Profile: Sir John Hall: Ruthless pursuit of a goal

They're not all cheering 'Mr Newcastle' from the stands. By Andy Beckett
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The Independent Online
In the early Seventies, when John Hall was brusquely buying and selling his way towards his first property million, an unsettling dilemma began to colour his Saturday afternoons off. Since the age of eight, he had spent much of this time at St James' Park in Newcastle, watching a stylish football team fade from greatness. His working life, however, had shifted south to Sunderland, home of Newcastle United's most despised, and rising, rivals. He had renovated his first run-down terraces in Sunderland in 1965; now he lived there too. Should he switch allegiances? In 1973 Hall spotted a solution: he bought season tickets for both.

Nowadays, John Hall's identity is not so stretched. He is simply, as the Daily Mirror put it on Thursday, "Mr Newcastle". In 1991 he was made Sir John Hall for helping regenerate the city; the following year he became the commanding shareholder at the football club of his boyhood dreams. And last week, when Newcastle United finally snared Alan Shearer, after four years of tempting - with bait that grew to pounds 15m, the tastiest transfer fee ever offered for a player - Hall explained it all as a cosy tale of local loyalty: "Like most Geordies, eventually they all want to come home... This move isn't about money, it's about bringing a player back to his hometown club."

In Newcastle, a self-conscious place, where some football fans camp by their ground overnight for rarely available match-day tickets, and where 12,000 more sign a waiting list for seasonal passes costing two months of their salaries, there is a readiness to believe in Hall as city champion. In the wider world too, "Mr Newcastle" has a status beyond that of soccer chairman, property developer and 123rd richest man in the country. A tea guest of Margaret Thatcher, he is a Millennium Commissioner under John Major. At the Commission's meetings, only Michael Heseltine speaks as long and as loud as Hall. Reportedly, people listen.

That Hall makes them do so is partly square-shouldered presence: at 64 he has the muscular width of a miner's son, a proud hook of a nose, and a Geordie charm to leaven his grandee's assertions. More importantly, he has added to his business interests with the never-resting, always- widening ambition of a regional Rupert Murdoch. Almost before he had welcomed Shearer last Tuesday, Hall declared his determination to build a new stadium, twice the size of St James' Park, for him to thump goals in. At the start of July, he announced United's flotation on the Stock Exchange, to take advantage of the eightfold increase in its turnover since he became chairman. He recently bought a basketball club, an ice-hockey club, and a rugby union club, each with its own plan for a stadium, and its envisaged place in a single, over-arching Newcastle United Sporting Club, intended to match in a few years the 100,000-member giants built up in Lisbon and Barcelona over the last half-century. Boxing and athletics are next.

And to Hall, as to many of his customers at St James', sport is not simply an expanding leisure business; it is almost the life of Newcastle itself. The property developer has a vision: for the Geordie masses, the all-year circus of the Sporting Club; for the middle classes, a mini-Poundbury of reproduction houses and golf courses, currently being constructed around his Palladian estate, Wynyard Hall; for everyone, revived local pride and prosperity. Outsiders, from Southerners in coaches to Scandinavians on ferries, will come to marvel and spend - the North-east is already Britain's fastest-growing tourist destination - and Sir John Hall's people will be there to greet them. The port is soon to be sold off by the city; he is favourite to buy it.

But by making himself "Mr Newcastle", a City Boss, Hall has acquired a double-edged status. He may be Newcastle's saviour, but he could also be its dictator. In recent months, this possibility has been most apparent in a low-volume squabble, almost buried beneath the noise of the Shearer transfer and the rest, over Hall's very next project: his new stadium.

Hall has his eye on Castle Leazes, a small green lung of Victorian park, ancient moor, and allotment. Newcastle city centre has no other space like it and in February the Labour council rejected his plans to build there, offering 13 alternative sites. Hall threatened that Newcastle United might move across the Tyne to Gateshead. By July, this seemed to have worked: the council voted for a stadium at Leazes after all; local residents and environmentalists protested outside the civic centre, then went home.

Hall's operating methods had been made disconcertingly clear. Obstructed for a moment, the self-styled king of "the Geordie nation" had threatened to take his court elsewhere. It suggested that his loyalties were rather less straightforward than his rhetoric. Somewhere in the chairman of Newcastle United remains the man who could support Sunderland.

JOHN HALL was not born in Newcastle. He grew up in North Seaton, a pit village up the coast in Northumberland. Quite early on, he decided that he did not want to follow his father underground. He was being unrealistic; after six months as an unemployed school-leaver, Hall took a job as a mine surveyor. For four years he stamped out along the tunnels under the North Sea, coal dust getting into everything. At weekends he shook it out and went dancing in Newcastle. By 24 he was married and still living in a single room at his parents'. Then his possibilities slowly broadened: a surveying job above ground, a house of their own in Sunderland, an estate agency.

Until his mid-thirties Hall seemed content with that. He had a son and a daughter; he worked in daylight. It took a government grant to awake the salesman in him. In 1965 Hall discovered that pounds 1,000 was available to anyone who made a derelict house habitable. He bought four, then several more, and by 1967 had earned pounds 40,000. All around him, collieries and heavy industry were gasping their last; with a natural developer's eye, he bought the dead land cheaply and grew commercial property and supermarkets on it.

After making, and losing, his first million during the Seventies, he found his perfect site: 100 acres of ash, piled up and forgotten on the western edge of Gateshead. He decided to put the biggest shopping centre in Europe on it. His company, Cameron Hall, only had the turnover of a large pub, and the North-east was the poorest region in Britain, about to be made much poorer by Margaret Thatcher, but Hall had walked wide- eyed through acres of malls on holiday in Canada; he applied for more grants.

The MetroCentre was a triumph of pragmatism, built with Enterprise Zone subsidies. For the opening ceremony in 1986, Hall was joined by Nicholas Ridley, a Northumbrian of rather grander background. "John is quite happy to do whatever he needs to do," says David Clelland, then a Gateshead councillor and now a Labour MP. In 1987 Hall sold the MetroCentre to the Church Commissioners for pounds 272m and bought Wynyard Hall. Its previous owners were a slipping dynasty of colliery owners. Hall enjoyed inviting miners over.

The same year, he identified another local symbol awaiting reinvention in his own image: Newcastle United. It was a typical lost club: famous for frittering money, letting local talent go, and living off FA Cup glories from the Fifties. With Thatcherite naivety, Hall thought he could sweep in, exert "central control" for a year or two, and then sell the club to its fans, the same people who were spending so freely in the MetroCentre.

It proved trickier. For four years Hall paid for expensive players, battled his way on to the board, and hired private detectives to trace the scattered original shareholders and buy them out. The club was shaken but not roused: in May 1992, United avoided dropping into the old Third Division, a pit of competitive obscurity it had never experienced before, by a single goal in the last match of the season. It was an own goal by their opponents.

NEWCASTLE now win their matches themselves with grand attacking football of a sort seen rarely outside South America. The fortunes of team and chairman seem locked in a virtuous circle. In 1994, Samsung, a South Korean electronics manufacturer, was considering the North-east as a location for its European base; Hall arranged for the company's negotiators to watch United. His players hurled themselves at Royal Antwerp, a respectable Dutch side, and overwhelmed them 5-2. Samsung came to the North-east - or, more precisely, Wynyard Hall.

Such synergies have their risks, though. For all the flair Hall has bought for them, Newcastle United have yet to add to their ancient trophies. When they failed last season, fans sprayed graffiti on the drive at Wynyard Hall. And winning Castle Leazes is going to be a struggle. While a majority favour a stadium at all costs, "there's quite a substantial resentment, bigger than over anything else he's done," says David Clelland.

Resentment of a different kind is already cramping Hall's plans for a United Sporting Club. "The rank and file can't understand why he's spending money on other sports," says Mark Jensen, editor of The Mag, the football team's main fanzine. And Hall responds to such signals.

Last week, with little press, Hall split off his other teams from Newcastle United's share flotation. For now, with his promises of success this season, his praise for the genius of United's manager Kevin Keegan, and his near-daily visits to St James', Hall's hopes are with the football - he is a grandfather living out every child's team-owning fantasy. But Hall may shift if being "Mr Newcastle" gets too frustrating, or too limiting. This season Sunderland are in the Premiership too.

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