His polite but firm decline to be photographed had more to it than the shyness he professes. Semore Kurdi, owner of Newcastle Falcons rugby club, also had growing concerns (pardon the pun) about his length of hair. He’d wagered with his son not to get it cut until Falcons know they’ve avoided relegation from the Premiership.
That could mean no scissors until perhaps 10 May – or even after – and Semore says coach Dean Richards has to get him out of this one, which Dean insists he will. No picture posing, then, but much verbal enthusiasm, at least, in this rare media interview as Semore explains why, after months of speculation about the club’s future in September 2010, the local businessman bought a 40% stake in the club, easing its financial difficulties. A tiny framed and undated group photograph, easily overlooked beside the door leading into his majlis of a personal box at the Kingston Park ground, shows a young rugby XV of Newcastle Preparatory School, with a sublimely happy looking Semore in the middle. He took to the game at 10.
He recalls: “I wasn’t very good at catching or running but I could shove really hard. So I found my niche. I started as a prop in the second row then became a flanker. I pushed and shoved and grunted. I don’t think I even touched the ball to be honest.
“But I owe rugby a lot. It gave me a sense of belonging. It gave me confidence and social acceptance. On a pitch you’re part of a team. It doesn’t matter whether you’re best or worst in the team. I hope that’s not changing. I don’t think it is. Since then I’ve always felt a strong debt to the game. I found a place that helped build foundations of confidence.
“The ethics of hard work and helping each other are all in rugby, the idea that you’re all in it together. You shouldn’t be...but you’re all miserable together after if you lose.”
Rugby, he defines as all inclusive. “Rugby’s family is bigger than any one club’s attitude to the game,” he goes on. “It’s one of the few sports I know where home and away fans will sit together before the game, banter afterwards and have a drink together. Winning’s always nice. But the spirit of the sport is bigger. We’ve saved that in rugby. I think it’s why I’m in this game.”
Dean joins the majlis before a scheduled training session and an aura of synergy and empathy is immediately evident over the two as he takes a seat. Semore laughingly
points out again that Dean is the one to get him out of his tonsorial dilemma. Dean remains comfortable about it. So what, for Semore, is the club’s biggest business challenge otherwise?
“The weather’s never very helpful,” he regrets. “Walk-up match attendances have massive swings depending on the weather. That’s not something you can plan – to a day you can, but that’s too late. You’ll already have ordered your catering, and your bar staff and you’re geared up for X thousands, then numbers suddenly fall short because it decides to blow up a gale and torrential rain. There’s nothing you can do about that. But we do try to build more regular attendance.”
So is the priority a roof over the North terracing, as the club website hints? Semore gazes through the panoramic window and down to the rich green turf looking between games like billiard baize, but on post-match rainy days divoted as if home to a moles’ convention.
“Right now,” says Semore, “getting the pitch into better condition is the priority. The torrential rain hasn’t helped. But people come here to watch elite rugby. The pitch has hindered the quality. The club has since announced a synthetic pitch will be laid for next season.
Dean stresses though: “This stadium is a fantastic venue and I want it to be a venue ever and a day. It’s in a great location.”
Given his passion for the game, was Semore proud that day he secured his major stake in Falcons? “Getting involved in professional sport generally is almost like a childhood fantasy,” he replies. “Everyone I know wants to be involved in professional sport. It’s a great privilege and a big social responsibility.”
And he adds, laughing, when you’re not good enough to play it’s good to be in management. Does it remain a pleasure – win, draw or lose? “Three minutes after a defeat the answer may be slightly different. But in general, yes. Pleasure describes it. Week in, week out you can come here and see some of the world’s best players in action. They may play for the opposition – but they’re still here.
“When I first got involved in the club I asked a few people what needed improving. I thought it would be something about the rugby. But everyone gave me the same answer.
‘Hog roast.’ So first thing we did was bring back a hog roast. Then I realised the rugby needed improving too. We have the maestro here (gesturing to Dean) who knows more about the rugby than I’ll ever know.”
How, then, does the maestro inspire the determination and grit increasingly evident in the side? Dean affirms: “I think the spirit within the side’s growing through the players we’ve got and our characters in the team.
“During recent months we’ve missed points we should have had. The boys understand where we need to work to make it happen. We don’t always get the rub of the green, and the North-South divide has a bearing with referees sometimes, it seems – I don’t know whether it’s because we’re thought not fashionable or whether it’s just the weather. Things haven’t quite fallen into place. But our fans see the bigger picture. The club will be totally different next year, as indeed the year after. Everyone has bought into that.”
Representing the smallest region in the country, and having Premiership football clubs on the doorstep means Kingston Park attendances may be several times smaller than those of clubs in larger populated areas. That means less gate money to help buy new players and perhaps keep existing stars.
It’s all a far call though from 1877, when some old boys from Durham School met at a house in Gosforth thinking it would be fun to form a new rugby club in the area.
Dean admits: “I don’t think we’ve as many chimney pots as the Southern clubs. But people in our area are predominantly of a nature to fall into rugby far more easily. It’s a rough and tumble sport and there’s this saying about ‘soft Southerners’.
“Look through the Premiership. You could easily select a Premiership winning side formed from players of this area. There’s quality in the type of player coming from this area. It’s a case of harnessing it, and ensuring the players don’t disappear elsewhere. That starts with the academy here, and I’m very pleased with the players and the characters coming through. They’ll add to the style and nature of the group as a whole.”
Semore remarks how, for two years now, the number of players up from the academy squad has been much greater, and Dean estimates that in one game recently about 17 players had academy associations, including some who’d moved away and since come back.
The vision for achieving business and playing success appears with the colours Falcons have nailed to the mast on their website. They aim to qualify for the Premiership playoffs annually from 2015/16 and for final stages of cup rugby from 2016/17 – with a majority of the squad coming through the club academy.
“To be sustainable you must go down that route,” Dean declares. “You don’t want a quick fix. Grow from within and your roots become a little stronger.”
Competition won’t get easier, even in the lower Championship table that Falcons soared out of after a season’s relegation. London Welsh are working on a venue plan to help ensure their Premiership presence will be much longer in any future promotion. Bristol are investing heavily in players. And a new all-Yorkshire side looks likely.
The championship could indeed be very difficult to get out of next time. And up in the Premiership there’s a swathe of spending power from London to the South West, which attracts quality players. But he and Semore would welcome seeing an all Yorkshire team in the Premiership since local derbies can attract bigger attendances and boost the North’s standing. Dean says the Premiership’s geographical lean towards the South (apart from Sale) would be addressed, and with that a tendency for Falcons to be overlooked.
How can businesses, apart from sponsoring as BQ does, support the Falcons? Semore says: “There’s good opportunity for more company days out here, whether to watch a game, hold meetings or hold training courses. I’d like to think most companies would have a staff day out, and I’d like it to be here.”
Sport? He knows no end of it
Hardly any sport, it seems, wouldn’t attract Semore Kurdi. “I go to football regularly. I’ve also been to netball recently – that’s an interesting sport – and when I’m in America my son will drag me to baseball and ice hockey. Any sport going, I’ll go to.”
Also Semore, whose daughter rides a horse better than he, has nevertheless played a key role in bringing Olympians and other top riders to the North East to contest the Burgham Horse Trials in Northumberland.
But rugby for him has that special family atmosphere too. So he also watches local amateurs play when family commitments allow.
The Falcons avoid Saturday games unless TV insists on it, since many Falcon supporters also have family members playing for non-professional teams and forcing a choice between one game or the other isn’t something the Falcons like doing.
Also, while Friday night games have atmosphere, it’s not the best time for Falcons fans who travel in from the Scottish borders, Cumbria and Durham southwards. But whenever such a game is held, fans can be assured of the usual entertainment offering additional to the 80 minutes of rugby, given the accompaniment of catering and carousing put on.
From next year too there will be the added attraction of rugby league games since Gateshead Thunder now look certain to be relocating to Kingston Park to ground share.
The club’s Community Foundation, also, is delivering numerous programmes, some educational and many going into areas that are testing for a lot of people. “These programmes help deliver a lot of good social support. They do a fantastic job,” Semore says.
One thing that does concern him is the preponderance of the game’s revenues now coming from TV and other media, compared with income from attendances. “How can we maintain the ethos of the game in face of the all seeing cameras?” he wonders. Ah, those cameras again!