As Newcastle United proceed with ambitious plans for becoming a multi-sports organisation, Ken Sproat explains why he'd prefer them to just stick to football
The things in football that cause Jimmy Hill to splutter with righteous moral fury include blatant obstruction, deliberate handball, on the field violence, niggly running battles and stop-start action. I can see his point. And rugby is the hideous manifestation of the these evils. It has no place in my life. Tuning in to Radio 5 to listen to the football, there is nothing worse than having to endure reports from rugby matches. When the Five Nations Championships are on, and the rugby replaces the football as the main commentary, I could weep. It is more boring than people telling you how many numbers they had on the lottery. I have never been interested and I never will be interested. This view is not typical of all football fans, but it is common enough. I am not the only one who wants to jail football fans who sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.
When football wasn’t trendy and Newcastle United were a mediocre mediocrity, I was regarded as an eccentric for living and breathing football. These days, the people who used to be quite vicious to me for supporting Newcastle (“What! You pay how much? To watch them!”) now worship at the shrine of St James’. Those merry folk who used to jest, “You’d watch black and white shirts drying on a washing line” (Ha ha, please stop, pick my ribtickled body out of the Gallowgate End urinals) now carefully wash their precious replica kits and do watch them dry on the washing line in case they get stolen.
Sir John Hall wants to develop “The Sporting Club of Newcastle” in a similar vein to that of Barcelona. The aim is that every self-respecting Geordie will join up to the cause. Using the ‘you’d watch a washing line’ concept, Newcastle fans are now expected to watch fifteen men foul each other just because the team is associated with Newcastle United Football Club. Not only that. Ice hockey, basketball, athletics, motor racing, a health club and God knows what else are to be bought and brought under Sir John’s huge umbrella.
The ink on rugby union’s new professional Magna Carta wasn’t dry before Sir John purchased Newcastle Gosforth Rugby Union Club. England star Rob Andrew (portrayed as a local lad – after all, he did go to a school in Barnard Castle, fifty miles south of Newcastle) has been brought in to ‘do a Keegan’. The gravy train north has brought a bevy of star ovoid ball merchants to Tyneside. Rob Andrew was introduced as a special guest before a match. Most of those that were in their seats applauded. Not in some apoplectic fit of adoration, though, just in politeness.
Plans to develop the rugby team’s Kingston Park ground into a “super stadium” will no doubt come to fruition. Star names will fill the team, and next season they will waltz the Courage National err . . . Third Division. Impatience with opposition is a Sir John trademark. At present the rules state that a transferred player has to wait 120 days before he can play for his new team in a competitive match. As the stars kick their heals, the current rugby team gets a good hiding every week in the Second Division. Expect a court battle between Sir John and the RFU on this one.
I have a liberal attitude to other sports. If you want to watch them, go on, feel free to do so. Have a nice day, but keep off the back pages, get off my TV set and don’t expect me to give them money. Here is the worry for most Newcastle fans. It has never been satisfactorily explained how Rob Andrew et al are being funded. Newcastle Gosforth play to crowds that would make the average Third Division football club chairman ill with worry. I remain to be convinced that professional rugby will be self sufficient on Tyneside. I may be selfish, but I don’t care. I want every penny I pay to watch football to go into football.
Ice hockey is also undergoing something of a transition. Where a Premier League is mentioned you will find Sir John. Like the crocodile that chases Captain Hook in Peter Pan, he is omnipresent. Along with a clock ticking inside, there are catch phrases. “Big plans . . . tick tick tick . . . top ten in Europe . . . tick tick tick . . . there is a price for success.” Sir John bought the long-established Durham Wasps and, until he builds an arena for them (plans already bedevilled with controversy), they will play in Sunderland under the name of Newcastle Wasps. The other major ice hockey team in the area, the Whitley Warriors, have been bought by another consortium who have moved them the few miles from Whitley Bay to another new arena in Newcastle. On the face of it, the Warriors have stolen a huge lead to catch the hearts of the armchair/remote button all- sport-following public who might want to actively support a team. I predict, however, that Sir John will throw money at the problem and when his team of all stars finally skate into Newcastle they will wipe the ice with the Warriors, both financially and in sporting terms.
This is all well and good, but I don’t care, and I don’t wish my season ticket to subsidise it. My fears that you won’t be entitled to get a ticket for the football unless you are in The Sporting Club of Newcastle have yet to be allayed. The phone rang the other night and a semi-polite Newcastle United salesperson wanted to know why I hadn’t bought a £500 bond to guarantee my season ticket for the next ten years. The dissenters are being rooted out. My nightmare of being unable to travel around Northumberland without showing the “Sir John Geordie Passport” to black-and-white-striped Mind Control Operatives is a step nearer. How long before the stewards require you to know last week’s rugby score before they let you in? Helpfully, the match programme now carries two pages devoted to Newcastle’s rugby and ice hockey fortunes. The programme for the Blackburn game carried the subtle message ‘Underwood Loves The Sporting Club Concept’. It smacks of a slogan on a billboard in Tiananmen Square. The point is obvious – this is what the right thinking Geordie should be thinking.
When Sir John Hall said he had big plans for Newcastle, I used to think he just meant the football team, but he sees it as more than that. I have a feeling that he will not cease in his quest for Tyneside to be at the centre of the world until the North Pole is shifted from its axis and the Earth revolves around Byker. He can have his dream, but don’t expect anything more than a shrug of the shoulders from me.
From WSC 107 January 1996. What was happening this month