Harry Pearson looks at Sir John Hall's role in both the football club and city of Newcastle
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 about.
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 the 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, of course, 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 extended 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. The press 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 in the media 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 perhaps unsurprising. He is an avuncular and charming man who 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 fantastical oratorical exuberance. During one such verbal flight of fantasy he said of the Geordies, “We are the Mohicans!” Sir John was perhaps forgetting the fact that in Fennimore Cooper’s novel there only were 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. Barcelona are often mentioned as his 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, but if, as seems likely, 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 preeminence 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 many around here who would consider that a small price to pay.
From WSC 116 October 1996. What was happening this month