Sir John Hall's zeal is opening up the North-east frontier
Wednesday 01 November 1995
He was aiming at nothing less when, in early September, he announced the takeover of Newcastle Gosforth Rugby Club and engaged the England and Wasps' outside-half Rob Andrew as director of rugby development at a reported salary of pounds 150,000. Many thought Hall had misread the topography of a sport he knows nothing about, or that he was engaged in a fanciful ego-trip.
Those views are having to be reconsidered swiftly, and in truth, those who know Sir John Hall, scoffed at such conclusions. Look at what has happened since he appointed Kevin Keegan as manager when Newcastle United were pounds 6.5m in debt and facing relegation to the old Third Division for the first time in their history.
"We put pounds 28m into developing our ground and have spent a net pounds 34m on players since Kevin arrived," Hall says, "and we'll adopt the same strategy for rugby. I've no doubt that Rob will keep us in the Second Division this season and lift the team into the First the year after.
"Rob wants to share our dreams. Rugby is only a part,but an important part. We are already into ice hockey and football, and we will soon announce plans to bring basketball, athletics, golf and motor racing under the umbrella of Newcastle United Sporting Club.
"It isn't a new idea. At Sporting Club of Lisbon they have 80,000 members, based on the football club but offering a multi-sports facility. We want to do that on Tyneside. We could easily bring in 100,000 members. All the people of our region can take part. They will have their own newspaper and maybe a TV channel, dedicated to sport in the North-east. Exciting isn't it?"
Hall brushes aside questions about Andrew's lack of coaching experience. "Kevin was a player when we signed him, just like Rob. He had no coaching or managerial experience either. But what we bought was a quality man, and I believe we have one in Rob Andrew."
Within minutes of meeting Hall you realise that his enthusiasm for rugby is the consequence of a constant source of energy which would be impressive in a man half his age. He speaks at Ben Elton's speed with the conviction of a Margaret Thatcher as he looks at rugby's future and the prospects for the game on Tyneside in his and Andrew's care.
Certainly there is an ego, though not self-aggrandisement: Hall already has enough monuments to satisfy that. "I've made my money out of the North- east," Hall is fond of repeating, "and I want to put some of it back into the North-east." What limited altruism there is in that aim is almost totally obscured by the hard-headedness with which Hall has entered rugby. The decision, one suspects, contained no element of philanthropy.
"We're entering the game with our eyes open and we intend to be one of England's top 10 clubs," he says. "It won't happen overnight. But anyone in property like me, takes a long-term view. Rob's here for five years, and in that time we expect to make a profit."
Not surprisingly, Andrew agrees. "People in the North-east are sports mad," he says. "Sir John wants to turn Kingston Park into a 20,000 all- seater stadium. If we succeed, we'll fill it. It's all about success - the following for the England team is proof of that. Interest in the game has gone through the roof since England started to do well. Winning three Grand Slams and getting to a World Cup final has done this, nothing else.
"I've got no doubt it can be achieved. There's a lot of good players up here. And when Dean Ryan, Nick Popplewell, Steve Bates, Graham Childs, John Dixon and our other signings are eligible we shall have a very good team."
Scale has never inhibited John Hall as he climbed his seemingly irresistible self-made way into the table of Britain's richest 500 after leaving Bedlington Grammar School in 1949. The son of a Northumberland miner, Hall qualified as a surveyor and then, in 1979, he raised pounds 1m to buy a plot of land in Gateshead which eventually became the site of the MetroCentre, Europe's biggest out-of-town shopping complex.
Within seven years Hall's wager had produced spectacular dividends. Twelve months later he applied his golden touch to Cleveland and purchased 6,000 acres from the Marquess of Londonderry which included the stately Wynyard Hall, where he and his wife Mae now live.
Much of that acreage is being turned into a business park. The most recent big-name arrivals are the Korean giants, Samsung, who are investing pounds 450m in an electronics plant. The land, acquired by Hall for pounds 3m, is now worth upwards of 20 times that amount. With this sort of wealth, Hall can afford to be bold as he attempts to fulfil his sporting dreams.
When Hall speaks in schools or to local business groups, he has the fervour of an Old Testament preacher. "If I can do it, there's nothing to stop you doing it," is his clarion call. "We are fighters in the North- east and the investment in the region by companies from all parts of the world over the last decade is a tribute to the excellence of our people."
Hall's is no good-luck story or a simple rags-to-riches tale. Although he possesses no inalienable right to succeed in rugby there is an inexorability about his way which suggests he will. Like Sir John Hall's participation in the game, the revolution in club rugby has only just begun.
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