Locating and occupying neutral ground is quite a task in weeks such as this, but as the Newcastle United chairman, Chris Mort, and his Sunderland counterpart, Niall Quinn, prepared for tomorrow's 139th Tyne-Wear derby, they managed to squeeze in some space and time together... in London. Even there, though, in a swish West End hotel, the North-east's pressurised agenda could be seen in Quinn's flustered search for a red tie to wear while being photographed. Some of the juice may have been drained from the occasion by the two teams' recent upward spurts but tradition, neighbourly fear and loathing, and the presence in the dugouts of Roy Keane and Kevin Keegan for the first time, dictate that tomorrow's match will still be a fraught occasion.
Predictions, gentlemen? "There'll be a big crowd," said Mort; "It'll be an amazing atmosphere," said Quinn. They both laughed, nervously. Presumably bravado was outside, having a smoke.
For the North-east's finger-pointers: on the toss of a coin, Mort answered first. Each man knows the stakes are great. But their civility was unforced and it is hard to imagine their predecessors, Freddy Shepherd and Bob Murray, at the same breakfast table. Still, Mort and Quinn knew that once the day was done, it was back to their respective constituencies – hence Quinn's red-tie moment – and the not inconsiderable job of trying to make two dreaming, sleeping giants of English football wake up and understand the purpose of a trophy cabinet.
It is 81 years since Newcastle's last title and 72 since Sunderland's, yet 52,000 fans will be at St James' Park tomorrow and at season's end Newcastle will have only Manchester United and Arsenal ahead of them in attendance terms. Sunderland look like beating Liverpool into fourth in that table – the same Sunderland who were 24th in the division below 20 months ago and who are still not safe in the Premier League this time round.
Quinn is acutely conscious of such fragility, but in the back of his mind is the thought that the 49,000-capacity Stadium of Light could soon be enlarged. It is one signal that on the Wear, as on the Tyne (and the Tees) there is a feeling that the North-east now has owners, hierarchies and managers who can at last justify the hope that always mushrooms after back-to-back wins.
"Optimism? Well, we'll call it that today," said Quinn. "It's a work in progress. People trusting us, I'm very happy with that, but I always remain cautious. A lot of the job is understanding the emotion of football, because emotion runs wild. We have received great goodwill and that's helped us – the last regime were the victims of smear, they couldn't do right for doing wrong. The connection between fan and club was loose – that's a kind description – and it was important that the fans opened the door to us and that connection is still there.
"The North-east is a better place for having three clubs [including Middlesbrough] in the Premiership, there's no doubt about that. It's a hive of activity when three are up; when one or two are down, it's isolated. It's the passion that is in the air in the North-east. At Newcastle I'm sure you would build the stadium higher if you could. I'm sure Newcastle can go further, I'm sure we can. It's [about] harnessing that potential. When I came back we had crowds of just over 20,000 – the expectation was 15,000, 13,000, if we didn't come. That's a club in trouble."
Mort concurred: "From our perspective I think things have come together. As Niall says, the role of the chairman is about keeping all operations together, so we've made progress off the pitch as well. We're setting up a new charity, for example. And we've sorted out the financial side. It's well-publicised [that] the club had got itself in a bit of a mess. On and off the pitch there's a lot to cause optimism."
Addressing inherited and unforeseen debt of around £80m, as the new owner, Mike Ashley, did at Newcastle, would leave anyone circumspect. Mort stressed "the considerable sums behind many clubs" saying "the competition is intense".
Quinn chipped in. "Yeah, some days you feel like it's Christians v Lions – [Fernando] Torres is playing against you, [Cristiano] Ronaldo is playing against you. But we hope to upgrade our players as times moves on. And I watched Queen of the South the other day."
"Yeah," Mort agreed, referring to Aberdeen's shock defeat in the Scottish Cup semi-final. "Queen of the South. That's why it's fabulous. Those highs are impossible to create in any other line of business."
Two sensible men, awaiting a Premier League meeting at which global expansion was no doubt discussed, suddenly giddy at the thought of a team from Dumfries winning the Scottish Cup – maybe, as Quinn said, there is something in the North-eastern air.
It probably bemuses the rest of the country that the chairmen of clubs placed 12th and 14th in the Premier League can be even on the verge of such excitement, perhaps particularly at Newcastle, where so recently there was ridicule. After sacking Sam Allardyce in January, Mort was asked bluntly if he did not see the "lunacy" in the subsequent appointment of Keegan.
It was one of many twists in an unforgettable year for the 42-year-old uprooted London lawyer, who was appointed by Ashley to steer Newcastle away from the era of Shepherd and Sir John and Douglas Hall. Quinn will also be 42 this year. In 1985, while Mort was a student in Cardiff, playing in midfield for the university team – he was "no Roy Keane" – English football was getting to know Quinn. One month after his 19th birthday he scored on his Arsenal debut, against Liverpool at Highbury. Twelve years later Quinn scored Sunderland's first goal at the Stadium of Light. Less than two years ago, briefly, he was Sunderland's manager as well as chairman. Then came Keane.
So, what's it like being a chairman? "It is like being in a goldfish bowl, as it was when I was a player," Quinn said. "As a chairman it's like that, except someone has stuck a blender in there as well. And switched it on. And you're there trying to work it all out. It does take over your life, there's no doubt. Even when you get to the sanctuary of your own home, the phone goes morning, noon and night. As a player you have absolutely no idea and if anything goes wrong, you blame someone else. There are no excuses where I am now."
"Fabulous," was Mort's first word about his post. "No regrets. Obviously, this season could have been smoother. If you plotted a graph of the season, then after winning away in the first game we declined and the football before Christmas was not what it might have been. But I'm delighted the new manager has turned it around. I'm enjoying watching the team play now."
Mort said his lowest point was "being the only side to get beaten at Derby. The side did not function as a team." But the highest was the 4-1 win at Tottenham three weeks ago, which enabled Mort to add, of Derby: "That feels like a distant memory now, doesn't it?"
It does, but it isn't. Like it or not, all chairmen need public vindication of their decisions and Newcastle's five-game unbeaten run under Keegan is helping Mort and Ashley to justify their choice of manager. It is a lesson: things turn quickly.
"Undoubtedly, the most difficult decision of the season was to replace the manager," Mort said, "but it was the right one for the club and the extent of the welcome locally for Kevin has been overwhelming. The number of wives who've come up to me and said their husbands were in tears has been extraordinary. A woman came up to me at the last game and said she doesn't see her husband any more because since we've started winning he's out celebrating all the time. It's changed the city.
"But maybe it's not the reaction of the adults that's struck me most, it's the children. I went to see the reserves a couple of weeks ago and the number of young lads and girls, under the age of 10 – who certainly wouldn't have known Kevin when he was here last – who were in awe, absolute awe, was amazing. That was only because their parents talked so fondly of Kevin. People who weren't even alive when he was here last were in awe."
Quinn nodded: "Both managers are box office and they do their job brilliantly. How Kevin and Roy handle things ... there's a refreshing honesty about both managers. I'm more than happy to see our man wear his heart on his sleeve and not give standard, guarded PR answers. That's what our people want – 'Even if it's bad news, tell us the bad news.'
"I get letters saying, 'Roy's said this now', and my response is, 'Get over it'. You have to do that. You have to be strong to deal with criticism, and then it flies away. I'm happy with the way Roy deals with things. Some reporters might drag up separate things he's said two years apart and accuse him of hypocrisy, but I know he makes our club a bigger club. The manager has been superb for us. He's the icon, he epitomises what we are," Quinn declared.
Now it was Mort's turn to nod. "Niall has captured it all, the only thing I'd add is that both are incredibly ambitious."
So when you heard Keegan mention Thierry Henry's name you didn't think: "Hmm"?
"Well, I probably had a similar reaction. But I'd be surprised and disappointed if Kevin wasn't pushing us to invest. But for Niall and I as custodians of our clubs, we have to make sure we don't do a Leeds, where the club is unable to cope if success doesn't come. It's a balancing act."
But Keegan wants to "set the place alight" and Keane wants "£50m".
"Some people get carried away," Quinn said. "The £50m thing was mentioned at a charity do and is suddenly definitive. It's water off a duck's back; the media seized on a figure. We have to stay in the real world and out of the emotion, because you can get carried away.
"I know the curve of Sunderland's history, of the yo-yo. We have certain steps to take to the 'impossible dream', as some call it, and in our opinion there are five steps and we have taken one. If we beat Newcastle at the weekend then we may have taken step two. We're still not sure of that but if we retain our Premier League status then it'll be an achievement, I think. Look at where we were. And I don't just mean the team on the pitch – there was no need for a corporate manager because no one was buying corporate tickets. If we stay up, across the board at the club we would have made massive progress."
Quinn's tone was catching. "Historically, the club has looked to please the fans by making a 'statement signing' every now and again," Mort said. "Looking back, I'm just not sure if that's the way to develop long-term success. I want to bring players who are going to develop the club over three to five years. Kevin's return has clearly lit a spark – the team were looking down in the mouth. A dramatic transition has started and Kevin and I would both like to the raise the game. But we're not looking to make one-off signings to appease fans."
Cautious, enthused, worried and hopeful, the two chairmen are representative of their clubs, especially on a weekend such as this. Appeasing fans can be done only one way.Reuse content