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SOS Court Case
From an Irish Times Perspective Sept 2000
 

 

Tony Coutts, Jane Duffy, Geoff O'Brien, Brent Pitcher, Alison Waugh, Colin Whittle. 

These are important names in football even if they do not belong to myopic managers, dodgy referees or millionaire reserve team players. No, the six people named are fans, no more, no less. They support Newcastle United. Together they constitute "The Newcastle Six".

You may recall this column banging on about the Newcastle Six in March, when this small band of supporters took the club they follow to court, the implausible scenario being that Newcastle United wanted to move 2,134 bondholding fans from the seats the fans understandably believed the bond they had paid entitled them to sit in for 10 years. That, after all, was how the bond was marketed in the first place.

Captive Audience

Well, as you may or may not remember, the result in the city's Moot Hall courtroom was 1-0 to Newcastle United. Justice Blackburne, despite praising the fans' "unswerving loyalty, even fanaticism", said that the club had acted in a "fair and reasonable" manner. As so often when consumers lose and companies win, the small print had been the most significant player.

And that seemed to be that. Newcastle were able to continue their redevelopment of St James' Park and the six fans had to find the money to pay for their court challenge.

But that was not the end. Justice Blackburne had left the six leave to appeal and so in June, when the rest of football was absorbed in the Euro 2000, the Newcastle Six arrived at the High Court in London to appeal on the grounds of misinterpretation.

Sitting listening was Lord Justice Wolff, the highest judge in the land.

Already out of pocket to the tune of 30,000 for the first court case, the Newcastle Six had to raise a further 40,000 insurance cover at a cost of 18,000 to fund the appeal. Donations flooded in from supporters all around Britain and there were contributions from a couple of footballers whose anonymity the Six want to maintain. The Save Our Seats campaign with its catchy slogan: "Divvent Bite The Hand That Feeds Ya!" had won sympathy throughout football, except apparently in the United boardroom.

Unfortunately for the Six, sympathy is not a legal term. When Lord Wolff ruled on June 29th, the day Italy knocked out Holland, the Six lost again. Two-nil to the club. Clause 9(b) of the original bond document, with its declaration about the right to remove people from their seat: "Without reason", proved to be a term not open to misinterpretation.

The Six had hoped that a radio interview given by Newcastle's chief executive Freddie Fletcher on BBC Newcastle in the summer of 1994 would show that the misinterpretation claim was a justified one. Fletcher said then: "The bond scheme is a voluntary scheme, which is offered to every season ticket holder. They can, for 500, ensure that seat for the next 10 years." Later in the interview, Fletcher said: "They will get a certificate to tell them it's their seat for that period."

By the time it came to court, however, that seat had become a seat. The fans had to move. "We lost, they won," said one of the Six, Brent Pitcher, coldly. The Save Our Seats campaign folded like a deckchair - with difficulty.

Pitcher and the others, though, had taken some comfort in the `Recommendation' from Lord Wolff that Newcastle United cover the cost of the appeal. A general feeling was that the club had lost so much in terms of image that a magnanimous gesture would recoup some of that. A spokesman for the club intimated that the costs would be around 100,000, a sum covered by the Six's insurance.

Not so. First Newcastle demanded 40,000 on the morning of the appeal, a figure Wolff cut to 20,000. Then a few weeks ago the costs of the appeal came through - 197,000. The Six had insurance cover for 118,000. The difference was 79,000 - or just over 13,000 to each of the Six.

Then, two weeks ago Newcastle said they were reducing the costs - by 2,000. The Six winced again and employed, at a price of 2,000, a costing draughtsman to report on the cost of the costs.

They are not confident, Pitcher is preparing to re-mortgage his house. The first match he went to at St James' was Malcolm MacDonald's debut in 1973. He, like the others, is a true fan. Newcastle United have beaten them all. But they've got a great corporate section

Michael Walker 


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Page last updated 24 June, 2009