Newcastle in the doghouse

Simon Turnbull describes the mood on Tyneside as the Magpies reel from crisis to crisis; Toon Army becomes the Doom Army as their cherished club's fall from national affection gathers pace
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AS St James' Park emptied on Wednesday night, the man behind the mike on the public address system thanked the Toon Army for its support and placed a record on the turntable. The opening words hung with heavy irony in the Tyneside air: "I'm sad to say, it's time to go..." Outside, at the foot of the steps leading to the main entrance, the same sentiment was being articulated in song - but without the regret. "Sack the board" was the first chant struck by the restless natives of Newcastle. The repertoire then ranged through the outraged - "Scum", "Judases" - before settling on the satirical. "Woof! Woof! Black and white army" and "How much is that doggy in the window?" might have brought a welcome note of levity to a disturbing situation but the mocking words were confirmation of how far the mighty Magpies had fallen. Newcastle United had become a laughing stock - in Newcastle.

It was quite an achievement. Six months earlier Newcastle United had been the pride of English football, let alone Tyneside. But the night Newcastle beat Barcelona was a fading memory on Wednesday. It had been lost in the fog on the Tyne, rather like Douglas Hall and Freddie Shepherd had become separated from their bearings one misty Oxfordshire afternoon six years ago. They turned up at the White House - the White House Ground, to be precise - before being re-directed from the home of Oxford City to the residence of Oxford United. "The first thing that struck me about the place," Hall later recalled of the Manor Ground, "was the gaps in the boardroom where they had taken down photographs of Robert Maxwell."

The picture hooks in the main corridor of power at St James' Park remain undisturbed - but possibly not for much longer. It was announced by Hall's solicitor on Friday that both his client, the vice-chairman of Newcastle United Football Club, and Shepherd, the chairman, would not be tendering their resignations. Despite the tidal wave of public opinion that had swept against them since the opprobrious remarks attributed to them in the News of the World the previous Sunday, they intended to remain at the helm. As a past chairman of Newcastle Yacht Club, Shepherd probably knows a thing or two about weathering stormy waters. And Hall knows how quickly men can be thrown overboard.

That eventful day in Oxford, in February 1992, he assured reporters that Ossie Ardiles's job as manager of Newcastle United was, and I quote, "as safe as houses". Four days later, at seven o'clock on a Wednesday morning, a club official was dispatched to Ardiles's front door with not so much a letter as a sack. It contained a P45.

As the majority shareholder in Newcastle United plc, with a 57 per cent stake, Hall would appear to have fireproof security in the house of St James'. Storm damage, however, could be quite another matter.

It has shown no sign of being limited by belated attempts to suggest that, just like Hall's words at Oxford six years ago, neither he nor Shepherd really meant what they said when, among other things, they boasted of a prolific scoring spree in world-wide houses of ill-repute, mocked Newcastle supporters for buying overpriced replica kit, called Kevin Keegan "Shirley Temple" and Alan Shearer "Mary Poppins" and derided the women folk of Tyneside as "dogs". They have not denied making the comments which appeared in black and white a week ago - merely apologised for them, three days later, and claimed, a further two days on, that drink had drained their memories of what had been said to an undercover reporter in Marbella.

Reading the News of the World today may be a sobering experience for the apparently prodigal son of Sir John Hall and the seemingly straying Shepherd. So might tomorrow's board meeting of Newcastle United plc. It was arranged with the intention of considering the six-month profits due to be announced to the City on Tuesday. Instead, the falling stock of Messrs Hall and Shepherd is certain to top the agenda. The question to be resolved is whether they will pay the price and resign. If not, it seems, the three non-executive directors will leave them to fight their own battle for credibility. Sir Terence Harrison, Denis Cassidy and John Mayo have too many valued business interests elsewhere to risk their reputations being tarnished by association.

It remains to be seen whether irreparable damage has been done to the name of Newcastle United. Once upon a time it stood for everything good in the glory game: for flair on the field and for passion off it (though not in the brothels of New York, Amsterdam and Lisbon). But that was in the good old days of Shirley Temple. The once good name of Newcastle United can now be found in the doghouse.

That much was made clear on Monday when the Prime Minister felt moved to express his "concern" about his allegedly errant friends in the north and again on Friday, when Cardinal Basil Hume visited Tyneside. "For those of us who are strong supporters of Newcastle United these are difficult days," the leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales told BBC Radio Newcastle. "I'm very sorry for the fans because you can't get better in the whole land. They deserve a first-rate team run by a club that is well organised."

The message might have been plucked from the manifesto of the Magpie Group, which launched its "Campaign for Change" 10 years ago. It was led by John Hall, as he was in those pre-knight days, and called for the "democratisation" of Newcastle United. It never achieved its purported power-to-the-people aim - the public share issue it championed was an aborted embarrassment in 1990 - but it put Hall and his son in the boardroom, and Shepherd too. A former Gallowgate Ender whose family fortunes were made in the scrap- metal trade, Shepherd was - until last Sunday - invariably portrayed as Fred the Fan. When he succeeded Sir John as chairman in December he said: "I used to stand on the terraces dreaming of being the right-back, never the chairman."

But, as he stepped into the retiring Sir John's shoes, he could not have dreamed in his worst nightmares that three months later the fans would want Fred out - and Douglas too. It has required neither Peter Snow nor his celebrated Swingometer to gauge the restlessness of the natives on Tyneside in the past seven days. The needle has been pushing closer to the end of the scale all week. On Monday, 90 per cent of callers to Radio Newcastle's phone- in poll said Shepherd and Hall should go. On Wednesday 96 per cent of respondents to the Evening Chronicle's poll - 1,920 in total - agreed. And of the staggering 17,272 votes cast to Tyne Tees Television, an equally stunning 16,899 - 97.8 per cent - were against the directors remaining at St James' Park.

"The anger is mounting on Tyneside," Kevin Miles, spokesman for the Independent Newcastle United Supporters' Association, said. "It's not going away. People will not settle for anything other than the resignation of these two individuals from our football club. They are showing breathtaking arrogance. We've had the clearly expressed opinion, by the vast majority of the region's population, that these men have to go. And they're still ignoring it. They think they're above even public opinion. Well, that sort of contempt won't wash. They've alienated Newcastle supporters in a way that cannot be reversed."

The fear on Tyneside, after the own goal scored away from home in Marbella and the defeat against Crystal Palace on Wednesday night, is that Newcastle's decline in the Premiership table might not be reversed. As worrying as the loss itself was the manner in which it was achieved. As Alan Oliver observed in the Evening Chronicle: "Newcastle managed to make the worst team in the Premiership look like Real Madrid in their heyday." With just a four-point cushion above the relegation zone and seven of their last nine matches away from home, the autumnal conquerors of the pride of Catalonia could end their season heading for Crewe and other points on the Nationwide map.

"Toontanic?" the Sunderland Echo mused on Thursday. Yet, with an FA Cup semi-final ahead, Kenny Dalglish could still steer clear of the iceberg and emerge with trophy-winning honours. Much will depend on whether the troubled ship remains an unhappy one when it next docks at home. Hall and Shepherd have until Easter Monday, and the visit of Barnsley, before they face the fans. If they are still facing the music by then, Alan Robson, the disc jockey at St James', might have an appropriate record at the ready. He made it himself 10 years ago, on behalf of the Magpie Group. It was a catchy little number called "Sack the board".