Kingsley Hyland’s series of rugby reminiscences continues, focusing on the move into the club’s current home - Kingston Park Stadium.
If the move from its previous residence at the County Ground to the New Ground on the Great North Road in 1955 was the result of years of careful planning and fundraising which reflected the Gosforth club’s growing ambitions, the move from there to Kingston Park was anything but, and had its origins in the club’s relative fall from grace in the early 1980s.
The club had reached the pinnacle of the English club game with the second National Knockout Cup win in 1977, its centenary year. Rather than build on that platform the club rested on its laurels with success breeding complacency, which saw some of the previously active volunteers sitting back and enjoying the reflected glory.
Some key players moved on when work or other unlawful inducements took them south, whilst others retired. A significantly rebuilt side reached a third cup final in 1981 but this was a false dawn, and the defeat to Leicester in the final was a chastening experience. The introduction of leagues in the mid 1980s saw the club in the country’s second tier, where initial success proved elusive.
The malaise which affected Gosforth seemed to have infected rugby across the entire county. In January 1984 Gosforth convened a meeting of all of the clubs in Northumberland and invited them to share in the creation of a new Newcastle-based club which would take on Gosforth’s first team fixture list. This was not a new idea, and indeed the Northumberland County Committee had made such a recommendation over 50 years earlier.
The club’s minutes of a meeting on the January 11, 1932 recorded that “A suggested Newcastle RFC of combined clubs was discussed on the County’s recommendation. Our County rep was asked to give the question a sympathetic hearing.”
Then in May 1970 a meeting took place to discuss the possibility of an amalgamation between Gosforth and Northern, Gosforth’s near neighbours and great rivals. Notes of that meeting included the following:
“Although neither the Gosforth nor the Northern representatives had received precise terms of reference from their respective Clubs, it was assumed that the matter for consideration was an examination of the difficulties, if any, from a constitutional, legal or accountancy point of view, which might arise on an amalgamation of the two Clubs. It was agreed that there were no such difficulties as could not be overcome with comparatively little trouble in the event of an amalgamation of the two Clubs.”
It was agreed that if an amalgamation were to happen it should not take place until both clubs had celebrated their centenaries later in the decade.
The 1984 plan was that Gosforth would sell their ground – then valued at around £1m – and invest the proceeds. As a sweetener the local clubs were offered a three-year sponsorship package in return for their support for the project. Sadly Northern, Gosforth’s near neighbours, who by this time were also a declining force, declined to attend the meeting and the proposal came to nothing.
Continued failure to progress in the National Knockout Cup had a significant impact on Gosforth’s finances, which were heavily dependent on a good cup run and the hope of an away draw with one of the big gate-taking clubs – gate proceeds were split equally between the two competing clubs.
The club was faced with falling income and rising costs, and by early 1985 was looking again at the possibility of relocating, possibly outside the city boundary given that Newcastle ‘boasted’ the highest rates in the country at the time.
Northern faced similar problems, and despite the deadly rivalry between the clubs the more enlightened administrators of both realised that some sort of accommodation between them was the way forward. A number of options were discussed. One involved Gosforth selling their ground and moving in with Northern as co-tenants, with the sale proceeds ensuring that both clubs became financially sound. Another was a proposed merger with Northern, with either Gosforth or Northern selling their ground, whilst the most radical suggestion had both clubs selling their grounds, amalgamating and moving into the County Ground.
The Newcastle Chronicle’s rugby correspondent Duncan Madsen, a former Scottish international and Gosforth’s hooker in their two cup triumphs, wrote on September 11, 1985, that “Amalgamation is the only answer… In the past a ‘Newcastle Club’ has always founded on the altar of vested interests.”
Although talks between the two clubs continued for several years, major obstacles now stood in the way. Both clubs were then running six adult teams and a Colts team, and amalgamating and selling either or both grounds would mean that the resulting number of players could not comfortably be accommodated. More pertinently, Northern’s ground was actually owned by a ground company, and its sale would raise significant tax issues.
Gosforth took matters into their own hands and at a Special General Meeting on December 2, 1985 took the decision to put the New Ground up for sale ‘provided that they could get £1.5m for it’ rather than seeking a substantial loan secured against the ground. The intention was to relocate elsewhere, and the Chronicle and Journal’s Sports Ground on Brunton Road at Kingston Park had already caught the club’s eye.
The sort of sale price sought for the existing ground would only be achieved if planning consent could be obtained for commercial development, most probably a supermarket, with the value of the land for housing likely to be significantly lower. The best offer did in fact come from developers wanting to construct a supermarket, DIY store and Garden Centre. Not surprisingly there was strong opposition from local residents. A further complication was the fact Northumberland County had decided to sell their ground – less than half a mile away – and were attracting strong interest from Associated Dairies, now better known as ASDA.
Little progress was made as amalgamation talks continued, and the club’s financial problems became more acute, with growing liabilities and continually falling incomes meaning that it was constantly operating at a loss. Planning consent for a supermarket was refused by the City Council. Housing developers Cussins then stepped in with an offer having received a positive indication that planning approval for ‘upmarket housing’ would be forthcoming, and a sale was completed in the summer of 1989 with the club netting £1.76m.
The problem now was in deciding on what to do next. It was clear that a majority of the club’s General Committee still believed that some form of merger with Northern would take place, and so little thought had been given to a Plan B. As Gosforth continued to struggle to make an impact in the league Northern enjoyed their best season in years in 1988-89, and clearly now felt that they could still prosper by going it alone. They abruptly terminated merger talks, leaving Gosforth sitting on a pot of money but nowhere to play, so finding a Plan B was now an urgent priority.
The land on which the Kingston Park Stadium now stands had fortuitously been acquired for just £50,000, and the decision was taken to relocate there. A Development Committee under the chairmanship of Ken Lockerbie, a former club player, Secretary and President, was formed to oversee the construction of a new ground and clubhouse at Kingston Park.
The intention was to spend £1.4m on the development of the site and construction of a clubhouse incorporating what is now the East Stand. The balance of the sale proceeds would be invested to secure the club’s financial future and provide essential funding to support the playing of elite rugby. It was hoped that the development would become a ‘centre of excellence’ for rugby in the region that would attract new and better players to the club.
Agreement was reached with Cussins which enabled work to commence on the old ground, but with formal handover of the clubhouse deferred until the end of July 1990. This ensured that the club retained a base in Gosforth, although first team matches would be played at the Percy Park ground in North Shields. The lower XVs would play their home matches at Bullocksteads, the Northumbria University sports ground at Kenton Bank Foot. Whilst the Greyhounds (the second team) enjoyed a highly successful season, the first team had their worst season in recent memory, suffering several heavy defeats and avoiding he ignominy of relegation to Division Three only as a result of yet another restructuring of the leagues.
Meanwhile the Development Committee were busy at work on the Kingston Park project. The Project Manager was Allan Summers of Summers and Partners, Chartered Quantity Surveyors and a club member. The Architects were Mauchlen, Weightman and Elphick of Gosforth and the building work was to be undertaken by Stanley Miller (North East) Limited from Killingworth.
Plans for the construction of ground and clubhouse were submitted to the City Council, but whilst work on levelling the site commenced the planning application was delayed by three months due to a strike by the NALGO trade union. Planning consent was eventually secured and construction work commenced, the intention being that the work would be completed in time for a handover on July 15, 1990, allowing for two weeks’ grace before the club left the Great North Road and took up occupation of Kingston Park a month before the start of the new season.
The old clubhouse on the Great North Road would be handed over to Cussins on July 31, 1990. The final night for business was June 23 when, largely for nostalgic reasons, a social event was organised. This was before the club’s memorabilia had been removed from the walls and a subsequent audit revealed the absence of a number of cherished items.
Despite the delays everything seemed to be going according to plan until May 1990, when disaster struck. On May 4 contractors for Stanley Miller downed tools and walked off site amidst rumours of financial problems surrounding the company. Ten days later, with the clubhouse barely half built, Millers went into receivership.
The Development Committee moved quickly, and within three weeks a contract had been signed with Laing Construction for completion of the work. This further delay pushed handover back to late August. Laings worked seven days a week to ensure that the work was completed, but this, along with a number of changes to the original plans, meant that the intended nest egg designed to ensure the club’s financial future and support elite rugby, was wiped out. If the club was to pay its way and progress, it would have to generate income far in excess of its outgoings.
The planning consent required that the clubhouse and stand be built to the east of the first team pitch. This meant that the spectators seated into the stand would be facing into the sun on the rare occasions that it shone, and into the teeth of some strong prevailing winds, which on some wet days meant that no-one stayed dry.
Notwithstanding the problems with construction, the club faced the new season with optimism. Radical changes had taken place off the field as the club determined to adopt a more professional approach. A full time Director of Rugby, Mike Mahoney, was appointed along with a full time Facilities Manager to maximise use of the new facility, and a Commercial Manager to source new sponsorship opportunities.
Previously the club’s only employees were a groundsman and a part-time steward. The latter was something of a character in the mould of an old fashioned CIU Club steward, who neglected to handover his keys when Cussins moved in, and was later observed on site removing all of the central heating radiators!
The club’s sovereign body, its General Committee, with over sixty eligible members and the smaller Executive Committee, were replaced by a five man Board of Management. In addition the club changed its name to Newcastle Gosforth, in the belief that a closer association with the city would enhance opportunities to secure new sponsorship.
A total of £65,000 was spent on the first team pitch alone to ensure that it would in time become the best club playing surface in the country. These changes had encouraged a number of players from other clubs to try their luck playing at a higher level, so that the playing squad had a much stronger look about it. In short, moving to Kingston Park effectively afforded the club the opportunity to make a clean break from the outdated systems of the past and to revamp the club in every respect.
It could now legitimately claim to have the best wholly owned club rugby facilities in the land. Although plans for a floodlit all weather training area had been shelved and the installation of floodlights to the first team pitch postponed for a year to give the playing surface a chance to become established, the clubhouse incorporated a new stand, a banqueting/conference room, seminar/function rooms, lounge bars, two squash courts, a medical room and a weights room. There were three pitches in total with the first team pitch terraced on all four sides.
Perhaps most significantly what was believed to be the country’s first ‘Conditional Publicans Licence’ was granted, meaning that the facility could be operated as a pub open to members of the public rather than as a private members club, with guests having to be signed in by a member. This, along with a £1 social membership subscription to cover mailing costs, enabled the club to target the local residents with a view to maximising clubhouse use on non-match days.
A newsletter delivered to all properties in Kingston Park and Kenton Bank Foot stated that “It cannot have escaped your notice that one of the country’s leading rugby union clubs is about to relocate itself in your backyard. If your preconception of the average rugby person is of a loud drunken slob, this prospect is one which I am sure will fill you with trepidation, but thankfully modern rugby football is not like that and we would like to see the new rugby club become an important asset to its new community to be enjoyed and not suffered.”
This recruitment drive it was hoped would net around 500 new social members, some of whom might take an interest in the rugby and support the club in other ways. In the event over 3,000 signed up in the first couple of months, and the clubhouse became one of the most popular drinking spots in suburban Newcastle. Some of those new social members are now Falcons season ticket holders.
On the field the team improved markedly on its Percy Park season and finished the season in mid-table, having been set a target of securing promotion to Division One within three years. The following season saw further improvement, with promotion a year ahead of target looking a realistic prospect at one stage. Attendances at matches improved, although they were still measured only in the hundreds, but promotion was achieved on target at the end of the 1992-93 season.
So, was it a good move for the club?
In the short term, undoubtedly. Playing performances improved immediately, and the strong social membership and resulting increased use of the clubhouse saw income rising impressively. Unfortunately, too little heed had been paid to the level of costs required to generate such income levels, and at the end of the season an operating loss of £17,097 was reported.
Whilst some of this was clearly attributable to an almost total lack of income in the first four months of the financial year before the move to Kingston Park, there had also been a number of unanticipated one-off costs associated with the move. Commercial revenues were well below forecast, despite the appointment of a full time commercial fundraiser. In a somewhat down beat annual report to the members the Treasurer stated:
“Those who have worked hard on the Development Committee and those whose foresight led to our move to Kingston Park have to be congratulated, it is however the members both new and old who have repaid this foresight by supporting the club in the season just finished. I would remind all members that much of our increased level of expenditure is fixed and our income in the future is dependent on the continued support of all the members, it is therefore important that the momentum of our first 8 months at Kingston Park is maintained and improved both on and off the field.”
Sadly, matters did not improve, with an operating loss of £47,519 being reported at the end of the following season despite an increase in catering revenues. There was a further drop in commercial revenues, and it was clear that overstaffing was causing a spike in overheads. Whilst the players delivered on their part of the bargain by securing promotion to Division One, in 1993 the club was relegated after just one season, and a disappointing season in Division Two followed.
After five years at Kingston Park the club had a struggling team and a magnificent facility that was costing more to run than the club was able to raise as income, despite the continued loyalty of the club’s main sponsor, Reed Print and Design. In short, the club was back to square one and facing a drop down the leagues.
A further fall from grace was avoided only by the intervention of Sir John Hall in September 1995, after the game was declared open. What followed is well known to supporters of Newcastle Falcons.
The fact that elite club rugby is still being played in the city more than a quarter of a century later is the clearest indication that the move to Kingston Park, however traumatic, was worthwhile.
There is little doubt that if the club had still been located at its charming but outdated facility on the Great North Road, it would never have attracted Sir John’s investment, and one can only speculate as to where the club would now be – if indeed it still existed at all.