Part two of the interview with top North East sports journalist John Gibson.
Have the North East had its fair share of talent ?
I may be biased as a proud Geordie but right across the spectrum the North East has produced quality. Whether it’s the footballers we’ve talked about or the sportsman Steve Cram or Brendan Foster who’ve done so much in athletics, cricketers Steve Harmison from Ashington, Paul Collingwood from Shotley Bridge, they played wonderful for Durham and England, or showbiz and music which I’ve always loved.
Brian Johnson became a very good friend of mine mainly through his love of Newcastle United. I knew him when he was in the band Geordie before he hit mega success with AC/DC.
I remember Supermac and I going to a launch with Brian for one of Geordies records but the superstar that day was Malcolm MacDonald because he was centre forward of Newcastle United and England. Brian was a hopeful young singer trying to make his way with Geordie in the music biz.
One night I done a talk show in Heaton Buffs, these gigs were a chat show on stage and I played the Michael Parkinson role talking to various people, still do some today. Anyway I was on stage with Kevin Keegan and it got to the interval and I was backstage when suddenly Brian Johnson pops his head in for a chat. He had paid £10 to get in to see me and Kevin perform on stage when he’s just been playing to 100,000 kids in Brazil with AC/DC.
I used to come across Chas Chandler from The Animals, I knew his wife Madelaine who was a Miss Great Britain. Mark Knopfler when he was a lad used to run copy for us at the Chronicle for a time.
A close friend of mine is Ian La Frenais who wrote The Likely Lads, Auf Wiedersehen and a load of others, he introduced me to Jimmy Nail. When Newcastle played in the European Fairs cup Ian used to fly in to what city we were playing, stay in a hotel with me and watch the game. He put on the post-match reception for the 1974 FA Cup Final in London.
Jimmy Nail started off as a chanter, a good one at that, his band played in Newcastle. Ian La Frenais told me they were doing the auditions for their new TV show Auf Wiedersehen Pet and what they wanted was unknowns, not famous actors because sometimes you can start watching the person not the story.
He said they were sitting in auditions and looking for someone to play Oz when the door bursts open ‘Is this where they are daein’ all that for Auf Wiedersehen like?’ Ian said he turned round to his writing partner Dick Clement ‘I hope the bastard can act, because that’s Oz’. And yeah, it was Jimmy Nail.
GREAT BALLS OF FIRE
The only World Champion boxer from Tyneside is Glenn McCrory, again a very good friend. He had read in an autobiography that Jerry Lee Lewis at the height of his rock n roll fame, had said one of his best concerts was at Newcastle City Hall where the audience went crazy for him. We thought why not try to get him back over to the City Hall ?
So we contacted a few people in Memphis and reminded him of the story in his autobiography and asked why not come over ? Unbelievably he agreed to it. At the time Glenn was Sky TV’s boxing man so we got outside broadcaster’s from Sky to cover the concert.
When he came over we put him up in the Copthorne Hotel, he was like Howard Hughes, he never came out for three days. He had one armed bandits and gambling games transported to his bedroom so he could play the machines all day. The only time he came out was the day of the concert.
Mind he had a very strong voice for an old man, he was still magnificent although never spoke between songs. But his set was just under an hour, he walked off at the end and never came back for an encore. We had to put the supporting band back on again.
It was one of the great moments of my career because I was brought up listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard – I was a rocker. People came dressed up like rockers bopping in the aisles.
Do you know the cockneys Chas n Dave ? They came up on their own accord from London, stayed in a hotel overnight and paid to see Jerry Lee Lewis. I was backstage and yeah it was unbelievable.
I used to get all my records from Windows in Newcastle where you go into little booths and listen to them first. Great, great days. I’ve lived a varied life not just covering Newcastle United of which I’m really grateful, and by God I am, but always wanted to push the boundaries a bit further. Just testing myself to do things within my scope.
READ ALL ABOUT IT
As a newspaperman and writer, I was determined to be an author and I’ve wrote 16 sports books up to now, so just about got the hang of it. It’s different from writing for newspapers because there you learn to condense the story down to so many words where books can be 60,000 words.
I made a few TV documentaries with Glenn, one about boxer Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson in ‘The Meanest Man on the Planet’. We flew out to Las Vegas where Liston died, the other documentary was about Hughie Gallacher the Newcastle United forward who tragically committed suicide.
Then one day I thought as a journalist you’ve been telling Newcastle United how to run their club every day for years, how about trying to run one yourself – which is why I bought Gateshead and owned it outright for 11 years. Cameron Hall, owned by Sir John Hall who built the Metro Centre, helped me with sponsorship at Gateshead.
Thing is you become a better writer because you’ve seen that side of the game and you understand it. It was an eye opener and it had it’s wonderful moments, we got in Newcastle United goalie Steve Harper on a months loan, he went back to Newcastle and played in the Cup Final in the ‘90s.
The Magpie Group put Sir John Hall in the Newcastle United boardroom by ousting the old board, I was part of that which heralded Kevin Keegan, the entertainers and buying Les Ferdinand, Ginola and everybody right up to Shearer. I feel very privileged to be part of that Magpie Group.
We had two sections – one who had the necessary financial clout, the other was honest fans willing to work for the cause and do the leg work buying shares. My main job was publicity, getting the message out to fans.
I always remember the moment we took over and it dawned we were going to get in after two years of furious fighting. After all the threats I’d received when they thought we would lose, and I wouldn’t be allowed in St James’ Park again – then the sudden realisation of what if it all goes tits up ?
We fought for two years, the fans thrilled to bits, but only one thing matters – you’ve got to be successful. And what if we’re not, what if we fall flat on our face. The backlash will be horrendous.
THE KK EFFECT
Luckily we brought in Keegan. He set the city alive. He was like the pied piper, best PR man I’ve ever known. We went from being one game away from the old third division to be second top of the Premier league.
I done a few talk shows with Keegan as part of the Scottish and Newcastle breweries deal that brought him here the first time as a player. Within 24 hours of it being advertised he sold out every pub. We would come off stage at 11 o’clock and not get away till 12.30.
He sat on the edge of the stage and told the crowd to form a line, he had a picture and signed an autograph for every one of them. Some nights I would say ‘C’mon Kevin can we not get away a bit early’? But no, he was there all night until the last one got his picture.
YOUNG AT HEART
People say to me why don’t you retire ? But what will I do, play golf and pay for a season ticket at Newcastle ? The Chronicle pay me to sit and write about them. As long as my brain stays sharp I’ll keep going.
I still do the shows on stage, got one coming up with McCrory, there’s a big golf day down at Ramside Hall in Durham, there’s a Steve Wraith Legends night at the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle, there’s regular podcast shows with Supermac. I’ll keep doing it because an agile mind keeps you young – and I love what I do.
When I was covering Newcastle United and going out to nightclubs with footballers like Supermac and Irving Nattrass they would say ‘Gibbo, I bet you wish you were a player – the fame, the money, the birds’. ‘No’ I said. ‘I’ll tell you why. At 35 you’ll be finished and looking for a job. I’ll still be writing and covering Newcastle United until I retire’.
I’ve felt privileged to write because it’s the only thing I can do. To be brutally honest I’m hopeless at everything else. I’m a lucky, lucky man.
You can read more stories in the 16 books that John has authored. These are a select few titles:
The Newcastle United Story 1985.
Spirit of Tyneside 1990
Kevin Keegan, Portrait Of A Superstar 1984
North East Hundred Heroes 1993
Newcastle United Greats 1989
Newcastle United’s Perfect Ten 2007
Gibbo Files 2014
Interview by Gary Alikivi July 2021.