Dave Thompson drove the 300 miles to Newcastle Falcons' Friday-night match against Bristol alone. "I like a bit of solitude before a game," he said. The loneliness of the long-distance club owner? Like it or not – and he doesn't – every trip he makes outside his native North-east takes him closer to English rugby's heartland.
Thompson has done his damnedest at considerable expense to change this perception, and he is "proud and satisfied" that he has achieved what he set out to when he became Newcastle's chairman a decade ago.
Last year he negotiated with three potential buyers before he called the sale off, citing would-be purchasers more interested in real estate than rugby. Still, it is clear that he can see a future without him being in charge.
"This is not like any other business," said Thompson, who made his fortune in IT. "You own the thing, but you are only the custodian." In some sports organisations, the "succession planning" of which the 67-year-old Thompson speaks would mean passing it on within the family, but he has not gone down that route.
He continues to take the brickbats from critics such as an anonymous club sponsor who complained to The Times of "autocratic" management, adding that "change is badly needed".The newspaper is home to Jonny Wilkinson's columns and it mooted the idea of the celebrated but serially injured fly-half leaving Newcastle for France next season. "Jonny's under contract here till summer 2010. Anyone who wants him has to approach us, and nobody has," said Thompson, adding that Carl Hayman, Newcastle's All Black prop, would "definitely" see out the final year of his contract.
I met Thompson at Kingston Park, which he has transformed from a park pitch into a smart stadium replete with pleasant bars and eateries. They share it with a non-League football club and, as we sat in the Due Dieci restaurant, he pointed through a window towards the training pitch, which he owns and which is also used by the amateur Gosforth RFC and Northumberland RFU.
It is quite the blueprint of a modern-day outfit looking after the grass roots, albeit far removed from the Newcastle sporting empire trumpeted by Sir John Hall when he bought a team packed with internationals with Rob Andrew as head coach, and Newcastlewon the league in 1998. Since then they have never finished higher than sixth and are not balancing the books.
The ground was owned by Northern Rock until the troubled bank – and, by extension, the taxpayer – sold it to Northumbria University a few months ago. Crowds have dropped to an average 5,000, and Mathew Tait and Toby Flood left last summer.
Thompson counters that Newcastle, Bath and Wasps are the only clubs meeting the Rugby Football Union's guidelines on English-qualified players. He envisages Northumbria students bolstering the support and a £50 season ticket including rugby, football and an American-style "collegiate" competition.
The Premiership clubs are thinking bigger to sort their finances out. Their proposal for an extra six league matches next season, which they say will add £6 million in income, will go before the Professional Game Board on 12 March. Newcastle are "solidly" in favour but the RFU are not. "You have a lot of talk from the RFU about spoiling the shape of the competition," Thompson said, "yet they hail the Six Nations' Championship, which is blatantly uneven every single year, with two matches at home and three away or vice versa. I don't mind having sensible arguments, but not stupid ones."
The 35-3 defeat of Bristol on Friday night gave Newcastle a lift, but both clubs have had to stomach rumours that they might be cut adrift by their wealthier brethren. The colour came to Thompson's cheeks when I mentioned that Harlequins' chief executive, Mark Evans, had predicted a European league including perhaps three or four English clubs if the free market was allowed to decide. "How arrogant is that?" said Thompson.
But he didn't shoot the messenger. Perhaps that was because his mum and dad met when they worked for the Newcastle Chronicle.Reuse content