Newcastle United is no stranger to issues surrounding ownership. Trust board member Marc Corby wrote this piece examining the last great battle for control of Newcastle United
The Battle for Control – As It Was, When it Was, 1988-1992
“I never asked for a transfer. The club decided they wanted the £1.9million now rather than waiting until the end of the season and take a chance, which is unlucky from a fans point of view,” said Peter Beardsley following his transfer from Newcastle United to Liverpool in June 1987.
“I’m disappointed that they make out that they tried to keep me, they never made an effort really,” he added. “The truth is, they said they’d like to offer me a new contract but never got around to discussing it. They didn’t give one thought for me, all they thought about was the pound notes.”
A substantial amount of money came into the club but yet again only a fraction would be spent to improve the side. Newcastle had a tendency of being linked with players but never did anything about going out to ensure they’d get them. Considering the money coming through the turnstiles, United appeared to make up the numbers in the 1980’s and with a mediocre Cup performance gurateed, success and silverware was never a reality.
Gordon McKeag, a solicitor of ‘McKeag and Co.’ on Jesmond Road who were linked to the club, had succeeded his Father on the board and became chairman following Stan Seymour’s resignation in June 1988. McKeag professed he was “always fascinated with Newcastle United” and “passionately wants Newcastle to do well for both the club and the City.”
However, it was a seen as a disgrace that 8 directors held the fortunes of United’s future in their self-interested hands when there was still a belief that the club belonged to the supporters. As of the April 1988 accounts, these 8 held only 278 of 2000 shares in the club. The remaining were shared between another 226 people, some with little interest in the club, located around the country. 500 were listed as “missing.” Answering claims of selfishness, McKeag would say, “I have always been conscious of the fact that it is a democratically run club and like many other clubs, we are responsible to the shareholders.”
When listed by ‘The National Front’ as the most racist club in England, the club showed an unimaginative attitude when claiming a “double booking” and then a “disagreement on politics” following an agreement to allow the Tyneside Anti-Fascist Association to sponsor a league game. United’s P.R clearly needed improvement.
Simultaneously, heading into the last year of his contract, a statement on behalf of a disillusioned Paul Gascoigne stated: “He wants to move to fulfil his ambitions to win the sports top honours.” Before negotiations could continue, Gazza added he “would honour the remaining year of his contract with Newcastle but after that, no amount of money would keep him on Tyneside.” Manager Willie McFaul was “disappointed that he had to read of Gascoigne’s decision in the press” but as far as he was concerned, “Gascoigne was still a Newcastle player.”
It was a sense of Déjà vu as a month before the 1988-89 season started, Newcastle supporters had lost a local hero to a British transfer record and their best player for the 3rd time in 4 pre seasons. Chris Waddle left under similar circumstances in 1985 stating “When you get promotion, that’s when you’ve got to spend and Newcastle didn’t, they were just happy to stay in Division 1.” “It was obvious to me that Newcastle lacked ambition,” he added before responding to the “Judas!” chants that followed from United supporters when they met Spurs with “If only they knew how much money I could have made if I stayed!”
United were now clearly a selling club and, once they failed to back Arthur Cox following promotion in 1984 and follow strong advice from Kevin Keegan to “go in the red and buy players to compete,” the hard work was immediately undone. Cox would later insist all 3 would have stayed if he had of remained manager saying, “Those boys were very close to me, they left because the club were not as ambitious as they were.” Beardsley backed this up: “Things would have been different, in my opinion, if Arthur Cox had of stayed. He wasn’t appreciated (by the board) until he left…and by the players as well.”
The board may have acted swiftly in selling players but didn’t appear as eager to spend money off the pitch as well as on it.
Jeremy Beecham, then the ‘Newcastle City Council’ leader, responding to uncertainly on ground improvements said, “They sent us a letter on Christmas Eve 1986 asking for help to sign a contract for the new stand by January 1st. Months went by and they hadn’t even put in a planning application.” Clearly indicating an amateurish approach, Beecham would add, “The fact is they’ve passed up every opportunity to make this an exciting club, they don’t seem to have any ambition to make it a great football team and equally, they don’t see the potential of making the best use of their site.”
A major redevelopment some 20 years earlier was backed by everyone but torpedoed by the board despite clearly giving the club, the city and the university facilities unrivalled in Britain. By supplying indoor bowls, an ice rink and other facilities that weren’t available, the clubs lack of awareness of opportunities for a closer identification with a larger community was a missed opportunity.
Before then, the first application for the Leazes Stand was submitted in 1955 but the cheapest possible building with the fewest possible facilities for the fans was a sign of the hallmark. A more modest redevelopment of the west stand should have been completed in 1981 but was left rotting away to be condemned following the tragic Bradford City Fire in 1985. Proving a facility for association football was as narrow minded as the boards job description would appear as they continued to look no further than immediate needs and failed to challenge the status quo if there was no advantage to them. A clear sign that the fans have always come low down in a list of priorities and the lack of pride at boardroom level was evident
It was no surprise that “Kill the Board” graffiti was seen around the ground but this was futile as generally, the board knew that supporters would still turn up despite them being responsible for the continued demise of a once great club. In an era dominant with trouble on the terraces, there was an argument that the real hooligans were those running the football clubs.
Seen as a risk taker gambling on property development, local man John Hall, then worth £50 million, was persuaded to front a wealthy bunch of businessmen to challenge the failing board. “I don’t want to own a football club, I want to give the people a share of it,” he’d say. “The pride and the passion of the Newcastle people frightens me at times and its time that pride and passion was given a stake in the club.”
Including a Brewery MD, a Comedian and a “Leisure King”, alongside Hall ‘The Magpie Group’ was formed and by April 1988 had pledged to invest £5 million immediately and raise another £5 million off a planned share issue. Malcolm Dix, part of the Newcastle Sports Council, NUFC shareholder and dissident, was also heavily involved.
The initial proposal of redeveloping the stadium, facilities and building a good team was always going to get supporters on side. A clear ambition was to blow away the cobwebs and make it a club the likes of Waddle, Beardsley and Gascoigne would come and want to play for, not leave. Simply put, “A time for change.” McKeag would respond by insisting there would be no talks unless they offered a £20 million package to take over the club.
For once ‘The Evening Chronicle’ backed the campaign as journalist John Gibson branding the current board as “their own private little club that find it difficult to accept it can no longer be like that.” Supporters “could no longer have a go at us as we’re acting on their behalf,” said Gibson on the back of returned forms to the paper promising to pledge £800k between them if given the opportunity to buy shares. “This is the biggest challenge the board will ever face,” claimed Gibson. “If they survive this one, they will survive anything,” whilst indicating a positive start as it was the publications “best ever response to a campaign like this.”
Making his money from the North East and pledging to put some back into it via Newcastle United, Hall’s repeated his main aim was to democratise the club and offer shares to the supporters. Only once previously had this been an opportunity when 2000 shares, worth 10 shilling (50p) each, were offered around Heaton and Byker pubs in 1890. Almost 100 years later, the board continued to put debt on the club rather than have the foresight to raise money via shares and although not ruling a share issue out, democracy was deemed unnecessary and a last resort.
Despite backing McFaul to the tune of almost £3 million, the side got off to a disastrous start and for the 3rd season running, “Sack The Board!” chants were heard on the terraces. Hall had to stay away on match day in case his presence added more vitriol against the board and affected the players but that didn’t stop supporters chanting his name throughout games. Hall made it clear he didn’t welcome any fanfare and promised to “run it like a business” when, and not if, they takeover.
Despite claiming he was spat at and his family received verbal abuse, McKeag wouldn’t walk away as, despite “doing well under difficult circumstances,” he “had a job to do.” He boldly claimed, “it’s a job I think I can do a good deal better than John Hall,” a man he hinted at being a “financial bully.”
But ‘The Magpie Group’ (TMG) were one stop ahead. With the board being in a vulnerable position holding only 13% shares, every shareholder possible was contacted and offered up to £500 and then £1,000 per 50p share. The board promised to match it but when £5,000 per share was seen as an offer shareholders couldn’t refuse, the club ended up owing the bank £1 million to cover their purchases.
The board still held the majority going into 1989 but having succeeded in buying Director George Dicksons shares, ‘TMG’ were starting to win the battle. Following crowd disturbances after a shocking 0-2 defeat at home to Charlton that left United in a serious relegation battle, vice chairman Ron Mckenzie resigned due to ill health and subsequently sold his shares to ‘TMG’ who’d now spent £2 million to date buying out shareholders.
Without seeing the books, when it was becoming apparent the remaining directors were getting desperate, Hall valued the club at £3-4 million and was prepared to pay it. His vision was to be paid back from new shares albeit at a risk of not having much capital for any improvements due to shareholder greed.
February saw the board win back the voting rights of 26 shares following a High Court Judge ruling Dickson had betrayed the club in selling his 126 shares to ‘TMG’. Striker Mirandinha then went public stating through an interpreter that “most of the players” are against the board but “they won’t speak up because they are frightened.” Within months he was back at Palmeiras.
Never far from the firing line, McKeag, speaking to the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ programme investigating stadium safety and facilities in Football, would claim “we are continuingly trying to improve the standards” but played the martyr when professing “many members of the general public don’t appreciated that one does it for nothing. I get no salary, I get no directors fees, I get no hidden perks or inflated expenses. I do it for the good of the club.”
The club “did good” to set up a long-term loan with the bank to finance the new £5million West (Milburn) Stand, something McKeag claimed as an “achievement and credit to our house keeping without resorting to any outside borrowing.” Sparsely populated as crowds dropped to almost 14k, the lack of ability on the pitch proved that new stands don’t win you football games. To add insult to injury, the roof only covered those sitting and not supporters standing on the paddock below them. Despite the club admitting they were a “disgrace,” it came as no surprise that a quote for £200k to improve the toilets was declined as the board considered it a “waste of money” if they needed to change facilities again due to the forthcoming Taylor Report.
The season was a disaster yet fondly remembered in part due to a remarkable victory at Anfield that evidently papered over many cracks before the inevitable relegation. The supporters, against the board all season, were eventually punished for their loyalty throughout a testing period. At this point, an underestimated McKeag would sell family property to appease the bank of £500,000 and rejected Hall’s takeover bid claiming Hall did not have the supporters best interests. The council owned St James Park and a deadline of a new Leazes and a covered Gallowgate End, at an estimated cost of £10-12 million, was within the final 2 years. United would go into the summer with Dicksons replacement, Bob Young, proposing peace talks and a cease fire was declared before the start of the 1989-90 season when McKeag and Hall agreed to negotiate.
1985 was arguably the most catastrophic in football. On the back of the Heysel and Bradford disasters and supporter riots seen more publicly at Luton and Birmingham, Rogan Taylor was instrumental in setting up ‘The Football Supporters Association.’ Chairman until late 1989, he described football as “A business that was born in a brewery boardroom that has been run like a 19th century Victorian brewery for 100 years. You stick the beer on the shelf and the punters take it or leave it. That’s consumer relations.”
But Newcastle supporters wouldn’t “leave” without a fight. Having watched their side deteriorate following the outstanding achievement of 1984’s promotion, the ‘United Supporters for Change’ called for a boycott of home games.
Confirming boardroom battles were not uncommon in football, Taylor would describe Newcastle’s situation as “special circumstances thanks to the enormous grassroots support.”
“The supporters democratisation has been hoisted from the lowest rungs of the ladder to the top of it and is the ‘thing’ that’s being argued over,” he’d say. He was confident football was seeing “a kind of development that leads the way.”
The boycott was instant when only 20k United supporters showed for what was a hugely attractive fixture with Leeds United on the opening day of the season. On average, this would be maintained throughout the season as manager Jim Smith struggled to achieve an instant return to the top flight.
However, the signing of Scotland captain Roy Aitken saw an upturn in results that included a run of 8 successive victories and move up to 2nd from 8th. Confirming that all differences were settled, Hall ended a 2-year power struggle by accepting a place on the board whilst McKeag stated they were “working in cooperation with one another for the future of Newcastle United” and “hoped that future will be in the First Division.”
Hall reduced his 40% holding on the board to 10% as a compromise to an agreement that a shares issue would occur following the start of the 1990-91 season. The ‘United Supporters for Change’ agreed to call off their boycott and for once the club appeared in harmony.
It would be short lived. Failure to win promotion saw supporter frustration boil over with an embarrassing pitch invasion following the Play Off defeat to Sunderland and Halls place on the board would be over before it really began. McKeag stepped down as Chairman and was replaced by George Forbes not long into a disastrous and mundane season that followed. The share issue failed miserably before an aging side finished mid table finish in front of an average of a little over 17k supporters.
Smith walked before the seasons end partially due to being informed Hall wouldn’t back an academy scheme if ‘The Bald Eagle’ was still in charge. Ironically, by the end of 1991 new manager Ossie Ardiles had to rely on youth players to try and gain promotion. After winning only 8 of 41 league games in charge, he was more likely to relegate the club to the 3rd Division for a first time. Once Hall finally achieved control by inputting money to secure the clubs future following the threat of the bank pulling the overdraft facility, something had to give and following the dreaded “vote of confidence,” Ardiles was sacked and Keegan shocked the Football world by returning to Tyneside for a first job in management.
With 16 games left to try and save United from relegation and probable financial ruin, Keegan walked after only 7 matches when indicating Hall wasn’t backing him financially as promised. The funds soon arrived, modest signings were made and United survived. The relief was palpable all around the club and the city but it was clear this couldn’t happen again.
Once Keegan was persuaded to commit to a new contract despite the threat of being forced to sell star players David Kelly and Gavin Peacock if promotion wasn’t achieved, United never looked back and the revolutionising of the club was instant. Keegan and Hall appeared the perfect match as both has vision and dynamic leadership to attract the right men to take Newcastle United into Europe that ultimately reflected the supporters dreams.
Becoming Chairman, Hall had the business acumen to appoint the enthusiastic and sometimes controversial Freddie Fletcher as Chief Executive. His drive and ambition was perfect for taking Newcastle into the 21st Century and he fast earned the nickname “Rottweiler” due to his ability of getting things done. Hall was true to his word and backed Keegan to build that “good side” he promised 4 years previously by giving him over £4.5 million in his first full season in charge. Backed by an average gate that almost hit capacity, United gained promotion with games to spare. They also doubled the club transfer record fee paid by buying Andy Cole and Hall fulfilled another promise by sanctioning the redevelopment of the Leazes End, that had been a decrepit shadow of its former glory for over 14 years, at a cost of £5.6 million.
Now a buying club, good times were returning on and off the pitch as the momentum carried into the 1993-94 season and the potential riches that came with the new Premier League. Hall would proudly but rather cringeworthily thank ‘Sky Sports’ for “the invite” before a live TV game against Blackburn whilst Keegan, on the back of the newly opened ‘Platinum Club,’ joked his own pew was at risk with a possible ‘Dugout Club’ in the pipeline.
Breaking the club transfer record fee on a further two occasions that season, 4 United players were selected for England duty during 1994 and the club remarkably qualified for Europe. The Gallowgate End redevelopment commenced just after the turn of the year and a near all seater 36,000+ capacity ground would be the envy of many. Keegan, Hall and Fletcher had ensured a £17m turnover, an increase of almost £12 million in 2 years.
But all wasn’t well for some. Advanced ticket sales before United’s first season in the Premier League may have banked the club £7.5million but many supporters present during the darker days prior to promotion were simply priced out. In an area of high unemployment, a waiting list of 5000 people may have been impressive but the fan base, newly labelled “Keegan-ites” by rival supporters, was fast becoming unrecognisable as the bandwagon gathered pace. Considered nothing but turnstile fodder until the Hillsborough disaster forced a change in safety and facilities, season ticket prices had increased by almost 50% in areas and Halls promise of a “price for every pocket” was becoming dishonest.
The positivity on the pitch carried on for another 3 years that included the signing of foreign internationals and breaking the World Transfer Fee on Alan Shearer but United still couldn’t achieve any silverware prior to floating on the stock market in 1997. At this point Keegan walked as it was clear the finance for players wouldn’t be readily available due to the Hall family taking back the “loans” they sanctioned during the rebuilding. Hall would resign as chairman soon after and the dream was effectively over. By the time Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007, the Hall family took an estimated £88 million from the club in the 10 years between floating and the eventual sale.
During a game in 2016, Liverpool supporters walked out in protest over another planned ticket price increase. We’ve never been good at galvanizing the troops for this type of revolt but with the likelihood of Ashley’s season ticket price freeze coming to an end under potential new ownership, the discarding of such a loyal fanbase cannot be repeated.
With season tickets prices almost doubling following the success of 1993’s promotion and the “broken promises” tarnishing 1994’s £500 bond scheme, if the takeover happens, hopefully this time, everyone can get everything right.
Marc Corby – NUST Board Member