“People all over the world have heard of Blyth Spartans”

There will be few in attendance at Croft Park on a Saturday as well-travelled as Kevin Miles. Kevin – who grew up just metres away from the ground – became Chief Executive of the Football Supporters’ Federation last year, while he was also instrumental in launching anti-racism charity Show Racism the Red Card back in 1996. He has attended every England game for the past fifteen years, and his lifetime in football has taken him to all corners of the globe – including trips to two World Cup finals.

A regular at Spartans home games, Kevin splits his domestic football following between Newcastle United and the Green Army – providing his workload allows, that is. He chatted to Rory Mitchinson about five decades of involvement in the game.

Take me through what some of your duties are as Chief Executive of the FSF…
For 15 years I have run the international side of things, which involves organising the Fans’ Embassy service for England fans travelling abroad. The Fans’ Embassy is a vital information support service for travelling supporters.

I also do a lot of work with club sides. So, you could basically sum it up as looking after the interests of English and Welsh football supporters who travel abroad, either with their national sides, or club sides.

So, how did you get involved with the FSF back in the day?
You can trace it back to 1994, when there were a lot of protests at Newcastle United about the bond scheme – whereby, you could guarantee your right to renew your season ticket by bidding £500. But, everybody already thought they had the right to renew their season ticket, so there was an implied threat that if you didn’t buy a bond, you would lose that right. There was obviously a big protest at the time, and out of that was born an organisation – which no longer exists now – called the Independent Newcastle United Supporters’ Association – of which I became chair.

Then, we affiliated to the national organisation – which at the time was the Football Supporters’ Association. I did a bit of travelling around the country, explaining to people how we had set up at Newcastle, and some of the lessons we had learnt.

I was then briefly involved when England hosted Euro ‘96. The FSA organised ‘Fans Embassies’ in host cities to welcome away fans, and I was involved at Newcastle. Ahead of the 1998 World Cup in France, the FSA got some sponsorship to organise a Fans’ Embassy there. And they were looking for someone to run it.

For the post, they were looking for somebody with media experience, somebody who had worked with supporters’ organisations, somebody who could work with volunteer teams…and somebody who could speak French! I was able to tick all of those boxes, so I applied for it, and I got the job on a three-month contract.

I then ran the Fans’ Embassy at Euro 2000, in Belgium and Holland. Soon after that, there was a whole raft of legislation, in terms of the government’s involvement with football fans. The Football Supporters’ Federation was founded [after a merger with the National Federation of Supporters’ Clubs], and since then, all work has been funded by the Home Office.

It became a full-time job for me in 2001. I was Director of International Affairs, before taking over as Chief Executive last year.

And you have a history of involvement in the media, too. How did that come about?
I’d never done a journalist’s qualification, but I had done a lot of writing – for trade union and socialist newspapers – beforehand. Six months before the FA Cup Final in 1998, the News of the World did their sting on Douglas Hall and Freddy Shepherd, and at the time, I was still chairman of the Supporters’ Association at Newcastle United. We ran a campaign trying to force them to resign, and I got a lot of media exposure out of that, and we had a lot of support for it. Just before the Final, it materialised that there was a possibility that Hall and Shepherd would be going to Wembley on behalf of the club. I was approached by the Sunday Telegraph to write a piece from a fan’s point-of-view, as to why the two shouldn’t be going. I wrote a 900-word article, which they carried, and they offered to give me a grand for it!

They then asked if I would be prepared to consider working for them on a freelance basis, as they didn’t have a reporter in the North East at the time. I started doing a couple of match reports for them, and eventually ended up working every Saturday for two seasons. It’s not a route into journalism that I would recommend to anybody, though!

After Euro 2000, and after doing a little bit of freelance radio work, I presented a light-hearted football programme on 5 Live, between 11 and 12 on a Saturday morning. That only lasted for one season, but I did do some presenting on 606 after that.

So, a little bit about your relationship with Spartans then?
Spartans were the first ever team I went to see. I grew up on Cypress Gardens, where my parents still live. We moved into that house in December 1967, so I can probably trace my Spartans supporting back to 1968. And like all kids, I came along with my dad.

Occasionally, my dad used to take me to Newcastle – but I was one of four kids, so we couldn’t afford to do that all the time. I went to school in Newcastle, so I was always torn between the two clubs. Back then, there used to be a fortuitous alternation between Newcastle’s home games and Spartans’ home games – so I used to get to both!

I still drag my dad along to the match now. It’s become a bit of a family thing, really – the first match any of my kids got to was a Spartans game, even though I was living in Wallsend by then. And even now, they still pop along – they’ll combine going to see their grandparents with a Spartans game!

What about your fondest memories, following Spartans over the years?
Well, like anybody else, that cup run – the Wrexham game, and the rounds before that. It caught the imagination of everyone. When you’re in a crowd of 45,000 at St James’ Park, watching them, that’s a proud moment – especially, knowing that you were among a much smaller number watching them at Croft Park in the early rounds.

I like the feel of the club. It’s got an international reputation – people all over the world have heard of Blyth Spartans. Partly because of that cup run, partly because of the distinctive name – but it still has a real community feel about it. It’s still a family club.

You’ve been all over the world as a football fan, and you’ve even been to two World Cup Finals. You’ll obviously be spoilt for choice, but what have been the real highlights in terms of the games you’ve been to over the years?
I’ve been immensely lucky in terms of some of the travelling I’ve been able to do around football. The beauty of it is going to places that you would not otherwise go to. I suppose, as a football tourist, there’s a reasonable chance I would have got to the Bernabéu, or possibly even the Maracanã – but I probably would never have gone to the likes of Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan!

I was part of the biggest crowd ever gathered in one place to watch a football match, which was when South Korea played Germany in a World Cup semi-final in 2002. The Koreans were jointly-hosting the tournament, and I was in Seoul – and there were three million people in the square in the centre of town, watching it on the big screen. I didn’t go to the game, because it became quite obvious that the big story wasn’t what was happening in the stadium, it was what was happening outside.

So, Show Racism the Red Card, how did you get involved with that?
Well, I was founder member – me and my mate Ged (Grebby) set it up. We were both involved in anti-racism campaigning in the North East, particularly in schools. And, we just had the idea that ‘people listen to footballers’. So, we did a big feature in a magazine about racism in football – this was in 1995. And we sent it to Newcastle United, to all of the players, on the off-chance.

We got a letter back from Shaka Hislop, along with a cheque for £50. He said that he liked the magazine, and told us to make sure we sent him a copy every week! So, after that, we started Show Racism the Red Card. We had a meeting with Shaka, and he came along to a couple of events we did in schools, along with John Beresford and Les Ferdinand.

We set up as a charity, and we’ve got to the stage now where it’s got a turnover of one million pounds, and we employ 40-odd people – taking anti-racism education around the country. A lot of ex-professionals have got involved – including an ex-Spartan, Richard Offiong. He works for us as a coach now. So too does John Anderson, Gary Bennett, Olivier Bernard, and many more.

You must be very proud of what you have achieved with it?
It’s incredible to see how it has come on, but combating racism is one of those jobs that is never over. It’s about using that profile of football in the wider society.

What is your take on some of the current issues going on within the game? Qatar 2022, for example…
Clearly, we’ve got a long way to go in terms of the interests of supporters being taken seriously, particularly when it comes to the location of international tournaments. When you look at some of the distances supporters are going to have to cover in Brazil next year, some of the laws and attitudes in Russia – particularly racism and homophobia, and then all of the issues in Qatar – sexism, temperature, homophobia again – it’s clear that the interests of supporters attending those tournaments have not been prioritised.

Domestically, the FSF’s primary campaign is ‘Away Fans Matter’ – where we’re trying to champion the cause of those travelling to away games. They may only account for a relatively small number within a stadium, but they’re crucial to the atmosphere. We’ve got a campaign called ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ – which is trying to establish £20 as the maximum price for an away ticket. We’ve had a bit of progress on that. But there’s all sorts of issues – policing, stewarding, changes to kick-off times. We’ve a lot to work on.

Obviously the FSF are instrumental in trying to re-introduce standing areas to the top two tiers of English football. How is that going at the moment?
I’m much more optimistic than I was two or three years ago. The big obstacle we were coming up against back then was people telling us that ‘there was no demand for it from within football’. So, we’ve put a lot of work into trying to prove that there is. And, the Football League now have a policy that they want to see trials of safe standing, and we’ve got seven Premier League clubs saying that they want to trial it as well. So, we’re starting to demonstrate that there is a demand for it from within football.

The next thing that we need to do is convince the police that it is no harder to regulate a standing area than it is a seating area. There are a lot of obvious reasons why we’re behind it – in terms of atmosphere, the opportunity it gives to reduce prices, social inclusion – all sorts of incentives. And most of the opposition to it is based on a misconception; it is not based on the safe new technology that has been developed, for example, in Germany.

So, to round off, how do you assess things at Croft Park at the moment?
I’m aware of what a struggle it is to survive at this level; there’s a lot of people have done a cracking job just in keeping the club going.

On the pitch, I’m optimistic. I’ve been impressed by some of the young players coming through. They seem to have a good work ethic this season.

Posted by BSAFC Media Team