Hall's city of sporting dreams

Dateline Newcastle: A northern knight is having a field day turning Tyneside into a multi-tiered centre of excellence; Andrew Baker embarks on a journey through an empire that is expanding by the day
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The Independent Online
SIR JOHN HALL was in expansive mood. Outside his little office next to the boardroom at St James' Park, Rob Andrew was waiting to brief him on the latest developments at Newcastle Rugby Club. Elsewhere in the stadium, Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott were plotting the football team's strategy for Wednesday evening's Coca-Cola Cup game with Bristol City. And in a little office across the car park, executives were working on the future of the Newcastle Wasps ice hockey team. "Central control," Sir John explained, "with top quality people." He spread his hands, as though he was laying his empire out in front of him. "I'm the vision man."

Sir John's vision has already famously encompassed the rejuvenation of the football club. But now he has his eyes on other sports, to be brought together under the banner of Newcastle United Sporting Club. Rugby union, ice hockey and a sportscar racing team are already up and running; athletics may be next. Sir John got the idea from the great sporting clubs of the continent. Travelling around Europe on business, he met people who belonged to Sporting Lisbon and Real Madrid. "This is going back 25 years or so," he recalled. "It was fascinating to me how these clubs developed around football."

Now he wants to develop that sort of club in Newcastle. "Sporting Lisbon has 60,000 or 70,000 members," he said, slapping the table gently for emphasis. "Barcelona has 100,000. That's what we want. There will be a sense of belonging. People will cherish their membership cards."

THAT is all in the future. Right now, a tour of Sir John's sporting empire requires more than a membership card. It requires imagination, and a pounds 1.30 railway ticket to Sunderland.

Next year the Newcastle Wasps ice hockey team will play in a 10,000-seater stadium in the shadow of St James' Park. This year they are playing in the humbler surroundings of the Crowtree Leisure Centre in Sunderland, where they have to train early in the morning, before the senior citizens' skating club take to the ice at 11am.

The Wasps were a little drowsy last Thursday morning. The night before they had been to watch their new football colleagues beat Bristol City, and had then gone down to the Quayside to make a night of it. But a few friendly body-checks woke them up, and soon they were whacking pucks to and fro with maximum malice, whooping encouragement to each other.

Training was followed by a lengthy "jury session" of tactical analysis in the cramped little dressing-room next to the rink. The coach, Rick Brebant, was understandably enthusiastic about the move. "I've seen all the plans for the new stadium," he said. "And it's fantastic. It's based on the NHL style, and all the facilities will be NHL-standard. The Halls have put a tremendous amount of time and effort into it all, visiting the US to see how things are done over there."

Brebant is not concerned that his team will be overshadowed by their footballing brethren. "I realise football will always be the mother ship of the Newcastle operation," he said. "I just want the hockey to grow."

The residents of Durham, who have lost their town's most exciting sporting attraction, are not so happy. But Paul Smith, who sold the club to Sir John, is unrepentant. "It is the way that hockey is going," he declared. "Look at Sheffield and Manchester. You have to be in a big arena with a big crowd if you are going to get on." He feels sorry for the Durham fans, but says: "We were getting 3,000 people there. The gate receipts weren't reflecting the salaries." Smith, who seems likely to take on a management position with the new club, believes that the future of ice hockey lies with a super league of well-backed teams. "It'll happen naturally," he said. "This is the new generation."

The members of Newcastle Gosforth Rugby Club came to a similar conclusion. Their code had just turned professional, and they feared that they would not be able to compete with the big clubs down south. So they rang Sir John, and asked to join his club.

NEWCASTLE Rugby Club, as it is now known, stands in about 12 acres of suburban land north of the city. It has a smart, modern clubhouse with a little grandstand and a comfortable lounge, where on Thursday evening players watched highlights from Currie Cup matches on a wide-screen television before training.

It all seemed very civilised and smoothly run. Why call for all the razzmatazz of Newcastle United? "In fact," the secretary, Trevor Hogg, explained, "we are fighting very hard to stand still, and in the process exhausting a lot of amateurs." Hogg looked forward to sharing the commercial resources of the parent club. "Right now we have a little shop the size of a dressing-room. But the potential there is massive. Already we've had people ringing up to ask, 'Can I buy a shirt like Rob Andrew wears on the telly?' We counted the calls the other day. One every three minutes."

The little grandstand is likely to be dwarfed by its successor: the talk is of a ground capacity of 20,000. "It's unimaginable," Trevor Hogg said keenly. The arrival of Rob Andrew has already had a positive effect on youth recruitment. "Our mini-rugby set-up is over-capacity," Hogg reported. "We've had to close the application lists at some levels."

THE Newcastle United motor racing team is further away from the mother ship than Gosforth or Sunderland: it is based at Leatherhead, in Surrey. But Lawrence Pearce, who is building the Lister Sports Car that will run in Newcastle's colours at Le Mans next year, is full of praise for the city. "What's going on up there is mind-blowing," he said. "They are building a town that anyone would want to live in."

Sir John is doing most of the building. His latest plan is for a 500- acre centre of sporting excellence at Woolsington, next to Newcastle airport. Right now, it is a collection of fields and a farmhouse. By the time Sir John and his crew have finished there will be a golf course, six football pitches and a further indoor pitch, a gymnasium, a sports hall, a conference centre, a swimming pool and a sports injury clinic. "This is the next frontier," Sir John declared, his eyes glittering with missionary zeal. "The nation needs regional centres of excellence."

Sir John is a very beguiling character. He employs the experienced negotiator's armoury of charms: warm handshake, frequent smiles, maximum eye contact. And in the course of a 15-minute conversation he seems to be several different people: the gimlet-eyed businessman insisting that each "profit centre" must pay its way; the sophisticated Europhile drawing a parallel between Newcastle United and Spain in the 1930s; the kindly uncle of the local lads; and the fan with "a passion for football." Every role is played with intensity and energy: it must be exhausting to work for him.

Sir John's latest adventures in the world of sport have not been universally welcomed in Newcastle. Fans of the football team, hearing of Rob Andrew's pounds 750,000 deal, are worried that resources will be diverted away from their sport to support the new ventures. Mark Jensen is editor of The Mag, a glossy fanzine. "Rugby is a game for toffs and farmers," he said over a drink in The Strawberry, the pub at the Gallowgate End of St James' where supporters traditionally gather before matches. "More people turn out to watch Newcastle reserves than Newcastle Gosforth."

Jensen, like all the fans, is grateful for what Sir John has done for the football club. But, he points out, they still haven't won anything. "People are bewildered, or irritated," he insisted. "They spend money to support the football team, pure and simple. These other sports are an unnecessary diversion that we're just not interested in."

But Sir John is in no mood to back-track. "You have to seize the opportunity," he insisted. Athletics may be next: Newcastle executives have talked - informally - with Jonathan Edwards about a figurehead role. "We'd like to go into athletics," Sir John confirmed. "We'd perhaps do it by bringing two or three of the Harriers together." More work for the marketing men, and another brand of shirt for the Newcastle shop.

Sir John is a canny businessman, and it would be a great surprise if his new ventures failed to turn a profit. But he also has a social conscience, and he knows what success on the field, or the ice, means to the city. "There are kids out there," he gestured at fans queueing at the ticket windows, "who won't get jobs because they haven't been educated. We give them hope, and dignity. They will see champions in every sport. That will happen in my lifetime."