Black and white visionary

Five years ago, Sir John Hall began to build a sporting empire. His mission to transform a region is still progressing
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Football: Newcastle United

It becomes ever more galling for Newcastle. The night after the defeat of Metz in the Uefa Cup, Manchester United achieve a 2-0 win of more convincing character to gain the European Cup quarter- final place that might have been theirs if they had not been eclipsed by the fabled foe late last season. Weep on, dream on.

One suspects that today Sir John Hall is dwelling not on past wrongs but future rights issues. In the aftermath of Vienna - a win which will bring them pounds 3.5m - Manchester United's shares rose by enough to take the club's value beyond pounds 360m. The stake of the chairman, Martin Edwards, is now worth over pounds 60m.

This month Sir John attempts to disprove football's folklore that there's only one United by making an announcement about Newcastle's proposed public sale. This is probably a necessity with the club, which could be valued at pounds 160m, reported to be pounds 40m in debt. It will coincide with the fifth anniversary of Hall gaining control of the club. Phase one - winning a major trophy - may not yet be complete but phase two gains pace. As Kevin Keegan says post-Metz: "We are still gazing up at the mountain but he is already looking at what's on the other side of it."

Sir John's grandiose plans for Newcastle have latterly brought, however, a scepticism he could hardly have envisaged when he was the saviour half a decade ago. Then, having finally assumed a 51 per cent controlling stake (sometimes paying up to pounds 7,000 for 50p shares) after criticising the ailing mastodon, he took on a debt of pounds 6.5m.

What followed remains astonishing. Relegation to the old Third Division was avoided, promotion to the Premiership quickly followed. St James' Park has been rebuilt and Keegan granted pounds 60m to reconstruct the team, a quarter of that for Alan Shearer. You're not sure for whom in particular they play the stirring theme music from Local Hero on match days.

The rumblings from fans these days go beyond the frustrating wait for silverware that their less indulgent, more demanding mood inside the stadium now seems to indicate is their right. There is concern at the diversification into other sports, with the eye possibly being taken off the round ball, though the club insists it subsidises nothing else. Then there is the high cost of getting into a St James' that cannot accommodate all the support.

Sir John's solutions, proposed with the smiling, can-do spirit with which the 64-year-old son of an Ashington miner built Gateshead's Metro Centre, are simple but expansive; how fitting that Newcastle play in black and white. Planning permission for a new 65,000-capacity stadium at nearby Castle Leazes is contentious, however, as is that for a new training complex, with dissenters fearing his and Newcastle's empire-building. This, after all, is the region of T Dan Smith and John Poulson.

"The supporters' criticism is fair," the ever-honest Keegan says. "But there is a price to pay. If you put it to them as a choice between going back to paying pounds 11 or pounds 12 to see an average First Division team struggling, or paying pounds 18 to watch the best then I don't doubt what they would choose.

"What no-one can argue with is that all the money has been pumped back into the club. You can argue that I haven't bought the right players, that we didn't build the stadium big enough, but Sir John has done what he said he would do, put in all the money he said he would.

"The expectation has definitely grown, but that's a good thing. So has ours and, if the fans' was below it, that would be disappointing. We want to be one of Europe's top 10, as the chairman has said. He is a visionary, there's no doubt about that."

Keegan, five years as manager himself in February, will never join the doubters. "There may be other chairmen as good but none better. We are as close as any manager and chairman can be. He is always saying to me that, when I have a problem, there must be a way of solving it. He tells me to take the players away if I need to, to do what I have to do. He always phones me after a defeat, tells me not to get too down. Plenty of people ring me when we win but not many when we lose.

"He listens, he talks, he likes feedback because he wants to oversee everything. That is only right. He is not just a person who chairs meetings. He is so full of enthusiasm, and I like that."

What of that time, a month into the job, when Keegan threatened to walk out because it was "not like it said in the brochure"?

"There was a lot going on at the club, with all the financing," Keegan says now. "And he was busy with so many other things. What always has to be established is a basic relationship and that is what happened.

"I have never had the wrong response from him," adds Keegan, who once convinced Sir John about buying Peter Beardsley, though the chairman was dubious about his age, by saying that the 34-year-old might sign for Sunderland instead. "Sometimes he has put his own money in to buy players but you can't just keep doing that. It's no longer just all about money. If I did want to change things now, I would probably have to get people out before I got more in but, if I could justify it and he felt it was right, I'm sure he would back me."

Off the pitch, Newcastle are clearly on a threshold, the public flotation needed if the Sir John Hall era is to sate future hunger, rather than represent just a binge. Keegan has mixed feelings.

"I think we will look back on these last five years as the most exhilarating in the club's history," he says. "With going public, a signing like Alan Shearer's may never happen again. It may be the way we match and maybe beat Manchester United but we might lose something else. You have shareholders to answer to, permission to get. At the moment we have an edge in things like that. We can take a decision and get on with achieving it."

In the meantime, the team too are on a threshold and, after an indifferent run, they might be grateful that bottom-placed Nottingham Forest provide the opposition tomorrow night. Keegan admits his side are not playing well, that he is looking again at the wing-back formation that sees the space behind David Ginola and Keith Gillespie being easily exploited. Ingenuity further forward has consequently been undermined.

Keegan, like his chairman, it seems, is undaunted. "I do believe that as exciting as the last five years have been, having come from nothingness, it can still get better," he says. "The club is getting more and more professional. Once we had five or six people working here, now more and more we are working to make it a bigger, better club.

"The top end has been going well but we know we have built from the roof downwards and been filling in the bits around it. In many ways it was the wrong way round to build a club, but it was right for Newcastle. People needed to see evidence that we meant business after so many poor years. We know we can improve, in our youth policy, our training facilities, and Sir John will do that."

It is, it seems, a question of remaining United and publicly confident at this stock-taking and issuing time.

Rugby union: Newcastle Falcons

It will come as a surprise to many that the visionary behind the rise of the Falcons, as Newcastle Rugby Club now like to be known, is amply qualified to pass judgement on the coach of the national XV. "Very average," was the chairman's opinion of Jack Rowell - Jack Rowell the player, that is. David Campbell, after all, did partner the future England supremo in Gosforth's second-row in the 1960s.

Campbell is Newcastle's other chairman - of the rugby committee rather than the overall club's limited company (if that makes it any clearer). It was he who knocked on Sir John Hall's door 14 months ago and asked him to help Newcastle become the market-leading club in rugby union's rapidly dawning professional era. It was no knee-jerk opportunist move. In 1987, when national leagues were introduced, Campbell first drew up plans to keep the old Gosforth club - winners of the John Player Cup in 1976 and 1977 - if not quite ahead of the game then in the vanguard of the new order.

His attempts to merge Gosforth with their rival Newcastle clubs foundered on a predictable swell of proud and, if parochially minded, divided loyalties. "It didn't get off the ground," Campbell recalled. "Even our own members at Gosforth didn't want it. I made other efforts but they fell by the wayside too. I knew we had to do something."

That much became increasingly clear as Gosforth, even with a Newcastle prefix to their name and a new ground, got left behind on the competitive ladder. The crux came when Campbell persuaded his fellow committee members that they should approach Sir John. "We went to see him on 8 September," Campbell said, "the day after it was announced that clubs had the opportunity to go open. I saw it as a great opportunity to develop along the lines of Newcastle United. If we hadn't moved forward at that point we would have been wiped off the map.

"Sir John had shown the way forward for sport in the north-east. It was a logical step to knock on his door. He was very positive from the beginning. I've had the opportunity to work with the guy and he's so genuine. He's committed to expanding rugby union in Newcastle and in the north-east. His vision of what he wanted at the club is now in place."

It seems it will remain so, too, despite the latest spat in rugby's civil war. "We are not quitters and never will be," Freddie Shepherd, one of five directors of the club, said. "We are not short-term merchants and there is no way we will walk away."

Campbell, 63, who runs an export business on Tyneside, readily confesses that what has materialised at Kingston Park has ventured beyond anything he envisaged. The week the takeover was launched Newcastle failed to score a point against Moseley and their line-up included one international, a former one at that, Richard Cramb having collected his three Scottish caps in 1988. Now Rob Andrew has replaced Cramb at outside-half and half of the Falcons' first-choice XV are current internationals.

"It's not just that," Campbell said. "It's things like sending our fitness adviser to an international convention run by the Chicago Bears. I would say our administration and organisation is light years ahead of what the rugby union expected it could be. We've tried to set up the job as a role model."

It is certainly different, not just in name and location, to the Gosforth club Campbell joined when he moved to Tyneside from his native Kelso 42 years ago. "I'm as traditional as anyone," he said. "I always say to people, 'What's changed?' The same faces are still in the bar. But if you look out on the pitch you see the kind of team you were never likely to - and one that's likely to win something."

Motor racing: Newcastle Storm

It is odd to think of any team that is part of Sir John Hall's empire as the plucky underdog, but that is the role cherished by the Newcastle United Lister Storm motor racing team. In a sport associated with glamour, high technology and vast sponsorship budgets, the emphasis at Lister's Leatherhead headquarters is on value for money.

The team races in the Global GT Championship, which features long-distance races for sports cars related to (or at least resembling) road cars. The top teams, like Porsche and McLaren, spend vast amounts of money on their racing efforts, and accordingly win most of the races. But the Newcastle United Lister team snap at their heels on a fraction of their budgets.

"I think the image of the underdog Brit taking on these high-spenders is one of the things that attracted Newcastle in the first place," Tiff Needell, one of the team's drivers, said. "They wouldn't want to be involved with all the high-falutin' stuff that you get in grand prix racing."

Needell and his partner, Geoff Lees, are both former grand prix drivers, and frequently showed their speed last year. But the team was bedevilled by breakdowns, as Laurence Pearce, the manager, explained.

"We were very unlucky last year. We managed to finish Le Mans, which is the hardest race of all to complete, and elsewhere we were very unfortunate - and we were always in line for a podium finish when we went out." Problems included a broken steering rack, a couple of gearbox failures and a bad batch of engine components. Hardest to bear was engine failure at Brands Hatch, when the team were confident of second place in front of their watching supporters. "The Newcastle people were all at Brands Hatch and saw how well we were going there," Pearce said. "I think we do a good job, and I think they know that."

Although Sir John takes a keen interest in the team's progress, the link was formed through his son, Douglas, who visited the Le Mans 24 Hours race as a guest of the team in 1995. But although the set-up is something of an oddity, based hundreds of miles south of Newcastle, the team still feel part of the Newcastle "family".

"We're honoured to be part of the Newcastle Sporting Club set-up," Needell said. "It's a humbling experience to see what they've achieved up there. We all went up for the Metz match, and had a great time. It would be good to go more often, but it gets a bit pricey, what with the hotels and that." Hardly extravagant...

Ice hockey: Newcastle Cobras

Ice hockey in the north-east? In a word, confusing. Take a deep breath: last year Sir John Hall bought the Durham Wasps, who formed the nucleus of the Newcastle Cobras, who played in Sunderland, while the Newcastle Warriors (formerly the Whitley Bay Warriors) played in the Newcastle Arena. This year, the Newcastle Cobras play in the Newcastle Arena (which is not owned by Sir John), while the Warriors have returned to their roots in Whitley Bay.

It seems that the original plan, to transfer the Durham Wasps and their fan-base into Newcastle, has not worked out, and the Cobras are in effect starting from scratch. But that is not necessarily a handicap: their coach Rick Brebant has accumulated the most cosmopolitan squad in Britain. The Cobras are ice hockey's equivalent of West Ham.

On the ice they are inconsistent, with a tendency to lose to bad teams and beat good ones. But a poor showing against the Sheffield Steelers in the Benson & Hedges Cup quarter-final (lost home and away) so infuriated Brebant that he came out of retirement as a player to lead his squad from the front. The result is a healthy Superleague position - healthy enough for Brebant to retire once more - but slip-ups still occur, last Thursday night's loss to lowly Bracknell Bees being a case in point.

But Newcastle Sporting Club management are pleased with the way that the complex evolution of the Cobras is progressing. The Superleague is up and running, and the Cobras are competitive, if unreliable. They play at a venue which is at least within the city limits, even if they have to pay for the privilege. Attendances, at around 3,000, are satisfactory, if no more than that. What they seek now is consolidation.

"We're very hopeful that the Cobras can take some sort of title this year," Ken Nottage, the Sporting Club's general manager, said. "For next year, we want to build on where we are going. At the moment, everyone is beating everyone else - we want to get to a level where we are better than the other teams."

To this end the Cobras have been spending pretty freely, but Nottage insists that, contrary to popular perceptions, the barrel is not bottomless. "Absolutely not. We have to work on the business side of the club - to get bums on seats and attract sponsors. We have to balance income and expenditure."

There are signs that the "Sheffield effect" - an ice hockey culture in a football city - may be taking root in Newcastle. Without it, the Cobras cannot grow. Nottage remains optimistic: "The signs are good."

Basketball: Newcastle Eagles

It was only natural that Sir John Hall's sporting club should have looked to the Windy City when it decided to branch into basketball. Chicago is, after all, not so much a hotbed as the global epicentre of the sport. Tony Hancock, one of the coaches working on the Illinois college circuit in the shadow of the mighty Bulls, has been hired to inspire hoop dreams on the north bank of the Tyne, where the Newcastle Arena stands.

He will succeed if he emulates what the Newcastle Eagles - as the club was re-named after being taken over by the Newcastle Sporting Club in May - achieved in a former life. Before moving to Tyneside last year, the club was the pride of Wearside. Back in the early 1980s, when English basketball enjoyed a mini-boom on the back of Channel 4's live coverage, Sunderland rivalled the Alton Byrd-inspired Crystal Palace. They won the National Championship play-offs at Wembley in 1981 and 1983 and came within four points of the European Cup against Bosnia Sarajevo.

That golden era of North-east basketball means little to Hancock. He did, however, have experience of the English scene before arriving on Tyneside in September. Indeed, it was his qualified success in guiding the unheralded Oldham Celtics to sixth place in 1983 that persuaded Ken Nottage, the former Sunderland guard and now general manager of the sporting club, to sign the American.

The early signs have been encouraging, all the more so considering Hancock has been obliged to blend in new players while the season has been in progress. The New Yorkers Ralph Blalock and Rob Phelps have proved particularly adept acquisitions. Their efforts, however, could not stop the Eagles losing 89-78 on Thursday night in the away leg of their Classic Cola Cup semi-final against the Sheffield Sharks team coached by Jimmy "JB" Brandon, one of the Sunderland stars of 1983.

Hancock's men now face a Herculean task in the return match on Tuesday if they are to become the first team from Sir John's sporting stable to reach a national final. "We will be playing the best club in the country too," Hancock said. "But we've made a lot of changes and we are getting better all of the time."

A more realistic, if not much less difficult, target would simply to beat Brandon's Sharks. That is something Newcastle have never managed - even in the days when they were Sunderland.