When I first confirmed Newcastle legend Rob Lee as our visiting guest January, I tweeted him saying that it would be great news to the Toon Army in Malaysia, because I’ve always felt that they were the third biggest football fanbase in Malaysia (behind Man Utd 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 also there must be a better way of measuring the ‘size’ of a fan club than just total number of members. For me: togetherness and passion outweighs 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 announced 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 our Meet & Greet session. The turnout for these Meet & Greet sessions have been average with the exception of Phelan – where we saw approximately 120 Man Utd 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 fell on the 1st of February. So we came up with a simple contest to select 5 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, DVDs! These 5 fans were really deserving of this exclusive meeting. For a good 90 minutes, the free food took a back seat (very rare in Malaysia), they were asking Rob questions, recalling specific incidents from matches that even Rob 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! They did not disappoint. When the Astro team turned up to check on the setup of the stage and fan area, there were already pockets of Newcastle fans hanging around – 1 hour early! Minutes later, another 30 turned up. Within half an hour, there were at least 50, all decked in the famous black and white – rehearsing songs to sing when Rob is introduced onto the stage. Rob arrived in his Uber transport slightly early so we had to make him wait in the car. Before starting the event, I was then 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 the airport. From Kedah! Apparently he rushed after completing work in court, hopped on a plane and was making his way to Berjaya Times Square.
If you’re not impressed yet, let me take it a level higher. Toon Army Malaysia spread the invitation to their friends from neighboring countries – and a fan did actually come all the way from… Indonesia!!!
I was lost for words.
From the beginning of the Meet & Greet, right up til the end when fans lined up to get their merchandise signed and photos taken, the fans were cheering, clapping, singing. The atmosphere was electric. Rob himself later said it reminded him of the reception at St James’ Park – what a compliment. Now as I mentioned earlier, we had already arranged a lunch with fans on Rob’s birthday, but after the Meet & Greet session, I had to find a way to ‘reward’ the fans. So with the help of the PR team at Berjaya Times Square, we handpicked 5 fans to have lunch with Rob. 2 spots were obviously given to Mr Indonesia and Mr Kedah.
From my time spent with Rob during his 10 days in KL, I could tell that he was a very simple man. Very humble. And he doesn’t handle spicy food very well – in fact, he avoids it completely. His idea of football is entertainment, derived from his playing days under Kevin Keegan. In fact, if he got the call to be manager of Newcastle right this very moment, he would say yes in a heartbeat. I think if was to be the Newcastle boss one day, the fans would go absolutely bonkers.
If you asked Rob today what he thought of the Newcastle fans in Malaysia, he would agree with me. You don’t need figures to back it up, you just have experience the reception on his 49TH birthday and during the Meet & Greet session.