Points and positions
First Team Squad
U19, U18 & U17
Transcribed from The Sunday Times March 18th 2001
Includes contributions from Freddie Shepherd, quotes from whom appear in blue
WHEN Douglas Hall strode into the Magpie Room restaurant at St James' Park last week, some of the waiters initially failed to recognise him, while others did a double take.
Domiciled in Gibraltar these days, Newcastle United's deputy chairman and majority shareholder had returned to Tyneside for a short break minus his trademark moustache, sporting a new close-cropped haircut and ready to speak to journalists for the first time in three years.
It is 36 months since the Toongate scandal brought Hall and Freddy Shepherd, Newcastle's chairman, instant notoriety in the wake of their drunken, laddish boasts to an undercover tabloid newspaper reporter disguised as an Arab sheikh.
For days, the national news was dominated by the fallout from the pair being quoted calling Geordie women dogs and laughing about Newcastle fans being ripped off when buying replica shirts.
Since then, Shepherd has overseen the firing of Kenny Daglish, the hiring and firing of Ruud Gullit and the appointment of Bobby Robson, as well as the transformation of St James' Park into a magnificent 52,000-capacity arena.
While the chairman has been hands-on at the ground most days, Hall fled the country, opting to pursue business interests abroad and watch Newcastle on SKY. Small wonder rumours have recently been rife that Sir John Hall's son wanted out and was poised to sell his majority stake.
Pouring scorn on such suggestions, Douglas confounded the doubters by pledging to provide sufficient funds to finance a realistic assault on the Premiership next season.
"I've hidden in the background because I got more than I could stand from the newspapers and it's taken me a while to come back," said Hall.
"Although I've been in the shadows, it's not as if I haven't been doing anything for this club. I've been abroad looking after my business and investments in Newcastle United. The newspaper thing was unfair, but it's history now and my intention is to pass my shares on to my children."
Cynics might say that with £50m owed on the ground redevelopment alone and the bank balance still recovering from the excesses of Kevin Keegan, Dalglish and Gullit, Hall has little option but to stick around because the club would struggle to attract viable buyers.
He demurred. "There is no debt at the club that is not manageable," he said. "The ground is being paid for over 17 years, so it's like a mortgage. You don't see yourself as being in debt just because you've got a mortgage. For the first time in a lot of years, there is cash in the bank to spend on the team," Hall continued. "And we will not let our fans down. We are ready to invest heavily in either transfer fees and/or wages to provide a winning team. "We've invested heavily in the stadium and we've got the best ground in the country, so now for the players. Newcastle fans can look forward to an exciting time next season. Our signings won't be small, they'll be large. We'll make sure we compete at the highest level in the Premiership and, hopefully, in Europe. I've every confidence we can compete with anybody."
Sceptics could see this as a ruse to boost season-ticket sales, but Hall and Shepherd insist they are not in the business of making empty promises. "Newcastle is better placed than most Premiership clubs and most European clubs to compete," said Hall. "We've had to be financially prudent over the past couple of years because bad purchases were made, but the manager has done well in selling players, the board has had a good year financially and we're ready to compete again. We haven't yet got as big a turnover as Manchester United, but we've possibly got a larger stockpile of cash than Manchester United because we haven't gone crazy in the transfer market over the past couple of years. "In my opinion we're already bigger and more financially stable than the likes of Barcelona. We might not be as successful on the pitch, but we are more financially stable. Freddy Shepherd has run the club in difficult circumstances for the past three years without any credit at all."
The chairman and majority shareholder cannot anticipate any kudos unless Newcastle hoist a trophy or two.
As Hall acknowledged: "The most important thing is to try to win the Premiership. We'd love to qualify for Europe in May and have a good Uefa Cup run next season, but the Premiership is the priority and our ambition is that Newcastle will attract players of the highest calibre. "My dream in the past was to see Rivaldo play here and it is that type of player we will try to get. This club should attract players of the quality of Rivaldo."
Such words should be music to the ears of Robson, who, due to a combination of long-term injuries to key first-team players and a lack of transfer funds, has found this season extremely frustrating. Recently, the 68-year-old former England coach admitted he sometimes wondered if he might not be better off "on the first tee on some golf course in Hawaii" before revealing that, had he faced similar problems at any club other than his beloved Newcastle, he would have seriously considered quitting this summer.
Shepherd is at pains to point out that the manager will soon be furnished with a generous budget: "Dalglish and Gullit didn't come here to bugger the club, but unfortunately things didn't work out and, thankfully, Bobby has stabilised the situation. He's been unfortunate with injuries, but we've created a stable platform and the team is poised to strike back." To do so effectively, Hall believes Newcastle need to be involved in next season's Uefa Cup. "If we get European qualification we can attract anybody here," he said. "It's difficult to attract top signings if we don't get into Europe, but we would still be well-placed. Look at our manager - who is better respected than Bobby Robson? I believe Bobby will attract top players. This is where it all takes off again."
Over the new year, Tyneside was awash with talk that Robson would be replaced by Aston Villa's John Gregory and his entire coaching entourage in June, but Shepherd has since made plain such rumours were groundless.
More recently, Keegan, who lives in the northeast and is keen to return to management, was spotted dining with Sir John Hall and Max Clifford, the publicist, in a Marbella restaurant. However, it was a social encounter and there is no chance of Keegan returning to the club he took to the brink of the championship in 1996. "Things would have been different if we hadn't lost that 12-point lead and the title in 1996," said Shepherd. "This time, though, our challenge will be different: under Keegan, there was a bit of all-fur-coat-and-no-knickers about it."
He was presumably referring to Keegan's ill-advised decisions to scrap Newcastle's reserve team and ignore the youth policy. Credit should go to Dalglish for rebuilding the youth-development system and helping to ensure that promising current first-team players such as Shola Ameobi were properly developed.
Like Gullit, Dalglish suffered the consequences of failing to appoint the right first-team coach, something Robson rectified with the recruitment of Mick Wadsworth, a former Carlisle, Scarborough and Colchester manager who was part of Robson's England backroom team during Italia 90 and is regarded as one of the best coaches around.
Under poorer management, Newcastle's injuries and lack of ready cash could have precipitated a dalliance with relegation, but Robson's often makeshift side have frequently played good football, beating Liverpool and Leeds during a campaign in which consistency has proved elusive.
The Toon Army harbour lofty aspirations, and recent defeats by Charlton and Manchester City prompted a stream of outrage in the letters pages of the local papers, with some fans calling for Robson's head. As befits a man with the nerve to order black pudding in the Magpie Room (two AA rosettes and a soaring reputation for excellent food), Shepherd refuses to countenance such criticism. "You don't need to be a rocket scientist to realise that if we'd had Carl Cort, Alan Shearer, Nikos Dabizas, Kieron Dyer and Rob Lee properly fit all season, we'd have done a lot better," said the chairman.
Money for high-calibre replacements may shortly be on tap, but will Europe's most coveted individuals want to live on Tyneside? "If they don't, they will be players who don't want to join the second largest club in England," retorted Shepherd.
If Robson could bring Newcastle their first trophy of the new millennium he would retire happy, but Shepherd is anxious to defer his departure as long as possible. "It would be ridiculous for me to give a 68-year-old guy a two-or three-year contract because you guys [journalists] would be constantly saying, 'He's only got three months left, who is going to replace him?' Instead, I've given Bobby a 12-month rolling contract, which means that every morning he wakes up he's got a 12-month deal in front of him. "I've never worried about Bobby resigning out of frustration. Sure he gets down after defeats, but then he's back out there rallying the troops."
Refusing to be drawn on questions about Shearer's credentials to succeed Robson, the chairman insisted that he does not have a long-term successor in mind. Even so, Hall could not resist peering into his crystal ball. "I'd like to think that in 10 years' time we'll be investing further in increasing the capacity of St James' Park," he said. "If the team is successful, there will be no limit to the number of Newcastle fans who would turn up. But first we need to win the Premiership."
With that, Hall was off, driving down the A1 to Durham to become just another, largely unrecognised, face in the crowd as he watched his son turn out for a school rugby team. "Because of the trouble we had, I've kept quiet," he said. "It's been a difficult three years."