Newcastle aim for the high ground

Simon Turnbull assesses the blueprint behind the black and white ambition

The bunker mentality at Old Trafford yesterday was evidence that Newcastle had scored a direct hit in their battle to silence those who believe, as the Stretford Enders have long proclaimed, that there is only one United.

Martin Edwards, the chairman and chief executive of Manchester United, blamed his club's loss to Newcastle United in the race for Alan Shearer's signature on Blackburn's refusal to do business with their bitter North- west rivals. But perhaps he should have looked closer to home.

Newcastle has had a United for 104 years, a decade longer than Manchester, but the city's football club now has the world's most expensive footballer because of its ambitious pursuit of the Manchester United blueprint for success.

Newcastle were pounds 6m in debt and on the brink of collapse before Sir John Hall came to the rescue four years ago. Osvaldo Ardiles had not even been able to afford pounds 350,000 to buy Joe Allon from Hartlepool in November 1991 as his side battled against the threat of relegation to the old Third Division.

Yesterday, Kevin Keegan took his spending on players to pounds 60.75m. Some pounds 25m has been spent on redeveloping St James' Park, yet Newcastle plan to move to a new 75,000-seater ground. They are also preparing a pounds 180m floatation on the stock market, for which the purchase of Shearer was seen as the ideal launchpad.

The challenge for Keegan is to match, and then eclipse, Manchester United as a trophy-winning force. The 12-point lead Newcastle squandered against Alex Ferguson's side last season meant a 41st year without a major domestic honour being deposited in the antique trophy cabinet at St James' Park.

The challenge for Sir John and his fellow directors is to sustain Keegan's ambition by emulating the Manchester United money-making machine - hence the decisions to uproot from St James' and go public, and to speculate on that expansion and the accumulation of silverware with yesterday's pounds 15m investment.

Sir John, in fact, outlined his intentions in the wake of Newcastle's failure last season. "This club can be the biggest in the United Kingdom and we have dramatic plans for the next four or five years," he said on the steps of St James' Park as Manchester United were parading the Premiership trophy 45 miles away on Teesside.

"We are looking at the possibility of building a new stadium because we are very con- scious that thousands of people who want to come and see us just can't get in. But a new stadium would cost somewhere in the region of pounds 30m and our annual turnover is only some pounds 10m more than that.

"Manchester United, because they have been able to increase the capacity of Old Trafford to around 55,000, take pounds 1m every time they play there, and they have an annual turnover of pounds 70m. That's the kind of competition we've got. It's a really huge challenge, but we are more than happy to be facing it.

"We've run Manchester United very close for the championship, but we are not in their league commercially. They have a distinct financial edge there. They are a very sharp public company, very commercially minded, and you have to concede that they're at the top on and off the pitch. But when we've won what they have - and we will - we'll be up there with them."

How ironic it would be if that first trophy were to be won at Manchester United's expense, and with the goals of Alan Shearer, in the Charity Shield match at Wembley on Sunday week.

Sir John and his boardroom colleagues know it will take much more than that to establish Newcastle as English football's leading United. But they know how significant Shearer's signing could be.

"Perhaps people will now realise why we need a 75,000-seater stadium," Russell Jones, one of the club's directors, said yesterday as the 12,000 people on the waiting list for 33,000 season tickets were invited to apply for 300 executive passes, available at pounds 1,500 each.

Sir John, on holiday in Spain, said yesterday: "It shows the board's determination to keep Newcastle at the top, challenging for the championship and for honours in Europe."

It is a message that will be received loud and clear in Manchester. The champions may have their own Jordi to parade at Old Trafford, but the challengers have the Geordie they both wanted. As the 300 fans gathered outside St James' Park yesterday lunchtime put it: "He's coming home. He's coming home. He's coming. Shearer's coming home."

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