Hall or nothing

Sir John Hall has claimed that he is proud of his achievements with Newcastle. Harry Pearson disagrees

“I have achieved everything I set out to achieve,” Sir John Hall told journalists with typical self-confidence when he announced his retirement on September 15th. That the Newcastle chairman’s ambition for his club did not include winning any trophies will no doubt come as a surprise to many Newcastle fans.

The football press were not taken aback, however. Almost unanimously (the Daily Mail – the newspaper closest to Sir John in political outlook – was the unexpected exception) the sports pages backed Sir John’s own view: that the extent of his aspirations when taking over at St James’s were to make Newcastle “one of the three biggest clubs in England and the ten biggest in Europe”. That he had delivered on this mandate was hardly questioned.

Leaving aside the contentiousness of the second part of Sir John’s self-assessment (Actually it’s not contentious at all. Naming ten European clubs which, in terms of domestic and European success and average home crowds are bigger than Newcastle Utd would take most us about 30 seconds) it seems people haven’t been paying attention. Because over the past eight years Sir John has talked of many splendid things and, while he has achieved a considerable number of them, not all have come to pass.

There is, or rather there isn’t, for example, Newcastle’s mighty new stadium on Town Moor, 60,000 seats, a North East rival to the San Siro. A week after Sir John stepped down, the club announced a year long moratorium on the planning application. It would be nice to think this was in consideration of protests from local residents and trades unions. In fact it was more down to money. In order to raise investment in the new stadium the club would have to prove they could fill it for the foreseeable future. No football club, not even Newcastle, can guarantee such a thing. The plan has stalled, perhaps permanently.

The vaunted youth academy at Ponteland, based on the Ajax model, would, we were told, tap into Tyneside’s vast resource of football talent and help realise Sir John’s oft mentioned dream of a Newcastle team made up of eleven Geordies. The youth academy has not been built. Nobody seems to know when it will be. Money again seems to a consideration. The Centre for Sports Medicine which was to give Newcastle the edge in player fitness and speed of recovery from injury was for a time a favourite topic of Sir John’s. It rarely gets a mention these days. The pay-per-view TV Channel Newcastle had proposed establishing was shelved last week after city analysts concluded it was unrealistic.

And what of Newcastle Sporting Club, a multi-armed venture based on that at Barcelona which Sir John foresaw boasting 80,000 members? Well, the ice hockey, basketball and rugby union elements can muster 1,100 members between them. The Sporting Club’s offices, once in St James’s Park, have now been shunted across the river to the Metro Centre. Despite a massive investment in players the rugby club still draws average crowds that would shame a Third Division football team; the budget of the ice hockey team has been cut by a quarter of a million pounds this season, while the racing cars (Newcastle Storm) are seldom heard of at all.

If Sir John really has achieved everything he set out to (and most seem to agree that he has), then all the above things must simply have been whims or passing fancies. Which is funny, because Sir John Hall has never really struck me as the whimsical type.

From WSC 129 November 1997. What was happening this month