Why the Falcons are now on a firmer footing

The maths are starting to add up in Newcastle. Hugh Godwin talks to a man with long-term plans
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The Independent Online

The trouble with hyperbole is that it restricts your room for manoeuvre. Rob Andrew, Newcastle's director of rugby, described last week's Heineken Cup match in Perpignan as the biggest in the club's history, so where does that place this afternoon's must-win hosting of the Newport-Gwent Dragons? Fortunately, Andrew's chairman, Dave Thompson, has an equally alluring vision of what a victory will mean to this emerging power of the English game.

The trouble with hyperbole is that it restricts your room for manoeuvre. Rob Andrew, Newcastle's director of rugby, described last week's Heineken Cup match in Perpignan as the biggest in the club's history, so where does that place this afternoon's must-win hosting of the Newport-Gwent Dragons? Fortunately, Andrew's chairman, Dave Thompson, has an equally alluring vision of what a victory will mean to this emerging power of the English game.

"To me, it's about more than one occasion," said Thompson. "I want this to be the first of many; to put together a side who are going to be in the quarter-finals of Europe every year. People understand who the Falcons are now, we are on the news a lot and those children who are interested aspire to play for us. I think that's great. People in the area talk about going to the match, and a lot of the time it's us not Newcastle United. That's a sign of the times."

If there is a right way and a wrong way to build a professional rugby side in this first decade of the open era, Newcastle Falcons have qualified on both counts. Thompson, a multi-millionaire in the IT business, took over in February 1999, with a rescue package in the wake of Sir John Hall's crumbling dream of an all-embracing Newcastle Sporting Club.

The largely bought-in team who had won the Premiership the previous year were breaking up, though Andrew, who joined in 1995, and a then 19-year-old Jonny Wilkinson were two obvious plus points. Those who knew and even loved Kingston Park would not have classed the ground as being much better than a park pitch.

Under Thompson, a passionate Geordie who regards anyone from Gateshead to Land's End as "a southerner", a tidy and hospitable stadium has sprouted. Gates have trebled from 2,500 to a regular figure of 7,500 and sometimes 10,000 sell-outs. There is planning permission to replace the East Stand and raise capacity to 13,000.

"We have learnt two things," said Thompson. "One is that you haven't got to be impatient with building a crowd base. The team have done reasonably well - though not phenomenally well - and won the cup twice. For the past two seasons there has been a degree of regularity, so the fans can plan. Our corporate business has grown from about 180 people prepared to pay a little more on a match day to a baseline of 600, which can be flexed upwards to 800 or 1,000 for certain matches. That's about repetitiveness and about having good surroundings.

"The other aspect is that it takes about five years to build a side. We rely on our academy structure, but it's taken time to get the average age of the team to 26 or 27 and we have got to keep investing to keep it up there. Manchester United were very good at this; they would always ditch the big stars just before they went over the hill and bring in vibrant youngsters while keeping up the average age, and that experience."

There is a chuckle and an answer to the question I haven't managed to ask. "And no, I am not saying we want to get rid of Jonny. He has got at least five or six years left here. What people don't realise is that he will be in his prime in four years' time, at 29."

The England captain-in-waiting has been a one-club man, with a two-year contract extension due to be signed soon. The general boost given to the game by Sydney 2003 and all that has helped sell 35,000 replica Newcastle shirts in the past year. "I'm just looking at the numbers at the minute," Thompson said. "I feel happy we're going to be at break-even plus for the financial year to June."

Of course, the interest in football still dwarfs that for the oval ball. Thompson is "on the board of a couple of companies", but spends most of his days at Kingston Park, and identifies crucial differences. "Some of our supporters also go to Newcastle United, and maybe watch two Geordies on the park and a lot of foreigners. They come here and they have got the exact opposite and feel more empathy with it. These are the things we've kept faith with."

In good shape off the field, Newcastle, with a list of absentees as long as a broken arm, could be a good deal better on it, with Wilkinson's knee ligament injury putting him once again among the crocks. You suspect the squat, robust Thompson, who used to hook for a junior club, Novocastrians, would readily lace on a pair of boots.

Watching him take a drink with the potato-nosed former France lock Jean-François Imbernon in the latter's bar in Perpignan was to be caught between a rock and a hard place. In fact, though Thompson will have had his usual sleepless night, and will make the two-mile journey to Kingston Park "as white as a sheet", he leaves the playing to his son, Matt, one of the first team's hookers. Thompson Senior started out in IT in 1966 and took a start-up business with four people to 700 in eight years, implementing systems for General Electric in Europe.

"Everybody told me getting involved here was the silliest thing that I had ever done," he said. "If we qualify today we'll have established ourselves as one of the best eight clubs in Europe this year. That's quite a statement."

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