Jane's bond

25th February 2000 at 00:00
History teacher Jane Duffy fell in love with Newcastle United more than 30 years ago, but the affair turned sour when the club tried to turf her out of the seat she's had since 1984. With no sign of a reconciliation, she and hundreds of other fans are now taking Newcastleto court. And, as Elaine Williams discovers, she makes a tenacious opponent.

Jane Duffy can pinpoint the very day she became a football fanatic. You wouldn't expect a middle-class 13-year-old from a girl's independent high school to be in among the boys on the open terraces of the famous Gallowgate End at St James' Park, home of Newcastle United. But there she was, 31 years ago, with the school friend she'd persuaded to come along on that cold, January day. And they were yelling and singing with the crowd.

"Newcastle were playing Manchester City," she recalls. "It was our first match and I can quite honestly say we were bored rigid for most of the first half. But, with 10 minutes to go, Wyn Davies headed a goal. There were 60,000 supporters standing like sardines in a tin and the noise, the surge of the crowd when that ball hit the back of the net - it was electric. We were totally, completely and utterly hooked."

Since then, apart from time out for university and motherhood, Jane Duffy has hardly missed a home game. As a history teacher and now a humanities adviser for Sunderland LEA, she has turned her love of the game to her advantage, disarming her more difficult male pupils with the obsessive detail of her knowledge. As a Magpie in the enemy nest (the rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle is undimmed), she can break the ice by provoking the most recalcitrant pupil. In the middle of teachers' industrial action in the mid-1980s, she even carried on the football coaching for her enormously grateful Year 10s.

But she could never have imagined all those decades ago, in the first flush of her teenage crush, that her enduring passion for Newcastle would lead her into head-on collision with the club's directors. On Monday (February 28) she will face the full force of its legal representatives at Newcastle High Court. Jane Duffy v Newcastle United Football Company Limited is an event she could never have envisaged, but she is more than ready for the fight in the name of football fans everywhere.

Jane Duffy is one of 8,000 season ticket holders who in 1994 were persuaded by the club to pay pound;500 for bonds which they believed would secure their seats for 10 years. But late last year the club, halfway into the "contract", announced that more than 2,000 of the bondholders would have to make way for corporate clients who would be paying pound;1,350 a year for their seats. The fans were faced with the choice of paying the difference between their existing season tickets (which cost them less than pound;500) to keep their seats, or moving to an upper tier of St James' Park with only distant views of the pitch. Around 1,000 fans decided to go for litigation, and organisers of the Save Our Seats (SOS) campaign are hoping that the court will rule the club's ultimatum illegal.

The club will probably rue the day it decided on this particular piece of reorganisation. It was an inspired move on the part of Newcastle's aggrieved supporters to elect Jane Duffy as the named party in their class action against the club. Articulate, witty and intelligent, she has proved to be a highly effective campaigner. The fact that she is far removed from the stereotypical image of a football fan has undoubtedly helped. You certainly wouldn't see her in a replica shirt, but she knows how to put the boot in. At a recent club emergency board meeting, chief executive Freddie Fletcher is alleged to have said that the only negative thing on the bright horizon of Newcastle United was Jane Duffy.

It's the day job, she says, which has provided the perfect training. Those who know her are not surprised by the ease with which she has slipped into the role. "As an adviser or a teacher you are spending your life conveying information," she says, "putting it across in a meaningful way, dealing with off-the-cuff questions you don't expect and coming up with appropriate answers.

"As a teacher you are constantly on show, constantly performing, so I don't feel remotely uncomfortable in front of television cameras. I've always taught in inner-city comps, and you have to be thick-skinned to teach in a comp."

Nor, as a teacher, is she averse to doing her fair share of spade work, in this instance standing outside the gates at every home game holding out the tins ("I've been told it's against the law to rattle them") to raise funds for insurance against costs.

Whatever the outcome of the court case, supporters have turned the club's high-handedness into yet another PR disaster. First, in 1998, came the newspaper slanging match with Stevenage, a non-league side Newcastle had drawn against in the FA Cup third round and whose facilities the Premiership club had derided. "It was an embarrassing way to behave," says Duffy. "And to make matters worse we only scraped a draw." There was much worse to come. Club chiefs were exposed after a conversation in a Spanish brothel, taped by undercover tabloid journalists, in which they likened Alan Shearer to Mary Poppins, called Newcastle women "dogs" and sneered at fans for paying over the odds for replica shirts which only cost pound;5 to produce.

For Duffy, this type of behaviour is not just part of the club's malaise, but part of the crassness which affects British football overall. She puts it down to there being no educated women in positions of responsibility. "Football continues to get into the mess it does because it is characterised by knee-jerk reactions," she says. "If there were more women at a strategic level, I think that would bring a more reflective dimension to the game."

The move to oust her from her seat, for which she had paid a 10-year security bond and which bore her name, was one knee-jerk too far. The seat, situated in front of the halfway line with superb views of the pitch, is next to her father's. He too is a bondholder. It was this respectable businessman's abiding support for his club that helped to fire his daughter's obsession. "From a very young age I would watch for Newcastle's result on a Saturday afternoon," she says, "because that would determine whether he would be elated or depressed on his return."

Kevin Keegan was team manager when Jane and her father bought their bonds. "We did it in the light of constant threats that a season ticket would only guarantee your seat for a year," she says. "We've sat in those seats since 1984. We've built up friends and acquaintances. It's part of the ambience, particularly when the team is doing dismally - at least you can share the quips, have a laugh."

The club argues that the bond simply secured a seat, not a particular seat. In despair, Duffy responded to an ad in Newcastle's Evening Chronicle for a meeting of supporters whose seats were threatened. Between 400 to 500 people, from north of the Border down to Bristol, turned up. It was the beginning of the campaign, and Duffy became one of the chief orchestrators of SOS.

During a home match against Derby County last October, the first game after the club had notified bondholders of its designs on their seats, SOS asked fans to stand in protest for the first ten minutes of the game; 36,000 stood for the whole 90 minutes. "They wouldn't sit down so the directors saw nothing of the game at all," says Duffy. SOS also asked fans to boycott the "Geordie Jackpot", the weekly ticket draw. Duffy also believes the campaign may have seriously affected sales of merchandise since supporters were asked to mark copies of the new mail order catalogue "Return to Sender". The catalogue was never sent out.

Throughout all of this, Duffy has been the focus of media attention, conducting serial interviews, appearing on TV and radio chat shows, pressing the supporters' case with refreshing flair and eloquence. The Sunday Mirror even named her its fan of the year.

And when the brouhaha has subsided, will she be glad to return to normal? Yes, she says, she can knuckle down to the doctorate in education she signed up for just as the trouble started. However, that PhD may yet have to simmer on the back burner. Whatever the outcome of the court case, it is doubtful her involvement will end there. Fans have enjoyed flexing their muscles and seem prepared to dig in for the longer campaign. This may involve setting up a supporters' trust in order to buy enough shares to earn a voice at the club's AGM and eventually win a non-executive directorship on the board.

Premiership clubs have been fleecing fans for too long, says Duffy. "We're saying you cannot get away with this. By all means have your corporate seats; that is part of football. We demand the best players and that has to be funded. But we don't want to see the heart of our stadiums ripped out for the guests of corporate clients.

"There is always a way of taking on a big fish if you organise yourselves properly. You have no idea at all, until you do it, what ordinary people are capable of." Jane Duffy pauses, and then the teacher in her just can't help rising to the surface. "In fact, our campaign would make a great teaching pack for citizenship in schools."

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