Sir John Hall was walking through Chinatown in the shadow of St James’ Park recently when he experienced a wave of emotions not felt since the days of his Newcastle United ownership.
‘I was going to the Landmark restaurant before the match and was right among the crowd – I have never felt so much joy, happiness and hope in many years,’ the 89-year-old tells Sportsmail.
‘They were all stopping me and wanting to talk about the players, manager and owners. That excitement, it brought back a lot of memories. ‘
Sir John Hall has spoken to exclusively to Sportsmail about all things Newcastle United
The 89-year-old saved the club from liquidation when he bought them during the early 1990s
It was in 1992 that Hall, having rescued the club from the brink of liquidation as founder of the fan-led Magpie Group, appointed manager Kevin Keegan and the team was saved from relegation to the old Third Division.
Prior to the 2-1 victory at home to Leicester this month, a giant flag was unfurled commemorating the 30-year anniversary of David Kelly’s goal in a 1-0 win over Portsmouth. Without that strike, supporters maintain they never would have ridden the mid-Nineties rollercoaster of Keegan’s Entertainers. Hall agrees and takes it further still.
‘That was a golden moment but, without everything – what we did in saving the club and building a stadium and a team everyone fell in love with – Newcastle United would not be what it is today.
‘I was in Hong Kong when I got a call to say,’ The club is going bust ‘. The words are seared in my memory. That call cost me £ 860,000! We were a bunch of Geordies who changed the complete structure of a football club and gave it ambition, we just weren’t big enough to carry it on into this era.
‘The new owners must build on the platform we created. There are many similarities between then and now, although we didn’t have as much money as the Saudis. ‘
A giant flag was unfurled by Newcastle fans commemorating the 30-year anniversary of David Kelly’s goal in a 1-0 win over Portsmouth that saw them avoid relegation to the Third Division
There is also an irony for Hall, a self-made millionaire from Ashington who sold his shares to Mike Ashley in 2007. For while he welcomes the possibilities brought by Amanda Staveley and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, it was the influx of foreign money that forced him to quit football in the first place.
‘I was running a property business, my family business. It was my job to look to the future and predict change. When Roman Abramovich came in at Chelsea, he was a billionaire. I said, ‘I cannot compete. I’m not putting my business at risk, borrowing to buy a player for £ 20million ‘. For him, it was loose cash. So, I made the decision to get out.
‘Now look at Chelsea… we were always told Abramovich was here for reasons other than football.’
And here is the paradox Hall faces. The fan in him savors the ambition of Newcastle’s owners. But then, when talk turns to the prospect of football’s independent regulator, the businessman returns to the table.
Hall sold his shares in Newcastle to Mike Ashley in 2007 as he couldn’t compete with others
Ashley sold Newcastle in October for £ 305million who were taken over by a consortium, including the Saudi Public Investment Fund – making them the richest club in world football
‘It’s time for the powers-that-be to sit down and say,’ How do we control football? ‘. When billion-pound TV deals came in, football started to appeal to a different type of investor – people who know money. They’re not interested in the sport. It’s another means to make another billion.
‘Had the European Super League happened, it would have destroyed the game completely for the ordinary fan. Football should be about every club having a dream, not solely about the money you have. When people say, ‘Newcastle is the richest club in the world’, I shudder. I don’t want to be known as that. There is more to life than money – it is how we use it.
‘If you’re not going to ban (foreign and state-funded ownership), you have to put restrictions on it. Too much money is leaving the game. How can we use that in a better way?
‘For me, the Premier League and Government have a responsibility to put a taxation on transfer fees and put money back into sport. Sadly, I cannot see any system stopping it at the moment. It is the greed of the clubs trying to break away from the Premier League that horrifies me. I hear they are still trying to challenge it. Stuff them, I say. ‘
Saudi PIF is the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, which supports strategic and commercial projects of national significance. The chairman is the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Climb back up the bank leading down to Hall’s Gateshead home and, from the main road into Newcastle, you can see St James’ and the stand once bearing his name on the hill above the city.
He accepts the days of British entrepreneurs buying their boyhood club and competing at the top of the English game, like he did, are gone.
It was during that journey, in 1993, that a picture was taken on the steps of the Milburn Stand. I show it to Hall. He stands behind a group of 100 academy players – myself included – on the night he declared he wanted a ‘team of 11 Geordies’.
So, did he ever achieve what he intended for his football club?
‘No. I ran out of time. It was my club. I had been fixed on Newcastle since a boy. I used to stand on the roof terrace and shout, ‘Sack the board!’.
Hall celebrates Newcastle’s First Division title in 1993 as they win Premier League promotion
The photo was taken on the steps of the Milburn Stand and shows Hall with 100 academy stars (Sportsmail‘s own Craig Hope is pictured on the front row, second from right)
‘By the time I was chairman, I had a greater vision of the North-East and where it needed to go, economically. What I learned, owning a football club, is that you are responsible for people’s lives. That will never leave me. The tens of thousands of fans when Alan Shearer signed… incredible.
‘So, I always thought,’ How can we use football to regenerate the area? ‘. I spoke to Sky, and they needed content to fill their channels. I thought, ‘I’ll get in here early’. I wanted to bring all sports under one roof, a Newcastle sporting club – rugby, basketball, ice-hockey. But I was before my time, it took a lot longer for the money to come in via television.
‘But that was my dream, to sportswash the area, to give it a new image, to get away from unemployment and poor housing. I was trying to do something. I hope the new owners can take that on. ‘
Hall has been a guest of Staveley and her husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi at St James’ and has reminded them of the ‘responsibility’ he talks about.
‘I have spoken to them and, while talking is easy, I think they have a genuine desire to take this club to where it should be,’ he says.
Hall has reminded Amanda Staveley of her responsibility as a custodian of the Magpies now
‘The Premier League say the owners are fit and proper, and the British Government is selling arms to the Saudis. So, as supporters, that decision has been made.
‘I also believe they have bought the club cheap at £ 300m. They are talking about Chelsea being worth £ 3billion – so there is a huge gap between the current and potential value of Newcastle. They will only accelerate that value by winning. ‘
Will that come in Hall’s lifetime, a first English title since 1927, six years before he was born?
‘I would like to think so. I am convinced they will bring success. Eddie Howe seems very good and I expect they will back him.
‘The one time I stood in Kevin’s way was when he wanted Peter Beardsley. I thought he was too old. That proved to me, you have to let a manager sink or swim. He swam with that one!
‘But yes, at my age, you start thinking about how long you’ve got. Even if a title comes after me, I don’t mind. We set those roots for the future. ‘
Hall has been impressed by Eddie Howe (second right) and believes he is the right manager