Saturday, 31 January 2015

ABUSE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME


 

The other day I noticed a national newspaper was canvasing supporters of Premier League clubs on which of their players was “a target for the boo boys”. What a delightful phrase that is, conjuring up for the more elderly amongst us the smell of oxo and Old Spice, the clatter of the half-time scores number-boards and the sound of The Harry J Allstars' Liquidator being played over a public address system so feeble and tinny it may as well just have been a bloke with a Dansette and a megaphone. 

For the youngsters I perhaps should explain that a boo boy is someone who goes to a football match and hurls abuse at a member of the team he follows. Those people who go to football and hurl abuse at members of the opposing team have a different name. They are called supporters.

Boo boys have something in common with racists. You rarely meet anyone who admits to being a racist. However you meet quite a few people who admit to not being a racist, but… So it is with boo boys. You will seldom encounter anyone who cheerily says, “I go to football. I’m not actually much interested in the game, to be honest. I just love to single out an individual on the home side and jeer him for the entire season. My ambition is to cause an England international to have a nervous breakdown. I got quite close once with Darren Anderton”.

No, you never meet anyone who says that. You do though encounter quite a few people who say, “I would never barrack my own team normally, but that Gary Slather? What a bloody waste of space. He’s not even trying. He’s a disgrace to the badge. He should never be allowed to wear the jersey again. The sooner we get shot of him the happier I’ll be”. And somehow you know that when Gary Slather is transferred and returns with his new club the same person who said all that will be howling “Judas!” at him.

The boo boys have always been around, of course. I fear that there may even have been one in my own family. Because whenever George Hardwick the Middlesbrough and England captain of the 1940s was mentioned my Grandad would pull a simpering face. “Ooh Gorgeous George” he’d coo sarcastically, batting his eyelids up and down. Despite the fact that Hardwick was one of the club’s greatest ever players my Grandad hated him.

He was not alone. Hardwick himself recalled how every time he took control of the ball and looked up for a team mate to pass it to a voice from the Chicken Run would bellow, 'Stop showing off and get rid of it.'



There were a number of reasons for this antipathy. Hardwick was handsome, well dressed and comparatively affluent (even in the days of the maximum wage a top flight professional footballer earned three or four times as much as the average steel worker). More crucially he was also fifteen years younger than my Granddad. And if there’s one thing a proud middle-aged man hates, it’s to pay two bob on a Saturday afternoon to have some young fella making him confront his own waning masculine powers.

Recently it is reported that we have seen an upsurge in the abuse of players by fans. Assuming this to be true (and I’m not entirely convinced - there's only so many expletives you can cram into a sentence after all). I believe my Grandad holds the key. You see, the average age of fans attending Premiership matches has been gradually rising over the past decade. Currently it stands at 44. Nowadays just about everybody in the ground is fifteen years older than the players. No wonder the atmosphere seethes with rage and resentment. Every time a midfielder surges down the middle, or a forward rises in the air it’s a chilling reminder of what Pele once memorably dubbed “erectile dysfunction”.

If football is serious about driving out the boo boys and the abusers it therefore has two viable options: it can either make the crowd younger, or make the players older. It is not up to me to say which path the authorities should take, but I am sure I am not alone amongst my peers in saying that it would be bloody great to see John Hendrie back in a Boro shirt for the Championship run in.



 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

YOU KNIT YOUR OWN LUCK IN THIS GAME





 

It was the summer of 1986. England’s World Cup campaign in Mexico had begun dismally, a defeat to Portugal and sterile draw with Morocco brightened only by the sending off of Ray Wilkins.

For the vital game against Poland a large crowd assembled in the front room of our flat in North London. A few minutes after kick-off my flatmate Pete’s girlfriend, Annie, appeared bearing what appeared to be a cable-knit giant squid in her arms.  “You’ve got to try on this winter pullover I’m knitting you”, she said to Pete.

Pete protested that this was hardly the time for such matters since all his concentration must be directed at the screen if England were not to continue floundering, but Annie was insistent. And no sooner was the vast jumper pulled over Pete’s head than Gary Lineker scored. By the time Annie had finished fiddling about with the sleeves the Leicester striker had completed a hat-trick and England were through to the knock-out stages. Others said the transformation in fortunes was down to the inclusion of Peter Beardsley and Steve Hodge in the starting line up. We knew different.

For the game against Paraguay we insisted that Pete wear the half-completed winter woolly from kick-off. This required some sacrifice on his part, because it was a hot summer evening, the windows of the flat were all painted shut and our Barbadian landlord, who lived below, insisted on having the central heating turned up full blast all year round. As a consequence the place was as hot and humid as a skunk factory. Sweat poured down Pete’s face at such a rate it put out his cigarettes. By the end of the game he had lost more weight than the players. England won 3-0, again.

Before the quarterfinal Pete unexpectedly began to voice reservations about his pivotal role in our game plan. “I’m wondering whether I should wear the lucky jumper for this one,” he said.

“What are you on about?” We responded, “Argentina are one of the best teams in the tournament. How can you even think about discarding the lucky jumper? Against Maradona we’ll need all the lucky jumpers we can get”.

“Well, yes, I know all that,” Pete said sadly, “It’s just I’m thinking that if I wear the jumper and England lose, then it won’t be lucky any more, will it?”

 
 
I knew what he meant. In the 1980s my friend Tim got his first car. He used to drive to Ayresome Park in it on match days. Whenever Middlesbrough won Tim announced that he had discovered a lucky route to the ground. In the mid-1980s Boro did not win very often. No sooner had Tim found a lucky route than its magical powers were shattered by a home defeat to Notts County or Shrewsbury. By the middle of the 1985-86 season Tim was approaching Ayresome Park via Sheffield and Preston, a somewhat circuitous procession since he lived near Sedgefield.

A few years back Tim wised up. Instead of having a lucky route to games he started taking a lucky route returning from them. Given Boro’s patchy form under Tony Mowbray and the rising cost of diesel this was undoubtedly a good thing. Some will say the idea that something that happens after a match can have any bearing on what goes on during it is totally ludicrous. Despite Sepp Herberger’s maxim that “After the game is before the game”, the doubters may have a point. It is certainly true that believing that Tim’s choice of whether to use the Newport Bridge, or opt instead for the A19 Tees Viaduct on his way home, requires a certain suspension of logic, but isn't that what being a fan is all about?

Saturday, 24 January 2015

BOARD TO TEARS

Last week I went to the Tyneside Irish Centre to hear an inspiring talk from David Goldblatt about fan action. It set my mind wandering...



Watching England subside placidly to defeat back in the 1980s the great Italian coach Enzo Bearzot asked in bewilderment, “Where is their rage?” I had started to wonder the same thing about English fans. At one time relegation, or an humiliating cup defeat to lower division opposition would provoke seething resentment on the terraces and a pitch invasion by youngsters brandishing their mum’s best bedsheet with the slogan “The Chairman Must Go!!” daubed on it with pea green emulsion left over from doing the walls of the scullery. Recently however the drop seems to have been embraced not with anger, but with maudlin sentimentality. I don’t want to sound hard-hearted here, but frankly if I see another twenty-something fat bloke in a replica shirt blubbing uncontrollably like a five-year old who’s just dropped his ice cream on the pavement I will hurl.


That is why I welcome recent fan protests at Rangers, Blackpool and Coventry City. For me, hearing supporters chanting, “Where’s The Money Gone?” has the same effect the opening bars of “Light My Fire” have on ageing hippies. No sooner have I heard the first chorus than I am doing the veteran football fan equivalent of Sufi dancing – smiling bitterly and muttering to myself.

Soon after I sink into a tepid pool of nostalgia and drift back to a time when massed cries of “Sack The Board” were as reliable a harbinger of spring as the call of the cuckoo. I am sitting at the school lunch table opposite a boy named Keith whose greatest talent is to imitate a rabid dog by filling his mouth with semolina pudding and then growling as it drips down his chin. We live on a fault line between the North East and Yorkshire. Half the boys travel north to watch Middlesbrough, the other half head south to Elland Road. It is 1972. The Leeds fans safe, or so they think, in unassailable bastions of glory taunt us mercilessly. “Who’d you lot buy this summer, then?” one of them, whom I shall call Carl Beesley because that was his name, asks with a smile as sweet and synthetic as institutional jam.

Keith pulls a face, lazily pops a spot, and says, “Back page headline of the Evening Gazette: “Boro Fail To Sign New Striker”. Front page headline of the Evening Gazette: “Boro Chairman Buys New Rolls Royce””. Everybody chuckles. We are twelve. Already we have settled into the rumbling, venomous antipathy that was then the mindset of the English fan.



Keith and I go to matches with my grandfather. Sitting in the Bob End at Ayresome Park my grandfather follows a meticulous routine that begins with him surveying the ground, one eye half-closed as if he is using an invisible telescope, before remarking “There’s 28,000 in, so they’ll announce twenty-five”. His comment will inevitably be followed shortly afterwards by the sound of Bernard Gent croaking over the PA, “And the attendance for today’s match: 24, 874”, at which my granddad grins happily, for there is no one more self-satisfied than a vindicated cynic. 

I met a veteran Boro fan one night in the foyer of a rejuvenated seaside hotel. He started telling me about a Saturday afternoon in the mid-1970s, a February day, the freezing air turgid; rain the texture of spittle plopping down from a breezeblock-coloured sky. The fans were pushing and shoving as the mob narrowed down to single files in front of the turnstiles. The fan mimed the actions of forcing his way through the crowd with his shoulders, arms pinned fast to his sides, bouncing from right to left (behind him the hotel receptionist was printing out the bills for the next morning’s departures). “There’s people stamping on your feet, and elbows digging in your ribs,” the fan says, “and I find myself shoved up hard against the wall below the directors’ lounge. I’m pinned there, can’t budge. Suddenly I feel water falling on my head. I look up,” He tilted his face and gazed up at a frosted glass light fitting shaped like a salad bowl, “And there it is, this…liquid dripping out an overflow pipe from the gents’ toilets. I said, “That’s right, you bastards – put me through hell and then piss on me as well,” and he shook his fist at a piece of ornamental cornicing and disappeared into the resident’s bar.

That to me is a football fan. The scenes these past few weeks show they are alive and well, and mad as hell. Always let it be so.




Wednesday, 21 January 2015

COUNTER ATTACKER


 


A while ago now a friend of mine came back from a holiday on the south coast in a highly agitated state. ‘I went in the newsagents, first day, and guess who was stood behind the counter?’ he asked.

In this situation it’s hard to know what to say. Do you go for something vaguely sensible (‘Was it Neville Wanless who used to do the continuity announcements on Tyne Tees?’) or something completely stupid (‘I bet it was the stuffed and mounted body of Pickles the dog that found the World Cup’). In the end I decided to opt for the truth, ‘John O’Rourke,’ I said.

‘How the bloody hell did you guess that?’ My friend asked. Apparently he was under the impression he was the first Boro fan ever to have a holiday in Bournemouth.

‘Well, any road I give him a good laugh,’ my friend said.

‘I hope,’ I said, ‘That you didn’t ask if he sold Sellotape and, when he told you he did, chanted ‘Give us a roll, give us a roll, John O’Rourke, John O’Rourke.’

My friend looked a bit embarrassed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I never. I just…it doesn’t matter.’

 

Whatever he’d got up to I could understand why my friend was excited. I’d have been excited too. There’s always something thrilling about seeing a footballer in a non-football context. When I was eight my mother and I were coming home from a shopping trip to Middlesbrough, stopped at some traffic lights in Marton and when I looked across at the Cortina that drew up next to us, sitting behind the wheel was Boro's Northern Irish midfielder Johnny Crossan. Imagine. By the time I got home I was so excited I was fit to burst. I ran straight round to my best friend Martin Dean's house and when he answered the door, jabbered: "Deano, Deano! I just saw Johnny Crossan. And he was in a car." It remains a high point in my life.

And John O’Rourke was a far bigger hero than Johnny Crossan. He was the first Boro player I saw score a hat-trick. That was at the first game I ever attended, at home to Carlisle United.

I went with my Uncle Les. We were supposed to meet my Grandad in the Bob End but by the time we arrived the Bob End was full.  

‘Why is it called the Bob End’ I asked my Uncle Les.

My Uncle Les was a student and of a satirical bent, ‘Because you can only go in there if you are called Robert,’ he said.

‘But Grandad’s called Harry,’  I said, ‘How does he get in?’

‘He lies to the gateman,’ Uncle Les said.

All the seats in the ground were taken – or all the ones my uncle could afford, anyway, so we ended up in the Holgate End, in the corner where it met the Chicken Run.

I was six. The longest I’d ever stood in one place was at Park Lane Infants carol concert. It was too busy for me to sit on a barrier, and I was too heavy to sit on my uncle’s shoulders for long. Luckily on one of the occasions I clambered up there I saw O’Rourke score with a shot from inside the penalty area. The rest of the half I spent staring at the coats of the men in front of me and whining. I had a Wagonwheel at half-time, and after an hour we went home.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

SPECIAL K TOOK THE MONEY AWAY

A review of Ian Ridley's 2009 biography of Kevin Keegan, which despite a lack of new material still cast a fresh and unexpected light on its subject. Well, for me anyway.






It’s a popular notion that silence is enigmatic. “Still waters run deep,” we say. Some people, however, can talk a hell of a lot yet remain unfathomable. Kevin Keegan is a veritable babbling brook, yet despite the fact he rarely seems to have shut up for four decades the motivations behind key decisions at important times in his life appear oddly mysterious. And that's not even including the baseball bat business - the Marie Celeste of football mysteries (don't write in).

When seeking motives it was once popular to stick to the French dictum cherchez la femme. These days most people prefer its US equivalent, follow the money.

For this sprightly canter through Keegan’s career Ian Ridley pursues the latter course. After a shaky start in which his description of modern Newcastle sounds worryingly like a pull-out newspaper supplement issued by One North East, the author hits his stride. There’s not much that is fresh here, but it’s an entertaining enough overview and ultimately far more illuminating – given the wealth of material already lavished on the subject – than I’d expected. The Keegan who emerges here is altogether less opaque and rather more obvious than I’d previously thought.

Keegan’s career as player and manager is strange to say the least. Since picking up a second Bundesliga title in 1979 he has not won a single major trophy. For someone as apparently driven by the will to win as the man the Germans knew as Mighty Mouse that’s an awfully long period without a medal. The question that emerges while reading Ridley’s book is whether it really was winning that motivated the miner’s son at all. Because while the subtitle trades on the idea of Keegan as a “football romantic”, there is a good deal less here about glory and attacking flair than there is about hard cash. Keegan might, for example, have left Hamburg for Barcelona or Real Madrid, but stayed put mainly because the German club would allow him to go and play in the US during the summer and earn an extra £250,000, while the Spaniards wouldn't.

At times it appears that the only thing cavalier about King Kev was his curly hair. When it came to money he took a, well, more Parliamentarian view. While Keegan was managing Fulham, for instance, the academy director Alan Smith asked him if he would do the official opening of the new youth wing of the gym. Keegan said he would, but only if the club paid him a fee of £7,000. “As a professional I could see where he was coming from,” Smith says generously before expressing disappointment at his former boss’s attitude.

Keegan, as numerous witnesses attest, is a man determined to the point of obsession with getting his fair share (he was after all the first footballer with an agent - the splendid Vic Hugling, a former carpet salesman form Merseyside, who once claimed that his client 'Could be anything from 1974's top male model to a third partner for Morecambe and Wise'). The quest for what he believed to be fiscal justice bent his judgement out of shape and ultimately led to the sort of emotional flounce-outs that have coloured most fans' opinion of him.

At the end of the book Ridley sums up Keegan’s current situation with Norma Desmond’s famous line in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” I’m not sure that’s quite right though. Football made Keegan a huge figure (in more ways than one), but a ceaseless pursuit of cash tends to diminish people and by the end of this lively book Keegan has shrunk considerably.



Wednesday, 14 January 2015

FOR FUCHS SAKE

Anthony Vickers did a great interview with Uwe Fuchs in the Evening Gazette this week. Here's something I wrote about the German striker in another newspaper.




The chant of "Sign him up, sign him up, sign him up" is generally only heard at football grounds when the ball has struck a policeman on the head and rebounded back on to the pitch. On the occasions when it isn't intended sarcastically, by and large it ends in tears. When fans fall in love with a loan signing it's like a kid bringing a stray puppy home. Something about the situation just compels a manager to put his foot down and growl, "I don't care how cute he looks running around with his tongue hanging out. He's going right back where he came from".
 
Back in January 1995, Middlesbrough took a former Germany Under-21 international on loan from Kaiserslautern. Uwe Fuchs (In the UK always genteelly pronounced to rhyme with dukes, though as a German friend of mine likes to point out "It's actually Fux! Fux, fux, fux!") was a burly, dark-haired striker whose crazed grimace suggested Les Dawson's Cosmo Smallpiece let loose at an Ann Summers party.
 
Uwe arrived at Ayresome Park via the intervention of Tony Woodcock who touted him as "an English-style centre-forward", words which are to football what the phrase "contains mechanical reclaimed meat" is to fine dining.
 
Though at times Uwe showed unexpected touches of finesse, generally speaking there was something agricultural about him. He was one of those people who look like they have straw in their hair even though they don't. He played like he was in wellies. If George Best was the fifth Beatle, Uwe was the missing Wurzel. His technique was rustic in its simplicity: whenever he received the ball he propelled it as hard as he could in the general direction of the opposition net with whatever part of his body happened to be available at the time. By such means he found the back of the net nine times in 13 games and became a Teesside folk hero.
 
 
As if to cement Uwe's place in legend, rumours began to circulate that the bucolic-looking goal-getter was romantically entwined with local female celebrity, Jet from Gladiators whose habit of turning cartwheels on the Ayresome Park pitch at half-time had plainly overheated imaginations. One afternoon a "Uwe Loves Jet" banner was unveiled in the Holgate End. And when Boro winger John Hendrie appeared with a black eye the quickfire explanation offered on the terraces was that the Scots' training ground remarks about the glamorous gameshow personality had resulted in a scuffle (that Hendrie had actually picked up the shiner in a bruising encounter with Barnsley's Malcolm Shotton – a veteran defender who approached every game as if he had been parachuted behind enemy lines – hardly mattered).
 
As the season drew to a close, Uwe's appearances became more sporadic. His last game, against Sheffield United, was not the finale anyone would have wanted. In a gloomy mood after apparently being poked in the eye by a Blades centre-back, he made a half-baked attempt to gain retribution via the sort of arse-first tackle to which English-style centre-forwards are prone and was sent off.
 
Two days after the end of the season, Bryan Robson announced that he would not be taking up the £500,000 option to make Fuchs' move permanent. "He is not a footballer," the Boro manager observed of the German, proving once again how little the ability to bang the ball into the goal is valued by top-class football people who really know the game inside out. And Bryan Robson.

 

 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

LITTLE BIG MAN

I'm writing a long piece about Hughie Gallacher for the next issue of The Northern Correspondent. In the mean time, here's a short piece about him I wrote a while ago.



Oliver Armstrong was the sort of old school Northumbrian famer who only put his false teeth in when he went to town. He'd farmed near Greenhead. He said 'I was raised out by near Tow Law and I only went to one football match in all my life. And that was when my father took me to see Newcastle in 1929. He'd had a windfall. fellow from Scottish and Newcastle come and certified the top field barley brewery grade - an extra five pound an acre that was. We thought we were millionaires. I'm not tall now and I was half the size then. Stood in the Leazes End. I'd say it was packed to the rafters, 'cept there was no roof. Nine-year-old and no taller than the brewers' barley. The only time I seen the ball was when they hoofed it in the air. We come out after, my father says, 'And now you can tell the world you saw the great Hughie Gallacher.' Well, I cannot, but I was there when he was playing, that's for sure. And there never was another like Hughie Gallacher, my word there wasn't.'

Five feet two, brilliantly talented with a passion for drink and mayhem that would ultimately lead to tragedy, Hughie Gallacher established the blueprint of the diminutive, wayward Gaelic football genius. Born in Lanarkshire in 1903, as a teenager he incensed his Ulster Orangeman father by supporting Celtic and marrying a Catholic. Swerving dribbles, incisive passes, thunderous shooting and utter fearlessness soon established Gallacher as a formidable force in the Scottish game (he hit 22 goals for the national team in only 19 appearances), but it was when Newcastle signed him from Airdrie for £5,500 in 1925 that Wee Hughie fully emerged in all his considerable glory. Worshipped by the Toon fans Gallacher swaggered around Tyneside dressed like a Hollywood gangster in broad-brimmed hat, double-breasted suits and spats.

His football prowess was extraordinary (he captained the club to their last league title, hitting 143 goals in less than 200 matches), his drinking - often in the pub before the match - legendary, his temper volcanic. During his time on Tyneside he was arrested for fighting with his brother-in-law, kicked a referee into the St James' Park bath and was accused of being drunk and disorderly on the field of play during a pre-season game in Hungary (Gallacher claimed that he had simply "rinsed his mouth out with whisky" to rid it of the taste of foreign food).

Eventually Newcastle tired of the fuss and bother and Gallacher was sold to Chelsea for £10,000. In London the Scot carried on much as before, scoring twice in his first match, getting arrested for fighting with Fulham fans, enraging the board of directors by threatening strike action over wages and being pulled drunk from the gutter the night before a match with Derby County. By now Gallacher's life had started to unravel. Debts created by high living and a messy divorce from his second wife ended in bankruptcy. When he left Chelsea for Derby his signing-on fee was paid straight to the court. After that it was a slow descent through the divisions - Notts County, Grimsby Town, Gateshead. When his career in football finished Wee Hughie settled on Tyneside, working as a labourer and writing articles for the local press. He was struggling with alcoholism. His third wife, Hannah, had died of a heart attack and after a fight at his home in 1957, his son, Matthew, was taken into care. Alone and in despair Hughie Gallacher walked down to the railway track in Gateshead and threw himself in front of a train. He was 54.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

THAT'S HALL FOLKS


On Sunday’s edition of 5Live Sports Week, Sir John Hall complained about the new breed of foreign owners he believes are ruining English football. According to Sir John, the billionaires are only in it ‘for the publicity’.

Funnily enough I made a rather similar accusation about Sir John himself in WSC way back in the autumn of 1996. At that point Sir John was at the height of his fantastical powers – at one point even comparing himself to Dr Martin Luther King. As well as Newcastle United, Sir John had taken over Gosforth rugby club (founded 1877) and changed its name to Newcastle Falcons, severely mangled North-East ice hockey by buying Durham Wasps (established 1946) and moving them to Newcastle (evicting another long established club Whitley Bay Warriors from their Hillheads home along the way) bought a basketball team and begun to dabble in motor racing. Later I would learn from a partner at Newcastle law firm Dickinson Dees that the Halls (Sir John and his notoriously charming son Douglas) had tried to inveigle their way onto the board of Newcastle race course as well. The power he wielded at that point was considerable.

Over the next few years, however, Sir John’s grand schemes for Newcastle Sporting Club fell away. The tweedy types who run British horse racing wanted nothing to do with him, he sold his stake in the Falcons, the interest in ice hockey melted, basketball and motor racing too were abandoned. The plans to build a new 55,000 seat stadium on Leazes Park were ultimately rejected. Kevin Keegan left in 1997 taking much goodwill with him. The Fake Sheikh shenanigans put the tin lid on it.

Re-reading the piece now, I can see that I misjudged Sir John. Despite the oratory and the dreams, it was all just about turning a quick profit. Asked why he thought the Halls wanted to get involved with Gosforth race course, the lawyer replied, ‘It’s a prime piece of real estate – my impression – and I could be wrong – was that they had half a mind to flog it for housing.’

‘I like to be referred to as a capitalist with a conscience’ Sir John was fond of saying, positioning himself as the sort of neo-Victorian philanthropist that made his heroine, Mrs Thatcher go weak at the knees. But if Sir John couldn’t see a financial advantage in something he wasn’t interested. Fair enough, that is business after all - just don't dress up as selflessness.

Roman Abramovic and Sheikh Mansour may have tilted the balance of power in the Premiership in a way that is not beneficial to the English game as a whole, but if Sir John really believes that either man has taken more out of football than he and his family did, then he is utterly deluded.

 


A few years ago I met the former chairman of a First Division club. I tried vainly to engage him in conversation about the game. After a while he confessed that he wasn’t particularly interested in it. “Why did you go through all the bother of becoming a chairman then?” I asked. “Because it is the most exclusive club in England,” the chairman replied. I eyed him quizzically. “Look,” the chairman explained, “There are hundreds of lords, aren’t there? Hundreds of MPs and Bishops, but there are only 92 Football League chairmen.”

Now, of course, there is an even more exclusive brotherhood, The Premiership Chairmen. There are only twenty of them and they wield the kind of power that previous members could only dream of.

Perhaps the first club chairman to truly understand the possibilities opened up by the recent changes is Sir John Hall. Much has been written about his miraculous transformation of Newcastle United’s fortunes, less about the future direction in which circumstances may lead him. This is a pity, because it seems to me that Sir John Hall may be on the verge of something quite unique in the history of our national game. In the past it has been accepted that, in some sense at least, a club belonged to its town or city. Nowadays it looks increasingly likely that Newcastle might become the first English city to belong to its football club.

The situation has taken some years to develop. Long before he took over at Saint James’, Sir John Hall was a hugely successful businessman. For better or worse, however, the British tend not to pay too much attention to successful businessmen. Their opinions are not canvassed; they rarely, unless they are Sir John Harvey-Jones, appear on television. For Sir John Hall the chairmanship of Newcastle has changed that. Like a Hollywood plastic surgeon, Newcastle United have pumped up Sir John’s profile to a point where it is hard to ignore. From being a largely unknown provincial millionaire Sir John has become a national figure. Fleet Street have even taken to calling him ‘Mr Newcastle’ (perhaps this is not such a compliment, the last ‘Mr. Newcastle’, T Dan Smith ended up in jail) and he has become so ubiquitous that it is surely only his professed dislike of ‘intellectuals’ that has stopped him from appearing on Radio Four’s Kaleidoscope to discuss the latest opus from Irvine Welsh.

The media’s fascination with Sir John is unsurprising. He is an avuncular and plausible man. He twangs the strings of the class snobbery which underline British society with unfaltering tunefulness and has a keen understanding of most North-Easterners’ attitudes, particularly towards the South (“We will be an importer of talent rather than an exporter,” he has said of Newcastle United. What North-East football fan has not dreamed of one day hearing such words from a club chairman?). With his Thatcherism, his charisma and his regional populism he is probably the nearest we will ever come to a Northumbrian monetarist version of Juan Peron.

Like his most famous appointee, Kevin Keegan, Sir John is prone to bouts of fabulous oratorical exuberance. During one such verbal flight of fantasy he said of the Geordies, “We are the Mohicans!” Sir John was perhaps forgetting that in Fennimore Cooper’s novel there only are two Mohicans and one of them dies before the end. But then details are not Sir John’s department, he is, as he is fond of saying, “the vision man”.


 


Strange as it may be the “Mohican” utterance contains an important part of Sir John’s philosophy. He has talked a lot (but then when has he ever talked a little?) about his desire to transform Newcastle United into the kind of multi-armed sports and social club found in Europe. To that end he has set up the Newcastle Sporting Club which he claims will soon have 100,000 members. Barcelona are often mentioned as the model. They are a massively successful business operation, but Barca’s appeal to Sir John surely runs deeper than that. Barcelona is seen in Spain as representing Catalonian nationalism, and this is clearly a role Sir John would like to see emulated by Newcastle United when it comes to what he has dubbed “The Geordie Tribe”.

United, it must be said, are better suited to this ambition than just about any other club in Britain. Not only does Newcastle have geographical separateness from the rest of England (if you were getting over excited you might say it had a cultural and linguistic separateness too), Tyneside is also the largest urban conglomeration in the country to be blessed with just one League football team (imagine Liverpool without Everton, if you will)*.

 As a consequence of the latter, the power of the club within the city is much greater than is that of, say, Manchester United within Manchester. When a club such as Birmingham City get involved in a row with the local press you expect a fairly even fight; when the Newcastle Journal had a spat with Newcastle United a few years ago, it was akin to a hedgehog stepping out in front of a steam-roller.

Currently Newcastle United are locked in a battle with the City Council over proposed plans to build an immense new stadium and leisure complex on the site of a local park. Initially the Council refused to grant planning permission. When Sir John threatened to take his club across the Tyne to Gateshead, the councillors, perhaps mindful of how they would explain such a departure to the local electorate, had a re-think. The battle continues. If the club go on to win it, then there will be little left to stand in the way of Newcastle United achieving a position of pre-eminence within the Geordie Nation.

The knock-on effect of Newcastle United’s hegemony over the city would be to transform the club’s chairman into the chief of the tribe, its Chingachgook. It is a part for which Sir John appears to have been auditioning for some time. For though he has expressed no particular political ambitions, wouldn’t Sir John, like any great visionary, relish the chance to lead his people by unspoken popular consensus?

Should this prove to be the case, then Newcastle will find itself in a singular position: the only city in Britain in which the most powerful force is not the ruling political party, the mayor or any MP, but the chairman of the football club.

Of course if Newcastle United were to win the Premiership there are some people around here who would consider that a small price to pay.


 

 

*Actually Leeds might be, but they have rugby league and first class cricket.

 

Saturday, 3 January 2015

DAWN OF THE TRIPEHOUNDS - THE GRANDAD PIECES PART THREE




'The North East had all the best sides in them days,' My grandfather would say, and he'd look over the pink pages of the Sports Gazette and wink, 'because floodlights hadn't been invented yet,' he'd say, and chuckle.

'It was darker then an' all. There was smoke from the foundries and the flarestacks, steam from the colling towers and fumes from the chemical plants. The sky was black as jet. By three o'clock of a winter's afternoon you couldn't have seen Moby Dick if he was sat in your lap, never mind a football. That gave our lads an advantage. They were used to it. Most of the Boro boys had worked down the mines. They knew how to get around in the dark. Owen Williams would scamper down the wing clutching a pit pony's tail. He'd cut the ball across and George Camsell would scurry into the penalty box on all fours, a Davey lamp between his teeth, and nod it into the net.

'What a forward line that was! Every one of them was a full international. Even Owen Williams' pit pony had two caps for Wales. Aye, that was the best forward line I ever saw. Not that I ever did see them mind. It was too bloody dark. You just had to use your imagination. People were used to that in them days. When you listened to the wireless you had to imagine the action. And in the North e East during the Depression you had to imagine the wireless an' all.

'Every Saturday, 30,000 supporters would pack into Ayresome just to see the lights on the pit helmets bobbing about in the smog. Those lamps were the targets for the players passes. And they were  deadly accurate. There's many a Boro fan gone to light up a fag and got his teeth knocked out by a Bobby Baxter 40 yarder. Nowadays they just hoof the ball into orbit and if it lands on the pitch they call it a pass, but in them days the passes were pinpoint. If they weren't the ball got lost in the blackness. And that was serious, because a ball cost more than the entire Boro team.

'One time the coach, Charlie Cole, come up with a crafty solution to the problem. He bought a bloodhound from the Durham prison Authority and played it at wing-half. Before the match he smothered the ball with gravy so's the dog could track it. Fifteen minutes into the first half the ball vanished in the darkness. The bloodhound dashed off. Seconds later he was back. He dribbled it down the wing, flicked it into the box with his nose and Billy Birrell volleyed it into the goals. It's the only time in history anyone netted a steak and kidney pudding.

'They sold the bloodhound to Leeds after that. he wasn't the best player ever to turn out at Elland Road, but he was the cleanest.



'When I say 30,000 turned up at Ayresome every Saturday, I mean every Saturday. It didn't matter if Boro were playing at home or not. The supporters were loyal in them days. There were no part-timers. And aside from a few Military Police looking for deserters, there were no bobbies in the crowd neither. You didn't need police to control the crowd back then, the crowd controlled itself. If there was a baloney-merchant stood near us, mouthing off, our Joe would grab his cap off his head and drop it over the back of the Bob End. It was 30 foot down.  'Anymore out of you, and you're following it,' he'd say. People listened to reasoned argument in them days.

'Aye, there's three things ruined North East football: the passing of the Clean Air Act, floodlights and the tripehounds. But I'll tell you about the last lot when you're older.'

And, basically like, that's all.