there - other clubs do it.
“We’ve had to take the criticism on the nose. We’re not riding roughshod over people’s love. People come to see our players on the pitch. It’s about us, the fans, the manager, the players and the region - it’s an emotional thing.
“If we wanted to ride roughshod, we’d just put the ticket prices up.
"That’s not happening.
"We know we’ve got a huge responsibility, and we know there’s a lot of emotion involved and we are emotional people, too.
"We are not being disrespectful. Mike and I understand and feel for it.
“The only area of income we can really build is the commercial revenue. We don’t want to put ticket prices up. We have a 10-year ticket deal and now we’ve announced a nine-year deal.
"We’ve increased our family area to 7,500 and for an adult and a kid it’s 500 quid a year.
"We’re trying to fill the stadium at a price we can afford. We can’t have it half-full, because we’d lose that spirit.
“There are only a few ways to increase our income. We know the naming rights is contentious, but that income is something we need.”
Newcastle earn £15million a year from commercial deals such as shirt sponsorships and retailing.
In comparison, Spurs bank £50m, Chelsea £45m, Manchester City £54m and Manchester United a staggering £103m.
Llambias added: “Could our stadium be the O2 Arena of the north? I think it could.
"It’s already a cathedral, but it’s dead in the summer. There are things the club can expand on, but we are limited.
“Sports Direct is showcasing the naming rights, but without Sports Direct we would not be in Newcastle. That is the business that gives Mike the power to do what we’re doing, and the power to put £270m of his own money behind the football club.
“We’d have loved someone to come along and say, 'We’re going to give you the money for the shirt sponsorship and the stadium.'
“If we lose on a Saturday, my wife just leaves me alone in the next room and Mike sulks in his house. That’s what happens when you get involved in something when you start to run and love a team and all the functions of our club.
"We just feel it’s for the good of our club going forward and it could give us another player.”
Newcastle sources admit the best scenario may be for a business such as their existing shirt sponsors Virgin Money - who are based in the city - to buy the naming rights... and then rename the ground St James’ Park.
“What a PR coup that would be,” a club source said.
DEREK LLAMBIAS ON...
The possibility of Mike Ashley selling the club: “We’re not doing this to sell up. The reality is that if someone comes up with a chunk of money, I’d have to put it to Mike and he would have to consider it. Would we sell it to someone who couldn’t afford it? No. Would we sell it cheap? No, why would we? We’ve put the money in, done the work and now we may see the upside of what we’re trying to grow."
Toon manager Alan Pardew: “Alan was the right combination of what we’re looking for and understands where we’re going. He’s a good guy, good with the media, good with the players. Tactically he’s very good - he doesn’t get it right all of the time, but nobody does. And we know how he’s going to play before a game and we like that with Alan. He’s got a passion and he’s settled down in the North-East really well and loves it.
His relationship with the Toon Army: “We do engage with fans. We met a guy who drives from Bournemouth for every home match, so we invited him to be our guest and for them to ask anything they wanted. We’ve done it for other fans we’ve met in restaurants. Sometimes they’re still critical, but we just say, ‘Come on, just ask us’. At the end of the day, when they’ve met us, it gets them thinking."
New faces for next season: “We have targets for the summer, and we’re not in a position of having to beg. People are saying, ‘Ah Newcastle. Of course we want to talk to you’. We do a brilliant video presentation - very sharp, it is great - and it opens eyes to what the club, the fans and the city are all about.
Selling members of the current squad: “We’ll be losing one or two names this summer, but that’ll be regenerated back into the squad. Alan’s plan is to get a smaller squad, with better quality - so the bench is better. That’s our aim over the next two years. We can’t do it all this summer - we’re not sure what the market will be like this summer when we’re trading. We will lose some faces. For instance, Tiote has been with us a year and a half. He is out there. People know he’s a good player. He’s proven in the Premier League, he’s not picking up as many yellow cards, he’s learning. How are we going to stop a big club from coming in for him? It’ll be very hard. One thing in our favour is that we now have a very good side and that might encourage the player to stay. But if someone knocks on the door and says they want this or that money, the reality may be that we have to trade."
Selling Andy Carroll: “Sometimes you can’t hold a player back from moving. It’s in their best interests. Take, for example, Andy, and look what he’s getting [at Liverpool], several times the wages [he was on at Newcastle]. The only person who said no to that deal was Mike. The reality is, it’s a risk, it’s January, can we replace him? We couldn’t. It was a risk."
Paying £9million to sign new No9 Papiss Cisse: “We spend a long, long time identifying our targets and he was our number one choice. But at first we couldn't afford the price or the salary so we moved on to the next one, which was [Sochaux striker Modibo] Maiga (who ended up failing his Toon medical). January came and nobody knew Cisse was happening, which is how we like it - those are our most successful deals, without the interference, in terms of upping the price or someone coming in at the last minute."
Securing centre-back and skipper Fabricio Coloccini and goalkeeper Tim Krul on long-term contracts last week: “We’ve made a big commitment to Colo and Tim. People asked why we hadn’t done the deal, but it took a long time - it didn’t happen overnight. Coloccini’s took a year. We never want to find ourselves in a position where we lose somebody like we did Jose Enrique [who was sold to Liverpool in the summer after failing to agree a new contract]. We didn’t want to lose somebody of his value, or the team building that Coloccini gives you as captain. Colo doesn’t fit our profile in that we wouldn’t bring a 29-year-old in, but he’s here and he’s proven. He’s an all-round top pro and will finish his pro career here at 34. He’s like a Giggs or a Scholes - a solid player and you can build around him. Krul is up and coming and can be anything. We’ve got him on a five and a half year deal and we’re very happy."
His tough negotiating policy: “If we did it for one person’s wages, we’d have to do it for the next and then we’d get a reputation. At the moment, players and agents know that our first offer is very close to the final offer. Once it’s off the table, it’s off the table and it only goes down. It’s never up, it’s always lower. There are more football players than there are clubs. The manager has his targets and we just move on."