Wednesday, 7 January 2015

THAT'S HALL FOLKS


On Sunday’s edition of 5Live Sports Week, Sir John Hall complained about the new breed of foreign owners he believes are ruining English football. According to Sir John, the billionaires are only in it ‘for the publicity’.

Funnily enough I made a rather similar accusation about Sir John himself in WSC way back in the autumn of 1996. At that point Sir John was at the height of his fantastical powers – at one point even comparing himself to Dr Martin Luther King. As well as Newcastle United, Sir John had taken over Gosforth rugby club (founded 1877) and changed its name to Newcastle Falcons, severely mangled North-East ice hockey by buying Durham Wasps (established 1946) and moving them to Newcastle (evicting another long established club Whitley Bay Warriors from their Hillheads home along the way) bought a basketball team and begun to dabble in motor racing. Later I would learn from a partner at Newcastle law firm Dickinson Dees that the Halls (Sir John and his notoriously charming son Douglas) had tried to inveigle their way onto the board of Newcastle race course as well. The power he wielded at that point was considerable.

Over the next few years, however, Sir John’s grand schemes for Newcastle Sporting Club fell away. The tweedy types who run British horse racing wanted nothing to do with him, he sold his stake in the Falcons, the interest in ice hockey melted, basketball and motor racing too were abandoned. The plans to build a new 55,000 seat stadium on Leazes Park were ultimately rejected. Kevin Keegan left in 1997 taking much goodwill with him. The Fake Sheikh shenanigans put the tin lid on it.

Re-reading the piece now, I can see that I misjudged Sir John. Despite the oratory and the dreams, it was all just about turning a quick profit. Asked why he thought the Halls wanted to get involved with Gosforth race course, the lawyer replied, ‘It’s a prime piece of real estate – my impression – and I could be wrong – was that they had half a mind to flog it for housing.’

‘I like to be referred to as a capitalist with a conscience’ Sir John was fond of saying, positioning himself as the sort of neo-Victorian philanthropist that made his heroine, Mrs Thatcher go weak at the knees. But if Sir John couldn’t see a financial advantage in something he wasn’t interested. Fair enough, that is business after all - just don't dress up as selflessness.

Roman Abramovic and Sheikh Mansour may have tilted the balance of power in the Premiership in a way that is not beneficial to the English game as a whole, but if Sir John really believes that either man has taken more out of football than he and his family did, then he is utterly deluded.

 


A few years ago I met the former chairman of a First Division club. I tried vainly to engage him in conversation about the game. After a while he confessed that he wasn’t particularly interested in it. “Why did you go through all the bother of becoming a chairman then?” I asked. “Because it is the most exclusive club in England,” the chairman replied. I eyed him quizzically. “Look,” the chairman explained, “There are hundreds of lords, aren’t there? Hundreds of MPs and Bishops, but there are only 92 Football League chairmen.”

Now, of course, there is an even more exclusive brotherhood, The Premiership Chairmen. There are only twenty of them and they wield the kind of power that previous members could only dream of.

Perhaps the first club chairman to truly understand the possibilities opened up by the recent changes is Sir John Hall. Much has been written about his miraculous transformation of Newcastle United’s fortunes, less about the future direction in which circumstances may lead him. This is a pity, because it seems to me that Sir John Hall may be on the verge of something quite unique in the history of our national game. In the past it has been accepted that, in some sense at least, a club belonged to its town or city. Nowadays it looks increasingly likely that Newcastle might become the first English city to belong to its football club.

The situation has taken some years to develop. Long before he took over at Saint James’, Sir John Hall was a hugely successful businessman. For better or worse, however, the British tend not to pay too much attention to successful businessmen. Their opinions are not canvassed; they rarely, unless they are Sir John Harvey-Jones, appear on television. For Sir John Hall the chairmanship of Newcastle has changed that. Like a Hollywood plastic surgeon, Newcastle United have pumped up Sir John’s profile to a point where it is hard to ignore. From being a largely unknown provincial millionaire Sir John has become a national figure. Fleet Street have even taken to calling him ‘Mr Newcastle’ (perhaps this is not such a compliment, the last ‘Mr. Newcastle’, T Dan Smith ended up in jail) and he has become so ubiquitous that it is surely only his professed dislike of ‘intellectuals’ that has stopped him from appearing on Radio Four’s Kaleidoscope to discuss the latest opus from Irvine Welsh.

The media’s fascination with Sir John is unsurprising. He is an avuncular and plausible man. He twangs the strings of the class snobbery which underline British society with unfaltering tunefulness and has a keen understanding of most North-Easterners’ attitudes, particularly towards the South (“We will be an importer of talent rather than an exporter,” he has said of Newcastle United. What North-East football fan has not dreamed of one day hearing such words from a club chairman?). With his Thatcherism, his charisma and his regional populism he is probably the nearest we will ever come to a Northumbrian monetarist version of Juan Peron.

Like his most famous appointee, Kevin Keegan, Sir John is prone to bouts of fabulous oratorical exuberance. During one such verbal flight of fantasy he said of the Geordies, “We are the Mohicans!” Sir John was perhaps forgetting that in Fennimore Cooper’s novel there only are two Mohicans and one of them dies before the end. But then details are not Sir John’s department, he is, as he is fond of saying, “the vision man”.


 


Strange as it may be the “Mohican” utterance contains an important part of Sir John’s philosophy. He has talked a lot (but then when has he ever talked a little?) about his desire to transform Newcastle United into the kind of multi-armed sports and social club found in Europe. To that end he has set up the Newcastle Sporting Club which he claims will soon have 100,000 members. Barcelona are often mentioned as the model. They are a massively successful business operation, but Barca’s appeal to Sir John surely runs deeper than that. Barcelona is seen in Spain as representing Catalonian nationalism, and this is clearly a role Sir John would like to see emulated by Newcastle United when it comes to what he has dubbed “The Geordie Tribe”.

United, it must be said, are better suited to this ambition than just about any other club in Britain. Not only does Newcastle have geographical separateness from the rest of England (if you were getting over excited you might say it had a cultural and linguistic separateness too), Tyneside is also the largest urban conglomeration in the country to be blessed with just one League football team (imagine Liverpool without Everton, if you will)*.

 As a consequence of the latter, the power of the club within the city is much greater than is that of, say, Manchester United within Manchester. When a club such as Birmingham City get involved in a row with the local press you expect a fairly even fight; when the Newcastle Journal had a spat with Newcastle United a few years ago, it was akin to a hedgehog stepping out in front of a steam-roller.

Currently Newcastle United are locked in a battle with the City Council over proposed plans to build an immense new stadium and leisure complex on the site of a local park. Initially the Council refused to grant planning permission. When Sir John threatened to take his club across the Tyne to Gateshead, the councillors, perhaps mindful of how they would explain such a departure to the local electorate, had a re-think. The battle continues. If the club go on to win it, then there will be little left to stand in the way of Newcastle United achieving a position of pre-eminence within the Geordie Nation.

The knock-on effect of Newcastle United’s hegemony over the city would be to transform the club’s chairman into the chief of the tribe, its Chingachgook. It is a part for which Sir John appears to have been auditioning for some time. For though he has expressed no particular political ambitions, wouldn’t Sir John, like any great visionary, relish the chance to lead his people by unspoken popular consensus?

Should this prove to be the case, then Newcastle will find itself in a singular position: the only city in Britain in which the most powerful force is not the ruling political party, the mayor or any MP, but the chairman of the football club.

Of course if Newcastle United were to win the Premiership there are some people around here who would consider that a small price to pay.


 

 

*Actually Leeds might be, but they have rugby league and first class cricket.

 

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