The Angela Lambert Interview: Local hero in the national league: Sir John Hall, a Geordie warrior and saviour of Newcastle United, is a pit-village capitalist with a social conscience

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In a week when English football has all but been forgotten, here is a story about an English club on a steady upward parabola, and the man behind its success, Sir John Hall.

Sir John has poured millions of his own money into the North-east. First, the Metro Centre outside Gateshead - the largest shopping complex in Europe - and then Newcastle United. Why football? 'It's the unifying magnet for all sectors of society. To the man in the street it's his life, his culture, what he is.'

He believes the club can guide the city and the North-east to a spectacular social and industrial future. Next he plans to build a pounds 50m sports, health, education and industrial training centre based around St James's Park, the Newcastle United ground in the middle of the city.

'You have to break into the cycle of decline. Normally, people don't get a lot of encouragement, but they need to feel proud of themselves. The Metro Centre stopped the rot. We invested pounds 2 1/2 m and created 6,500 jobs. I still believe in capitalism with a social conscience. We (Sir John and his family-owned company, Cameron Hall Developments) took a 20- year view. These things take time.'

Time seems to have proved him right. 'Nowadays the North-east has the best export record and growth record in the country.' Certainly house sales are growing fastest in the North-east and unemployment has fallen sharply. A CBI report on the North-east earlier this year recorded a steady growth in trade, but is it really faster than London and the South-east? Sir John says yes; official statistics are less clear-cut. Undeterred, he claims: 'North-easterners have gained status without losing that sense of togetherness. We're all from pit villages and, however far we've come, we have not lost that social conscience.'

John Hall was born in 1933, a fourth- generation miner, in the village of North Seaton Colliery. 'I remember to this day hearing it described by the pit manager as a village of a thousand souls, though really we were just pit fodder. The pit had its own hierarchy: the manager was first, the headmaster second and the doctor third, and between them they held your life in their hands.

'I was born into the Labour Party and my father took me to hear its great speakers: Bevin, Bevan and Attlee. I owe everything in my life to the Labour government of 1945. They said to us, 'Go out, educate yourself, be better than your fathers could.'

'You couldn't travel except by train or bus, so life revolved around the village or the nearest town. The pit villages had dances, garden festivals and chapel. I used to go to Newcastle to watch football and go dancing. You saw a lady, you made eye contact, had a dance, and if she liked you she might let you take her home. That's how I met my wife, Mae. We courted for five years.'

The first seven years of his working life were spent down the pit, starting at Newbiggin Colliery when he was 16. 'In 1949 it was the only job I could get.' Aged 23 he married, and worked for the National Coal Board as a mining surveyor until he was 28. He had a stroke of luck when the Institute of Mining Surveyors was amalgamated with the chartered surveyors. He saved up to buy into a small estate agency, where he quickly became the senior partner. That was his way into property development.

'I was 36 when I finally set out on private enterprise - it's difficult for a working-class fellow to break the bonds. People don't want the likes of me to come through because we didn't go to a private school.' He was half-way through his life before doing anything that marked him out as different. Sir John Hall, you might say, was a late beginner. Yet those early years were crucial, forging a personal philosophy from which he has never deviated. 'Family comes first; then your village or town, and then your region.

'I come from a working-class background and we were taught to know our place. The trouble with the Labour Party is that they never kept up with the aspirations of the people they'd created. They gave my father dignity and me a grammar school education; but my father died on pounds 12 a week, and my mother had pounds 1 a week pension. I said to myself, 'Is that what it's all been for?' It made me start questioning the system.'

The company he founded, Cameron Hall, consisted of himself, his wife, his son Douglas and daughter Alison. It had - and still has - no outside shareholders. This is its secret. There are no short-term pressures to turn a quick profit; just long-term investment decisions. 'My father doesn't like working for anybody,' says Douglas. 'His strength is his vision - and he who pays the piper calls the tune.'

They worked flat out and some risky ideas came off. Sir John put money into Portugal in the early Seventies, long before the Algarve was a byword for white beaches and breeze-block villas. He took a colossal gamble by starting the Metro Centre in 1979, when the company's annual income was pounds 100,000. With the tax inducements offered by the Thatcher government's enterprise centres, that came off, too. Today his company is said to be worth pounds 70m.

Sir John said he would get someone to pick me up at Teesside International airport, but I had not expected to be met by him personally. Not for more than a split second, however, could anyone mistake the short, powerful figure in a sleek navy-blue suit for a chauffeur. Tanned and compact, he exudes dynamism and self-confidence. Everyone seems to recognise him. He seized my bag, handed me into his Range Rover and drove to Wynyard Hall, his home and company headquarters 25 minutes from the city. We passed through the gates and over a rattling cattle grid. 'We've planted a million bulbs,' he said. We rounded a clump of trees revealing a vast building almost the size of Versailles.

Wynyard Hall is a Palladian mansion set in 5,000 acres, former seat of the Londonderry family who could no longer afford to maintain it. Sir John bought it in 1985. 'We were lucky to find Wynyard,' he says, 'and Wynyard was lucky to find us.' The building was in need of repair and restoration and pounds 3m has already been spent on it.

Its scale is vast, even forbidding. The linking gallery is 120ft long; the central octagon uses six different kinds of marble; there are 32 chairs in the dining room - the official dining room, that is, the Halls' private dining room has only 10. The central part of the house serves as premises for the company, with one wing reserved for the family's personal use. 'Coming from my background, when I look around it I have to pinch myself. I was taught to know my place. You deserve nothing. You've got to work for it. Money is the logical conclusion of my success but it's not the be- all and end-all.'

The Halls, who started their married life in one room of his parents' house, are not intimidated by their surroundings. Side-tables in the drawing room are covered with souvenirs of their travels: miniature Indian soldiers or bazaar figures; porcelain dolls, others in national costume, decorated boxes. On one wall, large photographs of the four good-looking grandchildren are mounted on canvas-textured paper and framed in gilt. Fondly, he names them. 'As you get older,' he says (Sir John is 61), 'you live for the grandchildren.'

Every Sunday he insists that the entire family gathers for lunch. Despite the millions they will one day inherit, he is determined to instil into them the same moral values and thrifty attitudes that were drummed into him.

He stops in front of a large, effulgently smiling photograph of Baroness Thatcher. 'You may not agree, but she changed the face of UK plc. She tried to liberate everybody, and a lot of good came out of those years. She was tremendous, but the press and the intellectuals couldn't understand her.' (If Sir John has a chip on his shoulder, it is against intellectuals, whom he refers to with uneasy mistrust.)

'As a businessman, I could understand what she was trying to do. She motivated the business community, something I'd never seen before; she gave us confidence. If you don't push the economy you'll never be able to help the people who need help in our society. She recognised that bureaucracies never change things. The realisation came to some of us that there had to be another way. Basically, we're trying to overturn the tides of history and the decline of our nation into decadence.'

His extreme right-wing opinions (he is virulently anti-gay, for instance) are modified by an old-fashioned sense of the obligations that accrue to the powerful and successful. But the Thatcher years gave him his best business breaks, while she herself gave him his knighthood. He still worships her.

Sir John took Newcastle United out of the doldrums in 1991. Before he rescued it, the team was threatened with relegation. Despite being the focus of an entire city's football obsession, it was turning over no more than pounds 5m a year. Now turnover is pounds 17m and next year's objective is pounds 20m.

Why did he want to buy it? 'It's difficult for anybody to take in the mystique and the passion of soccer, but it can absorb your life. In a way it is a family; the club has a camaraderie, a ritual. The intellectual will never understand the passion of the Geordie for his football. Newcastle United means so much - it fills you with pride. The Geordie nation - that's what we're fighting for] London's the enemy] The South-east's the enemy] You exploit us, you use us, you take everything you can from us but never recognise our existence.'

After hiring Kevin Keegan as manager, lavish spending on star players, dramatic improvements to the ground and expert financial management, he predicts that in a few years it will be a contender in a European Super League; then a World Super League.

'Our ambition has no limits. How can we take soccer into the late 20th century? How do we take the United Kingdom into the late 20th century? People on the FA reek of the old colonial values, and the real world has moved beyond them.' (This was said before their decision to punish Alan Sugar and his club.) 'More than any other industry, it's about winning. The players are gladiators - it's a lion-pit out there.

'Somebody has to have the enterprise, but also the responsibility, the social conscience, to capitalise on that. I'm still a great entrepreneur, but how can you take money from the unemployed (a season ticket to watch the club play was pounds 180 last year) without putting it back?'

The people of Newcastle admire his optimism, gusto, and openness to ideas; his clear sense of values, his shameless enjoyment of the good things in life. His autograph is as sought-after as that of Kevin Keegan. Small boys lie in wait as he arrives at the ground and step shyly forward as he dismounts. He bends down, smiles, has time for them all. It is possible that he, rather than any footballer, is their local hero.

(Photograph omitted)

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