Much too big for their boots

Newcastle United is the most powerful institution in the city, says Anne McElvoy, and that should worry us
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THE APOLOGY finally issued by remote control on behalf of Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall to the slighted people of the north-east was about as effective as Gerald Ratner saying sorry for branding one of the products of his jewellery empire "crap". "The comments attributed to them are totally out of character and do not represent their true views," droned their proxy at St James' Park. What they had meant to say that night in between their alleged off-the-pitch scoring on the Costa del Sol was that the women of Tyneside were striking beauties, the fans highly discerning in their choice of merchandise and that Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer deserved congratulation for not descending into the inner circle of depravity. Or at the very least for not turning out like Mr Hall and Mr Shepherd.

The arrogance of assuming that a Tannoyed statement would save the unworthy bacon of the chairman and his deputy is breathtaking. For three days after the reports of trashing Geordie lasses, fleecing supporters and insulting star players steamed off the pages of the News of the World, no statement of explanation or regret was forthcoming. Which other public company could get away with such a cavalier response to a public scandal implicating its senior executives?

Newcastle United has become a monster of a football club. Its complacent management believes it is beyond good and evil. It abuses its power in the city and treats its fans as credulous fools to be first milked for their gate-money and then mocked by the men who enjoy the profits.

The morality tale presented to us on Tyneside should serve as a wider warning to other cities and clubs against allowing a sport to embody civic identity to the exclusion of other considerations and interests. Mr Hall's father, Sir John Hall, the local Midas who turned Newcastle United into a multi-million pound business, tried last year to site a vast new stadium on part of the Town Moor: common land given to the people of the city more than 700 years ago for the purpose of recreation - and the grazing of cows - black and white ones, of course. I wrote then in support of the lobby which opposed this. In the end, we were successful. The project was sidelined, largely through the efforts of an elderly lady called Dolly Potter who spent two years trawling through the club's 11- volume planning application to make a cast-iron case that the club was contravening conservation rights.

Large companies rely on the fact that few members of the public can spare the time or mental resources to pick apart their arguments. This time, they relied wrong. Mrs Potter's environmentalist army triumphed and Sir John took his tanks off the Town Moor's lawn in high dudgeon. What remains in my mind from this episode was the scathing way in which the club treated its opponents' arguments. " How many companies are prepared to invest pounds 100m in the region? This should be an occasion for rejoicing and instead, all that people want to do is chip away, " rapped Sir John. If you did not agree with the club's desires, you were against entrepreneurs, against job-creation and worst of all, against football.

Here was the authentic voice of a local potentate who believed that his understanding of what was good for us was the sole truth. He reminded me of the autocratic head of an unreconstructed Central Asian republic. Even more unsettling is the club's political grip on the area. Several local MPs were unhappy about the planned expansion of the stadium - they had evidence of Newcastle United's aesthetic sense already: the existing stadium was cleverly positioned so as to obscure one of the finest Georgian terraces in the city. But as one told me at the time: "I can't possibly be seen to be anti-Newcastle United - it's about the only thing I could do that would let the Tories in round here."

Clubs grow larger, richer and more ambitious while city-dwellers live their atomised lives devoid of any sense of wider community. Football has become the main civic tie that binds. That can certainly be a force for good. I grew up in the north-east, an area where Bill Shankley's observation, "They say football is a matter of life and death. It's far more important than that," was regarded as a statement of the obvious. Looking down on the expanse of turf at St James' Park before a match, I still feel the same rush of exhilarated anticipation that an opera-lover feels at the first chord of Don Giovanni.

But football has its place - and it is not primus inter pares among civic interests. The surge of money into the game, the stock-market flotations and telephone-number salaries in the major clubs exaggerate the interests of the sport over the wider good of the locality. By appropriating feelings of local patriotism, they seek to put themselves beyond scrutiny. They are becoming the great, unelected power in the life of our cities.

During the Battle for the Town Moor, the Financial Times wrote a leading article which concluded, "In Newcastle, football is a religion and religion comes before mere town planning". I've no idea whether the leader writer believed this nonsense. But the fact that a highly serious daily newspaper had succumbed to such thinking is instructive. More people know the name of their local club chairman than the leader of the local council. The town halls are only too keen to be on the right side of football barons - the Town Moor row in Newcastle started when the council recommended to Sir John that he build on the site.

The situation in Newcastle is so extreme because it is the only league club in the city. That, and the raw emotion it has always produced among its supporters, has heightened every stage in its drama. But it is not the only football club to have a swollen idea of its own importance. As others become richer and more ambitious in their projects, cities will find that they face the same tensions between environmental and planning interests and the aggrandising desires of the oligarchy of football tycoons. Before we indulge their whims in the future, we should remember Mr Hall and Mr Shepherd and what they think of us.

England's regional barons, Section 2, P1