‘You are only custodians for the fans; so many people live their lives through football’ – that’s the view of the man who owned Newcastle United during the club’s most successful period in recent memory.
And despite being taken by his dad onto the terraces since the age of eight, Sir John Hall was still amazed by the intensity and fervour the club inspired in its supporters when he became chairman.
“The passion for the club was actually quite frightening,” he said, as he reflects on how he found himself owning a football club, having never really intended to do so.
Growing up in a pit village near Ashington, Sir John was ‘part of the tribe of Newcastle’ from an early age and recalls as a fan ‘being stood there and shouting ‘sack the board’, never thinking one day that would be me up there’.
While he was involved in the development of the Metrocentre, a group of board members who wanted to change things and democratise the club, including Malcolm Dixon, had approached him a number of times to try to get him involved.
Eventually, on a Friday afternoon, after a bad week, when he was ‘drinking whisky and feeling maudlin’, Sir John said, ‘okay, I’ll put in half-a-million as a catalyst if three other people came in as well and the fans were able to buy shares on the market’.
But the fans didn’t trust the board and didn’t buy the shares, leaving Sir John owning 40 per cent of the club and with a seat on the board for him and his son Douglas.
He went on holiday, a round-the-world tour, and received a phone call upon arriving in Hong Kong, which was a surprise because not many people knew he was there.
It was Douglas and Freddy Shepherd – the old board had an overdraft of £1million, but the money was for the management of the club, not for buying players, which was what had happened, so Barclays pulled the plug and said, ‘put your own money in’, which meant Sir John was required to pay up in line with his 40 per cent stake.
It was at this time that he launched the takeover bid, with the help of the Magpie Group and support from sponsors Newcastle Breweries, ending up with about 90 per cent of the shares: “I found myself the owner of a football club.”
This was the 1991/92 season and the black and whites were languishing towards the bottom of Division Two, facing relegation, before Kevin Keegan was brought in as manager and within four years, the club was competing for the Premier League title.
King Kev had been out of football for a number of years, but ‘still knew where the players were’ and was responsible for bringing in players that are household names in the North East, such as Rob Lee, Peter Beardsley, David Ginola and, of course, Alan Shearer.
“The team he created became everyone’s second team and my greatest disappointment was not winning the league when we were 12 points in the lead (in 1995/6),” said Sir John. “He found us and we found him, we funded him and he created the team and it was a great family atmosphere.”
He also bought up other sports clubs in the North East, including the Newcastle Falcons rugby team, bringing the England legend Jonny Wilkinson to the club at the start of his career.
In 1997, he passed chairmanship of the club to Freddy Shepherd, who passed away this September, but retained his shares. His concerns started to mount when Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich came into the game as owner of Chelsea in 2003.
Sir John said: “He’s a billionaire and we were local millionaires. The day he came in, he changed the nature of the game. It’s got to the point where it is today where unless you’re a billionaire, you’re going to be an also-ran in the Premier League.”
This motivated the eventual sale of the club, in 2007, to Mike Ashley, who Sir John says ‘came in for the right reason’.
“He said, I want to globalise Newcastle – it’s a brand, Newcastle – I want to use them to sell Sports Direct goods in the Far East. It was a great idea, that was his intent, but he got off on the wrong foot and it went all wrong for him and we have the situation today where he’s trying to sell the club.
“It will be interesting to see who’s actually going to buy it. I only hope they have the resources to compete with the wealth that’s at the top of the league.
“I wish Abramovich hadn’t come into football. Looking back now, nobody could foresee where football was going to go.
“It will destroy the game if it’s only a few at the top, season after season.
“It’s wrong; the rest of the clubs have got to resist the top five trying to take more money out of the game.”
Moving on from the state of football, Sir John also has some concerns about the North East’s business environment, fearing that the region doesn’t yet have a raison d’être in the post-industrial era, while also citing the need for a collective voice, something he feels that regional development agency One North East helped to provide.
“We have got to break out of this stranglehold,” he says. “The word enterprise has never been high on the list of people up here, because we have worked for big companies.
“I want to see a greater proliferation of family businesses, of enterprise, that’s the only way we’ll change the area.
“There’s no direction in the region,” he adds, referring to the recent difficulties around a devolution deal.
“We are still talking about the same problems as we were 50 years ago and I don’t think there has been the political leadership in this region from the Labour Party.”
A Conservative supporter, Sir John recognises that there are deep-rooted historical reasons for the region being largely Labour-controlled, but also highlights recent progress such as the Tories winning the Northumberland County Council elections in May.
He continued: “Change has happened in the North East, but I still have my concerns as to how far that change will go and will it be sufficient.
“What is the future for the North East? Instead of being divided, we should be capable of sitting round a table and coming up with proposals to stabilise this region.
“We have made so many mistakes in the region in the past. We were fortunate to find coal, but it’s gone now and I just don’t know what we’re going to do.
“Things will change, I’m probably worrying about nothing, but I just get frustrated as an old man.”
‘Family and people have always been important to me’
Despite making money through his business ventures, Sir John says that he has ‘never lost his feeling for people’.
“Whatever we have done, we’ve always insisted that we use local people and local firms. If you spend the money here, it has a multiplier effect. We have invested in so many charities and we helped set up the Newcastle United Foundation.
“The one thing that does hit home living in the North East, you never, never lose your feeling for people, your understanding of people and the feeling of care for people.
“I have been fortunate, I’ve got a very good partner. We have been married more than 60 years and it’s a tremendous partnership. She was the calming influence and the common-sense influence. If you’ve got a good partner, you’ve got something to treasure and I’ve been lucky that way. We have built the business together.
“When you get to my age, you think, what’s it all been for? You can’t take your money with you.
“Coming from the working class, you pursue the goal of wealth, because you think it’s going to solve all your problems, but it doesn’t. It’s a nonsensical approach to life really, but only age gives you that wisdom.”