SIR JOHN HALL ON MIKE ASHLEY AND FUTURE OF NEWCASTLE UNITED
By Steve
Wednesday 10 Aug 2011 09:12:00
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Our editor Steve Wraith travelled to Wynyard Hall to meet up with Sir John Hall and Honorary Life Vice-President Malcolm Dix and talk about the Magpie Group, Shearer, Mike Ashley and a lot more besides. Read on…

 

TT:

 

Were you always a Newcastle United fan?

 

SJH:

 

Yes always. I’m an Ashington lad and my first match was in 1941. I was sitting on the popular side on the plank of wood that they use to have along side the pitch. I can remember it as if it were yesterday. If you were a child the adults would pass you over their heads so that you could reach the front. I remember looking up towards gods castle as I called it, the old West Stand and wondering what it would be like to sit there one day. If only I’d known.

 

TT:

 

How did the takeover come about?

 

SJH:

 

Malcolm  Dix, John Waugh, Alan Rooney and Peter Ratcliffe had been fighting the club and the board for years. I had started working life as a mining surveyor, then moved on to being a property surveyor.  It was during the building of the Metrocentre. I was sitting minding my own business in one of the portacabins  when Malcolm and the lads knocked on the door.  They walked in saying that they needed help to take over the club. I told them all, that I had a lot to do and couldn’t commit to any takeover attempt. They wouldn’t take no for an answer  and resorted to dirty tricks to get me on board. They sent round the journalist Bob Cass one Friday afternoon for a chat. He came armed with a bottle of his finest whisky. Now I’m not a whisky drinker but I took one to be polite, and then another. I was maudlin a bit, a couple of hours later and he had me agreeing to put up half a million for the cause. I didn’t want to run a football club, but I was now on my way to doing just that.

 

 

TT:

 

You seemed to have played a big part behind the scenes at Newcastle United Malcolm. Where did it all start?

 

MD

 

As a fan first and foremost like everyone else. The Newcastle Supporters Association (NSA) was formed by myself and others out of despair. At the time there were no fanzines and we came up with the idea of a free news sheet for the fans. I got the advertising in place and the good people at the Gateshead Post agreed to produce an 8 page newspaper for us called ‘ The Supporter’. It lasted for 21 issues and we had a few moral victories over the club. Bobby Rutherford, the then Chairman,  had his feathers ruffled by me on more than one occasion and attacked me via the media so our efforts had the desired effect.

 

We also went into the licensing trade when we purchased a building from ‘Crawfords The Printer’ for £65k and launched ‘The Gallowgate Club’. We also created ‘The Number Nine Bar’.  The idea was to pay homage to the illustrious shirt and have a picture hanging in the bar of every person who had ever pulled the famous jersey on for Newcastle United. Jackie Milburn my hero performed the grand opening that day. Vaux had put up the money as Newcastle Breweries were directly opposite and an illuminated sign appealed to their Chairman!! The y provided us with a horse drawn coach to take our famous No.9’s from Balmbra’s in the Bigg Market up to ‘The Gallowgate’. The date was the 9th June (Blaydon Races). We had 7 Newcastle Centre Forwards present including Len White, Albert Stubbins, Peter Withe and Charlie Wayman. It was a great day. The club initially did well but the NSA members weren’t social club people and we handed over to ‘the drinkers.’ It was soon apparent we were running at a loss. The photos were then housed in various other venues including the old supporters club and then a bar in Walker which Mirandinha helped launch. You can now see them proudly displayed in the ‘Platinum Club’ at St James.

 

With the NSA I’d battled with Westwood and Rutherford, and was now battling with McKeag, in fact my battles with the club with Extraordinary Meetings and High Court actions saw me battling with the bailiffs at my front door. The Board were not ‘nice’ people. Luckily I struck up a good rapport with the guy they sent around and he gave me 24 hours to get my finances sorted out with the bank.  John though was the man of the moment. Despite the whisky from Bob Cass he didn’t take a lot of persuading. He liked the publicity and any publicity was going to help him make the Metrocentre a success. We were under no illusions and knew that Mckeag and his fellow directors wouldn’t give in without a fight. With that in mind we brought in Mincoffs and the ‘Magpie Group’ was born. I’ll always remember the initial attempts to buy shares from others. Sir John gave us all 3 signed blank cheques with a value of up to half a million on them. I wish I’d kept one of those with hindsight! Joking aside I took great pleasure in buying up the shares and eliminating this old regime that I had been at loggerheads with for years. I remember buying the Westwood shares from Gavin over quite a few gin and tonics.  We needed some young blood in the club and it was finally going to happen. I had the words of Jimmy Rush echoing in my mind as Sir John started to take control, he once said to a local paper with regards to me, “We don’t want any whizz kids on the board,” it still makes me chuckle that.

 

SJH

 

Malcolm fought the early battles and wedged the doors open for us. I then called a meeting with my son Douglas and we went from there. I remember Douglas saying ‘Get me a million and I’ll take the club over for you’. I told him I didn’t want to do things that way, but with hindsight that decision cost me a lot of money.  Newcastle United epitomised English business at that time. Old entrepeneurs building it up to a certain level and then unable to progress. We  started buying up the shares from the board members and obtained 40% . We used to have regular meetings at Wynyard Hall and count up the shares. With a 40% stake I had to be given a seat on the board and in one of my first board meetings the team manager at the time Jim Smith, walked out saying that ‘he couldn’t work with people like me’. I had challenged him over the signing of Roy Aitken. I started pushing for a share issue. My remit hadn’t changed. I didn’t want to own a football club, I wanted to democratise Newcastle United and let the fans run it. I was one of them remember. I used to stand and sing ‘sack the board’ at previous regimes so I understood what it meant to them. We launched the shares prospectus and held an open day at the club. We gave the fans the opportunity to be in control. They didn’t take it. I have to say that was my biggest disappointment. I felt foolish and many of the board took great delight in laughing at me behind my back.

 

MD

 

They were still in opposition to us.

 

SJH

 

The fans would have been on the board and had a say. They missed the opportunity. I decided I needed a break and I booked a holiday with my good lady. It was the 150th anniversary of Thomas Cook  and we booked a round the world tour. We even appeared in an Alan Whicker documentary on that trip, for which I still haven’t been paid and it’s been repeated quite a few times! Anyway I’m half way through the trip in Repulse Bay, Hong Kong when one of the waiters approached me and said ‘Mr Hall telephone call for you.’ I’m thinking who the hell knows I’m here.  I pick up the phone. It was Douglas and Freddy Shepherd. In a nutshell they had rang to tell me that Barclays Bank were pulling the plug on the club and it would go out of business unless I put in £645,000. I was stunned and angry. The club had a clause in the overdraft agreement that prevented them from buying any players, but the board had overlooked this and gone ahead and bought a player, triggering the bank to ask for this loan to be repaid . I had no option but to put the money into the club. I would also have to launch an official takeover of the club on my return. If I didn’t I would lose my money and I’m not in the habit of doing that. On my return we got the ball rolling and the “Magpie Group’ were a great help. I couldn’t have done it without them. We came in and cleared the old board out and I had to start looking for a man to run the football side of things whilst I concentrated on the business. The takeover meant that my other business would have to go on hold. I’d just started development of Wynyard and the building of 900 houses. I couldn’t finance both so things came to a halt at Wynyard. I fell out with the council over this but they would have to wait. I would need to use Wynyard as guarantee for the club over the coming years.

 

MD

 

Then Freddie Fletcher came in.

 

SJH

 

I’m just coming to that. Fans should raise a glass to Scottish And Newcastle Breweries, David Stephenson and Alistair Wilson to name but two. It was Alistair, who sadly who is no longer with us that recommended Freddie.

 

At that time Ossie Ardiles was manager of the team and his results were not good- we were going down! We had to change the manager but as we were not ‘football men’ didn’t know how to approach the problem. “ Leave it to me” Freddie said. Very early next day he went to Ossie’s house and told him he was sacked-Ossie accepted his fate.

 

It was Freddie Fletcher and Alistair Wilson who recommended Kevin Keegan. Kevin had been out of the game for a number of years having retired to Marbella, and was playing a lot of golf.

 

Douglas and two Freddies flew out to Marbella and convinced him to come back to Newcastle. The deal was done. I guess we found each other at the right time. It was a unique time in the history of Newcastle United. We were everyone’s second team- we played such exciting football.

 

We spent over £60m on players- Beardsley, Rob Lee, David Ginola, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Tino Asprilla- and many more.  What a team we had.

 

There were some difficult moments with the fans especially when Kevin sold Andy Cole to Manchester United. I remember well the time when Kevin stood in front of the fans and told them why he did it. If only we had won the League when we were 12 points ahead. At the time we pleaded with Kevin to buy a defender to strengthen the defence but he wouldn’t do so and the rest is history.

 

After the fires and disasters at Bradford and Hillsborough we had to redevelop the ground to make an all seater stadium. I wanted to move the Stadium onto Leazes Park whilst others preferred sites in other parts of Newcastle. We also looked at land in Gateshead. It seemed that each way we turned we faced opposition, whether it was people campaigning to protect Leazes Park or the city council opposing us taking it to Gateshead citing the bridges as being unable to cope with the volumes of traffic transporting fans for home games. We had no option but to invest our money into the redevelopment of St James. It was a proud moment for me when the job was finally completed. I remember walking round to the corporate boxes and passing an old man in a seat in tears. I stopped and I asked him why he was crying? He said, ‘Mr Hall I’ve been coming here for forty years and I never thought I’d ever have my own seat.’ In that moment I think it hit me how people in this area lived their lives through football. That frightened me. It was a big leveller for me. The increase in stadium capacity wasn’t enough. We had the sold out signs up and 14,000 people on the waiting list. The East Stand was the problem in the ground redevelopment. With listed buildings behind it we would have had to spend a lot of money to knock the stand down and start again and incorporate the listed buildings into the stand. It could be done but we felt at the time the money could be invested better elsewhere. When you look at the ground now it’s something to be proud of. That is our legacy.

 

When we played at Grimsby just before we were promoted, Mae and I drove down the M62 in our Bentley and we pulled in at a Little Chef for a quick break. Mae wanted a smoke and I wanted a coffee. As we pulled in  I could see a battered transit van with its doors opening and an assortment of Newcastle fans climbing out of the back of it. There were a few crates of brown ale left in the back. They started to line up for a pee so I parked up alongside them and got out of the car. I walked over to them and demanded to know their season ticket numbers. They all looked at each other and I told them that if they were caught out again that I’d have the season tickets taken off them. They were all very apologetic and made there way back to the van. I told them I wouldn’t forget them, to which Mae added, ‘I won’t forget you either…but it won’t be your faces!’ But that was the power of the season ticket in those days with the waiting list we had. Great times. I remember another occasion when season ticket holders were caught on camera robbing a garage on the A19. We managed to locate each and everyone of the offenders and we called them into the club to explain their actions. They were all sorry for their actions and each went back to the garage to apologise and pay for the stolen goods. I remember a particular trip to Peterborough that season to when we had decided to travel down by train. I remember getting off at the station and just seeing a sea of black and white. As we headed towards the ground various fans asked if they could walk with us and they were actually stopping traffic and saying ‘Stop right there folks Wor Chairman is crossing the road.’  Coming back from that game the fans were in jubilant mood after a great performance and another 3 points and we were sitting in first class. Word got round that we were on board and fans started to pile into our carriage and I spent the next 3 hours travelling home answering questions on the club. Those at the far end of the carriage were shouting down ‘Ask the Chairman’ this and that. You just wouldn’t get that nowadays.

 

TT:

 

Regrets?

 

I’d have to say mistakes in appointing managers. For example Kenny Dalglish wasn’t the most communicative shall we say. But the biggest regret…not getting Bobby Robson back after Kevin. Joe Melling at the Daily Mail rang me to say that Elsie wanted to come home and that he’d heard that Barcelona were going to move Bobby upstairs and bring in Louis Van Gaal as team manager. We arranged to meet Bobby. We all flew out to Spain to try to persuade him to come home. The meeting went well and he agreed in principle to the move to St James and we shook hands and left him to enjoy the rest of his day. On my return to Newcastle I rang him to make arrangements and he told me that he wasn’t coming. He had changed his mind. I was sad but accepted his decision. Bobby didn’t think that Barca would move him upstairs. Weeks later they did just that and the rest is history. Bobby after Kevin would have taken us to a new level .

 

TT:

 

The signing of Shearer. Discuss.

 

 

 

SJH:

 

This was Freddie Fletcher at his very best. He was good mates with Blackburn owner Jack Walker and had mentioned to him that if ever felt like selling Alan would he give us first option. When that moment came Jack was as good as his word and rang Freddie to let him know that Manchester United had shown an interest in Alan, but he didn’t want to sell him to them . We managed to raise the £15 million asking fee and I’m sure the fans would agree it was money well spent. Not only was he a wonderful player but he like Jonny Wilkinson at the Falcons was a great ambassador for the area, and still is. The day we unveiled Alan at the ground to the fans and media. Over 12,000 turned up. Remarkable.

 

TT:

 

Greatest game?

 

 

SJH:

 

5-0. 5-0 without doubt. I live it, I dream about it. That goal of Ginolas where he turns and cuts inside , oh and Alberts chip. They brought a video out called ‘Howay 5-0’, it ‘s a game our fans will remember for many a year. A close second would have to be Barcelona at home in the Champions League and that unforgettable hat-trick from Tino Asprilla.

 

TT:

 

Favourite Player?

 

SJH:

 

None of those that played for me when I owned the club which may surprise your readers. Bobby Mitchell. He was twinkle toes to our generation. He could go round or through defences with the greatest of ease. You had to see him play to appreciate how good he was. Each era brings it’s own special players though and I was a big fan of Tony Green and of course Supermac. I’d have to mention Peter Beardsley too, great servant as a player in both spells at the club, although I didn’t want him to come back for a second spell under Kevin as I thought he was too old-How wrong I was!

 

MD:

 

You rang me for advice on Peter and I told you that I thought he would do a good job.

 

SJH:

 

Yes your were right and I was wrong on that occasion.

 

TT:

 

Do you think fan ownership is realistic?

 

MD:

 

I don’t think buying the club is a reality for the fans. If the club was run by supporters it would be wonderful. But realistically there are so many supporters and so many views that it makes it impossible to represent everybody. As Sir John has said in the past, great clubs are run by one man. All clubs should have a fans representative on the board though. Someone who can liaise with both parties and keep the lines of communication open.

 

TT:

 

What made you call it a day?

 

SJH:

 

When Roman Abramovich came in it was my time to go. I was very concerned about the man’s motives. There were stories in the press at that time that he wanted a British passport and a high public profile. His billions would change the game forever and I knew we could not compete financially.  Most clubs had to try and live within their incomes but not Chelsea. Before Abramovich most of the owners in the Premier League were local businessmen like myself. We had money but not billions and I couldn’t see point of trying to compete financially with him. It was a battle we couldn’t win. If you’re a Chelsea fan of course it’s great to have that investment. In my view the game will implode on itself unless UEFA bring in strong financial controls.

 

TT:

 

Why Mike Ashley?

 

I decided to sell my shares because of Abramovich. It took me just over two years. I was in negotiations with some Malaysians when I got a call from another group. They wanted to meet me in London prior to my meeting with the Malaysians. I agreed. I was met at Kings Cross and taken by Rolls Royce to Freshfields and into a packed meeting room where this unnamed parties financial representatives began to make me an offer. I told them that I would honour my meeting with the Malaysians so could not give them an answer. They tried their best to persuade me otherwise but I’m a man of my word. The meeting with the Malaysians went well but they wanted 6 weeks to do due diligence. The offer from the other party at Freshfields waived that right and was a better deal. I was told that the man behind the deal was Mike Ashley and I sat with his representatives over 3 days thrashing out a deal. I was keen to know why they wanted the club and they were quite honest. They wanted to market their sports goods in the Far East and would use the Club to help do this.  To me it made sense to market the Club globally. It was a win win situation for Mike and the Club. We hadn’t done that. Over the 3 days I gave them a lot of advice. When they took over they put Chris Mort in to run things and went private. It was a good move. He’s not a fool and like Mike he came in with the best of intentions. His subsequent departure caused a few problems and Mike made a mistake listening to the likes of Paul Kelmsley at Spurs. I think he made another mistake bringing back Kevin Keegan. He was yesterdays man, like Dalglish at Liverpool now. It wasn’t a rational decision and he’s had to pay for it.  The appointment of Dennis Wise upset Kevin and the inevitable fallout happened. I thought the local media handled the situation badly and the vilification with headlines such as ‘Get Out Of Toon’ were unjustified. I believe the damage has been done and I believe he will get out of the club when he can, but it will have to suit both the club and him. Mike has the wealth to challenge, but he’s been hurt. He needs to liaise with the fans. I think he made a huge mistake drinking with them in the early days, I think he took some bad advice.

 

TT:

 

What did you make of the sacking of Chris Hughton?

 

SJH:

 

Chris Hughton was a lovely fella. But as Freddie Fletcher used to say , ‘you have to win your home games’, and we weren’t doing that under Chris. I’m not sure if in the long term if he was the right man for the job.

 

TT:

 

What do you make of Alan Pardew?

 

SJH:

 

I don’t really know him so I cannot give an opinion. I know the owners of Southampton who sacked him. This season his results are no better than Chris Hughton.

 

TT:

 

If you could change one thing about your time at the club what would it be?

 

I wish I’d gone back to Spain to persuade Bobby Robson to come home. It’s my biggest mistake. I didn’t push him hard enough. I should have been harder and more determined. After Keegan, one of our most successful managers, his experience would have brought the club the much needed stability it needed. I’m convinced he would have taken the club on and we would have won the League. Hindsights a wonderful thing.  We had a wonderful twenty years though, let’s not forget that.

 

TT:

 

Your view on agents and the game as it is today?

 

SJH:

 

I had many an argument with agents in my time at the club. I remember when Duncan Ferguson wanted to return to Everton.  We had agreed to the move when we got a fax from his agent saying that he couldn’t go unless he received £300,000. I was furious and told him that we weren’t paying it!  Agents started saying to clubs that if you wanted there player then you would have to pay them before the deal could be agreed.  This is ridiculous. They take a lot of money out of the game and are helping to destroy it.

 

If a club instructs an agent buy, sell or find a player for them then the club should pay them a fee. But not if the player is under contract to the agent.

 

MD:

 

Money goes out of the game it doesn’t recycle.

 

SJH:

 

Why should a club be blackmailed by an agent? Your lawyer doesn’t charge another person if they act on your behalf do they? There’s nobody big enough to stop them. Even the Premier League don’t seem to have the power. One day someone may be big enough to make a stand.

 

MD:

 

Both clubs have to pay the agent during a transfer deal.

 

SJH:

 

That money could go towards academies.

 

MD:

 

There is nobody in football prepared to stand up and be counted. A figurehead.

 

 

MD:

 

What about a wage cap?

 

SJH:

 

Never works. There was a wage cap in George Easthams’ day and they just put it in the boot. There was always a way round it. The clubs need to start living within their income. When I first came into the game I went to Real Madrid to see how they were run. They had a debt of £142 million. It was the peoples club yet nobody had any money to put in. The Spanish like the French worked with the local authorities and they helped subsidise a new training facility for them which they eventually sold for £150 million which cleared the debt. The local authority then helped them locate some new land next to the airport for the club to train. Manchester City got a subsidised deal for their new stadium. We didn’t get that when we re-developed St James Park. We had to put all the money into it ourselves. With a winning team today the ground would have to have an increase in capacity to 65,000. The ground would be full week after week because the fans are so loyal. 



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