Do Newcastle United have a bigger fanbase in Malaysia than the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea? Nicholas John, Executive Producer at Astro Supersport, certainly thinks so, especially with the help of a certain Rob Lee...
When I first confirmed Newcastle legend Rob Lee as our visiting guest last January, I tweeted him saying that it would be great news to the Toon Army in Malaysia, as I’ve always felt that they are the third biggest football fanbase in Malaysia (behind Manchester United and Liverpool). Following that tweet, I received a numerous comments questioning my ‘claim’. Now, I don’t have the figures to back up my statement, but after Rob Lee’s 10-day stint with Astro SuperSport, I think I was spot on.
First and foremost, I do not mean to offend any football fan clubs in Malaysia by writing this article – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. I genuinely think that some groups out there are doing a fantastic job, but there must be a better way of measuring the ‘size’ of a fan club than just a total number of members. For me, togetherness and passion outweigh almost everything.
Allow me to explain. Normally when we bring down a football personality, like we did with Emmanuel Petit, Gaizka Mendieta, Mike Phelan and Tony Pulis, we will announce the details across all our platforms – TV programs, social media and also get in touch with the fan groups. This is to create a buzz among football fans that a big name is on our coverage and that you can get a chance to get up close with him at a Meet & Greet session. The turnout for these Meet & Greet sessions have been average with the exception of Phelan, where we saw approximately 120 United fans turn up at Berjaya Times Square.
With Rob Lee, we wanted to do something extra. And we had the perfect opportunity to do just that because his birthday falls on February 1st. So, we came up with a simple contest to select five lucky fans to have lunch with Rob on his birthday. The mechanics was simple – post up a photo on social media with any Rob Lee merchandise (jersey, sticker, poster etc.) and hashtag “RobLeeMalaysia”.
The response was very healthy and I like to think that we selected the most ardent fans to share the occasion with the former England midfielder. The President of Toon Army Malaysia was extreme – he brought along with him a luggage bag filled with jerseys, books, newspaper clippings, and DVDs! For a good 90 minutes, the free food took a back seat – a very rare thing in Malaysia – as they were asking Rob questions and recalling specific incidents from matches that even he couldn’t.
That was just the start. I was then told by the fans that they were preparing a special banner and custom made T-shirts to be worn by their members for the Meet & Greet later that week, in which they did not disappoint. When the Astro team was checking on the set-up of the stage and fan area before the event kicked off, there were already a lot of Newcastle fans hanging around! All of them were decked in the famous black and white, rehearsing songs to sing when Rob would be introduced onto the stage.
Before starting the event, I was approached by a member of the group, asking if we could delay it by a few minutes because one of their friends was on the way from Kedah! Apparently he rushed after completing his work and hopped on the next flight to Kuala Lumpur to meet Rob. If that was not impressive enough, Toon Army Malaysia spread the invitation to their friends from neighbouring countries, in which a fan actually did come all the way from Indonesia! I was honestly lost for words.
From the beginning of the Meet & Greet, right up to the end when fans lined up to get their merchandise signed and photos taken, the fans were cheering, clapping and singing. The atmosphere was electric. Rob himself later said it reminded him of the reception at St James’ Park – what a compliment.
If you ask Rob today what he thought of the Newcastle fans in Malaysia, he would agree with me that you don’t need figures to back a fanbase up.