Blyth Spartans chairman Irfan Liaquat Q&A: Misconceptions, future plans, Nolberto Solano & more

Nolberto Solano has been appointed as Blyth Spartans manager (photo Blyth Spartans)Nolberto Solano has been appointed as Blyth Spartans manager (photo Blyth Spartans)
Nolberto Solano has been appointed as Blyth Spartans manager (photo Blyth Spartans) | Blyth Spartans
The Northumberland Gazette were invited to speak to Blyth Spartans owner Irfan Liaquat. 

Blyth Spartans owner Irfan Liaquat has spoken at length about his plans for the club ahead of his first season at the helm.

In a wide-ranging Q&A session with the Northumberland Gazette, Liaquat addressed:

  • The misconceptions surrounding his brief tenure so far
  • Connecting Blyth Spartans with the local community
  • Relegation from National League North 
  • Sustaining the club on a financial level 
  • Pushing for promotion from the Northern Premier League 
  • Attracting players to Croft Park 
  • The appointment of Newcastle United icon Nolberto Solano 

The full transcript can be read below. 

NG - Northumberland Gazette

IL - Irfan Liaquat

CR - Craig Ridley

CB - Colin Blackett

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Nolberto Solano has been appointed as Blyth Spartans manager (photo Blyth Spartans)Nolberto Solano has been appointed as Blyth Spartans manager (photo Blyth Spartans)
Nolberto Solano has been appointed as Blyth Spartans manager (photo Blyth Spartans) | Blyth Spartans

NG: Can you explain the Companies House activity? 

IL: “There was a company called Smartone Property Investments, that was mine. That was set up and there were some quotes on there (social media).  One of the quotes said I had sold X amount worth of property but what they’ve done is, they’ve said ‘he’s put on he’s sold £12million worth of property but his company, Smartone, was incorporated a long time afterwards so it doesn’t make sense. It shows he’s lying, a scam, whatever’. 

“But that was a quote of how much I’ve sold as a personal individual and how much property acquisitions I’d done so that website was telling you about me. The way they’ve read that has been completely misinterpreted so that was one of the things. The ones that got liquidated were never used. Never been used. The one that was used was Smartone which got liquidated. Correct. There were hundreds and hundreds that did not survive Covid, and unfortunately that was one of them. What can I do? It didn’t survive. At one point it did, it was going well but everything came crashing. People were losing multi-million pounds and it’s just the nature of business.” 

NG: Why is your name spelt Irfan Laiquat on Companies House instead of Irfan Liaquat?

IL: “The misconception around my surname. The surname is Liaquat. Unfortunately my passport has a spelling mistake where the surname reads Laiquat. The passport was naturally used for identification purposes, and I am aware ‘Laiquat’ has been documented electronically across various platforms and in some places it is showing “Lia”. This error will be rectified in due course by the relevant bodies. For the avoidance of doubt, Jordan Cronin has had oversight of some ID for clarity.” 

NG: What was the reason behind relieving the Blyth Spartans Supporters Club of their club shop duties?

IL: “As you know, it’s no hidden secret the club was making a financial loss, a heavy one for that matter. When we came into the club, we looked at the clubhouse, club shop and the club itself, and one of the main tasks is how do we minimise the loss and stabilise the business. The club shop was run by volunteers and they were giving a donation to the club every 12 months. There were times where there was no donation and times where there was very little donation so having a commercial background and working with people like Craig (Ridley) and other people in the business, I identified very quickly that the club shop can make a profit if it’s commercialised. 

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“What I did was put a plan together and discussed it with my team and I thought if we sell merchandise from there and do other things, whatever money that’s making, it can sustain the football club and be used to buy players, pay wages etc - that’s the reason why we did it.  The volunteers were all offered an alternative role within the football club as a volunteer and they rejected it instantly. We said stay on board, why don’t you be a volunteer in the club or somewhere else within the club but they didn’t want to.”

NG: What is happening with next season’s kit? There is the 125th anniversary one but has the official season kit been sorted?

CR: “Yes it has. Everything has been ordered, it takes eight to ten weeks to come from Errea.  Obviously, we don’t have a website at the minute because that got closed down when the supporters club left. They closed it down, it was their domain and we weren’t entitled to it.

IL: “We have asked them to keep it but they wanted to take it with them.”

CR: “We have to build a new website so unfortunately we can’t take any pre-orders until we have the website built.”

IL:  “That is in process by the way.”

NG: Will Texo still be the sponsor?

IL: “Texo are still the sponsor.”

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NG: There has been a lack of communication since relegation. Is that something going forwards from this point you’ll try and enhance? 

IL: “The lack of communication comes down to two things. A) the club is being run by volunteers and you have to appreciate that to get communication out, sometimes we have to wait. If someone is doing a 9-5 job, we have to wait until late in the evening to get the message out, which is an area we need to build on and strengthen. The other reason is we’ve had an absolute mammoth task on hand. As soon as I signed the SPA agreement one day before relegation, we went to work straight away - day and night engaging with people, working on players, managers, whatever that needed doing. 

“We’ve been that busy. That’s been our key focus and the communication you’ve had is what we thought was best at that point. The launch night explained quite a lot because we did touch on quite a lot of things and we said to everybody ‘this is the state of affairs of the club’.  It’s all over social media. The fans and media know, it’s no hidden secret so it wasn't a surprise. Yes, we do want to communicate more but we just haven’t had the capacity. Going forward, we will.” 

NG: Tony Platten would always be approachable in the clubhouse. If supporters want to come up and ask you questions, would you do the same?

IL: “Yeah, absolutely. One day you’ll see me in the boardroom, one day you’ll see me in the stands and one day you’ll see me in the clubhouse. But I also run other businesses as well as the football club. Yes, if I’m in there I’ll speak to them but I focus more on what they want, and I utilise that time to engage with commercial businesses or sponsors, or if we’ve lost a game I’ll be straight in looking at what went wrong. I used to have lots of chats with Jon Shaw and Steve Howard looking at how we fix things straight away because it’s fresh in your head. The time that I do get, yes absolutely. Some of them message me on social media or they follow my Instagram asking why this player did this! They can come to me any time they want.”

NG: You gave away 1,000 free tickets to schools etc for games last season, how successful was that?

IL: “It’s been very successful for two reasons. I think the club had a specific fan base and it was the same faces day-in, day-out. Since I’ve been here, every home game we’ve seen over 1,000 people, I think we’ve been hitting 1,200, the highest was 1,500. The free tickets we gave away two or three times but after that, people started coming in and again, it was helping sustain the club. We need to do it because ultimately that’s what is going to make the football club move forward. 

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“I want to target different age groups. I want to target different kids in schools so we’ve got new faces here all the time. If you target 13, 14 or 15 year olds, in two or three years time, it’s Blyth Spartans in their head. Those are the same people that are going to be here. Croft Park has a capacity of 4,300, why have we only got 1,200-1,300 people coming? It’s a great community, you’ve got 17,000 people in Blyth, 360,000 in Northumberland so our job is to engage as much as we can, which is another reason why there has probably been a lack of communication because we’ve been busy in the community. 

NG: What community plans do you have in mind?

IL: “We’ve got loads. Schools, after school clubs and working with people like YMCA who do several school programmes. I know Port of Blyth is doing the STEM project soon. We’ve touched base with everybody, we’ve got an open door policy with them. They know what our key visions are so we want to keep engaging with them because we’ll support them and they’ll support us.”

CB: “Currently we’re still working with the local academy schools around here. There are three schools that Darren Maguire goes into and hosts coaching sessions etc from the football club.”

CR: “Darren has reached out to other schools and he’s trying to pull together some things that we can with schools a little bit further afield as well.”

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CB: “For the matchday experiences so far, Cramlington and Cramlington Jaguars have been here for a penalty shootout and things like that as well as Blyth and other teams as well. We have gone further afield.”

CR: “We’ve got that 3G pitch and it’s about giving the schools an opportunity to use it.”

NG: What feedback did you get from schools for the free tickets?

IL: “Absolutely amazing. They were so thankful, they were like ‘we’ve never had this’. I knew Blyth Spartans meant a lot to the kids but I didn’t realise how much it meant. Parents were coming to me and stopping me saying ‘this is brilliant, we’ll support you, keep going and doing it’ and that’s what it’s about. On the back of that, we kept on doing it because it was making the kids really happy as well. If the club was only getting 700 or 800 people in and we gave 1,000 away for free, it didn’t really make a difference because of the capacity. It doesn’t make a difference, if anything it’s putting the club back on the map in the community and there like ‘right OK, there is change here now’. 

NG: Is there a target average you’re looking at?

IL: “I want to hit 2,000. I don’t know how quick we can get there but so far, from what I’ve seen, the signs have been good. Unfortunately we were hit with relegation, yes it might take a bit of a dip but we’ve had a good response with season tickets and various other things as well.  People who understand football and understand business and understand the club and community, we’ve had nothing but beautiful words off them. I’ve had phone calls because people understand how bad it was run and what the potential is.”

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NG: Has relegation hit the club’s financial side more?

IL: “It has but what we’ve done is we’ve increased the budget, and that shows my commitment to get the club back up straight away. I want the same quality players, if not better quality players. We’ve tightened the screws across different areas, which is another reason why the club shop had to go commercial because if we’re losing money by giving it to volunteers to run we’ll not get nothing back, or very little back. Now we’ve been hit with relegation, if you’re pulling £30,000-a-year from there, it goes towards the £150,000 loss that the club has been making for the past god knows how many years. That’s what we’re doing and been doing behind the scenes, minimising the losses. 

NG: Is it your aim to make the club sustainable?

IL: “As a businessman, absolutely. I have put in £60,000 to £70,000 from my own pocket so far and I know I might never get that back but what it does is minimise that loss and it puts us in a much better position going into next year. Because then if we’re increasing the gate, the club shop, clubhouse, 3G pitch, it all helps the club more than anything.” 

NG: Do you feel the relegation was avoidable?

IL: “Yes. Everyone has their own view on it but 100%. This is not as a chairman but as a football fan now, everyone has their own view but what I couldn’t understand is why we were conceding so many early goals and why we were conceding so many late goals. I’ve had this chat with someone else and let this sink in for a second… you’re fighting relegation and you need a point to survive, I could go and get 11 players from the street and I’d say to them ‘stand in front of that goal and make sure you don’t concede a goal’ and I’ll tell you right now they’d do a hell of a job because all they’re doing is defending a goal, and they wouldn’t concede three goals in the first 15 minutes.

“Football isn’t complicated, it’s only complicated if you make it complicated. We conceded far too many early goals and conceded far too many crucial goals. We did not waste time when we had to waste time… I could go on, on and on. Why weren’t we keeping hold of the ball? Why were we not losing every ball over the stadium to kill time? It was very frustrating as we were unable to implement the necessary changes required at the time due to several complications with the deal structure. The takeover was announced in February but I did not take charge until the April, 18 when the official takeover was completed.” 

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NG: Has relegation changed your plans for the club or are you still focused on your initial plan? 

IL: “It hasn’t changed the plans. The football club needed a reset and It’s had a hard reset. It’s going to hurt, it’s painful and it’s going to be a bit more painful but we’ll bounce back. If it was to change the plans then we’d all be sat here playing with our thumbs looking in the sky! But we’re not, we’re working. Colin [Blackett] finishes work, comes here. He’s here four days a week, I’m here. We’ve still got that drive in us, if anything, it’s pushed us more.” 

NG: Are you confident of bouncing back to National League North at the first attempt? What will it take? 

IL: “I think we need to keep doing what we’re doing and we need to take the toxic negativity out. The misconceptions… I’m hoping this settles it. Take all the toxic behaviour out of what's going on online and social media. People need to understand where the club has been for the past five to eight years and if they feel as though it’s even worse than what it was then come and knock on my door and say ‘look it’s a lot worse’ but no one has yet told me it’s a lot worse. If anything, it’s the same things time and again. I’ve just sat here and told you lots of facts on how better it has been since we've been here. It’s not a mix up shop that you can just turnaround like that. There are so many different parts to the business.” 

NG: Is there a competitive budget in place that you feel can bring in players for the level you’re going into?

IL: “We have looked at what the wages are for the teams below us in the Northern Premier League and what their wage budgets are. Then we looked at what our playing budget was, then we looked at the type of players we want and the players that are going to get somewhere. So my brief to Nobby and Steve Howard was, and this is what’s missing from the club, and I hope you agree with me, if you don’t, tell me. Aggression missing, strength missing, fighters missing, heart missing, clever people on the ball missing, motivation missing. But most of all I’ve told them to find fighters, who are aggressive and can challenge.”

On the retained list, IL adds: “All players bar JJ Hooper were offered a playing contract for the upcoming season. Some wanted to leave and play at a higher level, others had ridiculous demands and wanted way more money despite relegation, and other factors that were put forward to them, yet they insisted which was simply not possible.” 

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NG: The North East is an area where there is a small pool of players - how do Blyth Spartans get the best players when you’ve got five or six other clubs trying to find the same players?

IL: “Well, money speaks every language and that’s why our budget is there and that’s why I’ve increased it because we understand to get the better players you have to pay more.  Going into the league below but increasing the budget, that’s the first commitment.  The second one is we have Steve (Howard), we have Nobby (Solano), we have people out and about who are looking at really good quality players. We are negotiating, we are selling them the project, the good thing about Blyth is we still have the strong name. People still get a buzz when they hear Blyth Spartans.

“So you have to then sit them down and explain the project to them. Another reason for bringing in Nobby Solano is because his name carries a lot of weight. Not just in the UK but in South America.  He was sending us links to these players and if you looked at them on the ball, you’re like ‘bloody hell’, I’d never heard of them but they were so good and that’s what someone like Solano will bring you.  His links to Newcastle United, Leicester City, Aston Villa, people like that.  Yes we’ve give him the budget but he’s got the brains, he’s got the contacts, he’s got the network, the club needs flair and he brings that.”

NG: In terms of new signings, is anything imminent?

CB: “I can answer that one.  We have an announcement coming out that we have two new signings and there are others waiting to agree. There are two, we are just waiting on one to sign the contract but they’ve agreed the deals. So there are two to be announced.”

NG: As a Newcastle fan how does it feel having Nobby as manager of the club?

IL: “I can’t explain it.  At one point, once upon a time, I’m kicking a ball, shouting his name and then I’m sat in front of him, doing a deal, saying come and manage the club. It was just amazing, absolutely amazing and he’s been very supportive. He’s very passionate, you can see in his eyes he is dying to go. I was with him yesterday and we had a good chat. He’s got it all figured out in his head, what players he wants, how he’s going to do it and he’s taken the brief I’ve given him really well. Both him and Steve are working day and night to try and get the best team together for us.”

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NG: Does his lack of experience in non-league and the Northern Premier League concern you at all?

IL: “No, people keep mentioning this. If you look at his history, and this message should probably go out there, the Under-23s with Peru, he took them to the World Cup (Finals), the first time in 36 years, if that doesn’t speak volumes, what does?  I went a bit deeper into that, into what he was doing out there, he was actually the main guy running everything. Yes, he was the assistant, but everything was on the back of him. He’s then gone to Sweden to coach there and he didn’t last there because they couldn’t afford to keep him on.  The chairman actually told him they can’t and sorry.  He went to Toronto, he was at (Newcastle) Benfield when he was doing his badges.

“He has lived in the North East for years, he knows local football because he has mixed in with everybody.  He goes to a lot of games and people in non-league football probably don’t know who he is but he goes, he watches players, he learns, he listens. He’s got his contacts at this level so it doesn’t concern me and the fact he has Steve Howard with him, it doesn’t concern me at all.”

NG: When will his backroom staff be named?

IL: “Watch this space. I can tell you the name you’ve heard is Olivier Bernard but I can tell you that’s not him.”

NG: Do you feel his backroom staff will need non-league experience?

IL: “They will need some form of non-league experience, they’ll need some knowledge of what happens in this type of league and it’s important to have someone that understands football at this level. But I trust Nobby to bring in the right person and Steve Howard because he’s played at this level and he has a lot of contacts that he speaks to every single day.  So it’s our job to try and get the right team behind him.”

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NG: How close is the pre-season schedule to being finalised?

IL: “It’s very close and we’ve actually been in talks with several clubs.  What didn’t help was with what’s been happening with Gateshead and stuff like that, that’s one of the ones we’ve wanted.  There’s Blyth Town, there’s a few. Pre-season has never been an issue, there were other challenges we had to go through first.  We understand that it needs to be announced.  We’ve touched base with a lot of people, a lot of people have touched base with us.  It’s just about making sure we get the right teams to play so our players can benefit. It’s no good playing a Manchester City.”

NG: Are you hoping to avoid having a team of trialists in pre-season similar to in previous seasons?

CB: “Yes, I think if you look at the retained list there are nine or ten on there now. Then these two new signings, we have three we are still in talks with.”

IL: “I think the target is 22 and I think we will get there because talking to Nobby and Steve yesterday, they are really going for it so that’s what we are looking at.”

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