Tony Blair and Newcastle United: when the truth hurts

If it has begun to seem like Be Nice to Toon Week here. be assured normal service will resume once the volcanic cloud lifts. But as a footnote to the questionnaire Alastair Campbell answered for Salut! Sunderland ahead of today’s game against his beloved Burnley, he commented on a certain urban myth – dear to Mackem hearts – concerning his old boss. Colin Randall reports with heavy heart …

Some stories are true, but you wish they weren’t. Some cry out to be true but are false, even if they leave a postscript – read on – that is entertaining and plausible.

Into the second of those categories slots the belief that Tony Bair, while Prime Minister, talked wistfully in an interview of having sat as a lad in the Gallowgate end at St James’ Park, watching Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle United.

Step forward the man – or woman – who first reported this as fact.

Salut! Sunderland will freely admit that having come across the story, it did repeat it. There is no better reason for this than that the tale had been told so often as to be widely believed. If Blair or anyone on his behalf had ever denied it, the denial/s had been overlooked or buried away.

Then, in Oct 2008, we were having some pre-Wear/Tyne derby fun and I decided to search for the original article/s quoting Blair’s remarks.

The exercise led to this forlorn observation here at Salut! Sunderland:

keithtoppingSadly, the oft-repeated Tony Blair story – that he had claimed to remember “sitting” in the seatless Gallowgate as the long-retired Jackie Milburn flew past defenders – may have no basis in truth. The evidence is from a partisan source – a Mag-supporting journalist called Keith Topping – but seems, disappointingly enough, rather convincing…

Keith, well enough known as a North-eastern writer and broadcaster, wrote at his website of what he called “the finest example of modern times of the media both creating and then continuing to feed an urban legend”;

He went on:

“The British Prime Minister and I share at least one thing in common – a love for Newcastle United football club. However, Tony Blair’s support has been questioned almost from the first moment that he mentioned it in public. In the late 1990s, his political opponents were given what appeared to be a open goal to score against him. It was widely reported that sometime during 1997, the Prime Minister had been interviewed – by whom seemed to change from report to report – and had talked with misty eyed nostalgia about his first visit to St James’ Park, ‘sitting in the Gallowgate End watching Jackie Milburn.’

Milburn, for the uninitiated, was Newcastle’s record-breaking centre forward during the immediate post war years – he was my father’s hero and a much-loved icon on Tyneside, an affection that continued long after his death in 1988. The problem with the Prime Ministers reported story was that Milburn left Newcastle in 1957 to manage the Irish club Linfield. At the time he played his final games for Newcastle, Tony Blair would have been four years old and living several thousand miles away in Australia.

Worse, from the point of view of the story, the Gallowgate End was, until it was knocked down in 1994 and replaced with the new Exhibition Stand, a steeply banked open terrace with no seats in it.

This story has become one of the major sticks with which to beat the Prime Minister – as an amusing little sidebar to everything from the Hutton Inquiry to Health Service reforms. If he was so economical with the actualité concerning his support for his football team, the argument went, how can we then believe anything he says? As recently as April 2005, the defecting MP Brian Sedgemore used an interview with the Daily Mail to note that the trouble with Mr Blair is he tells ‘big porkies as easily as he tells little porkies, whether it is watching Jackie Milburn play football or being certain of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.’

Unfortunately for opponents of the Prime Minister, there’s a slight flaw in this theory; Tony Blair never claimed to have sat in the Gallowgate End watching Jackie Milburn or anything even remotely like it. The story actually owes its origin to a Radio 5Live interview in 1997 which was subsequently reported in the North East in the local Sunday Sun newspaper. Thereafter, it appears to have taken on a life of its own. Eventually, earlier this year, the BBC Newsnight reporter Adam Livingstone tracked down a tape of the original interview. When asked when he had become a supporter of Newcastle, Mr Blair replied that it had been ‘just after Jackie Milburn.’ He never mentioned the Gallowgate End at all.”

So there, with great thanks to Keith’s diligence (and yes, we’re sure he’d have applied the same rigour had the story been about David Cameron, Len Shackleton and the Roker End), you have it. Salut! Sunderland likes to do the unexpected and is happy to set the record straight. Actually, it is inconsolably unhappy to do so, but duty is duty.

When Alastair Campbell sent his answers to our Who Are You? questions, we shot off a supplementary about Tony & Jackie, even though we’d already made our own amends 18 months ago.

This was Alastair’s response: “The TB Jackie Milburn story has been rebutted many many times. Even the journalist on whose original interview the story was allegedly based has admitted that TB never said it. It is I’m afraid one of those urban myths and even journalists who know it’s not true that he said it cannot resist repeating it every now and then.”

The rebuttals, as we have suggested, must have eluded a lot of people.

Which leaves the bit that’s true. Though this also comes from partisan lips – those of Sir Tim Rice, the lyricist and a Sunderland fan since boyhood – I have no more reason to disbelieve that source than the integrity of Keith Topping’s research.

Interviewed by me for 5573, as the London branch of the SAFC Supporters’ Association then called its newsletter (now Wear Down South), Sir Tim described meeting Tony Blair at the Stadium of Light when both were guests in the directors ‘ box as we drew 2-2 with Man Utd around Christmas 1999.

The PM suddenly blurted out that he was a Sunderland devotee as well as a Mag. The revelation certainly surprised Sir Tim. “I just thought it was bonkers,” he said.

I await Mr Topping’s further analysis.

NB: a recent deluge of spam means comments from people who have not been this way and posted before will have to await moderation. Sorry.

10 thoughts on “Tony Blair and Newcastle United: when the truth hurts”

  1. It was originally made up by the Newcastle Sunday Sun based on their misreporting of an interview on Radio 5. It ws then picked up by the Daily Mirror and reprinted without checking.

  2. Regardless of the truth/lack of truth in this story, the sad fact remains that Blair suffered from a critical lack of judgement on everything from choice of football club to weapons of mass destruction and the invasion of Iraq.

  3. Andy M – I was at that game too. You’ve brought back some memories. I used to go to Newcastle games quite a lot in those days with a Mag-supporting neighbour. My main memory of that particular game was of a very portly Puskas hardly ever straying outside of the centre circle, yet pinging inch-perfect passes to all parts of the pitch. Genuine class!

  4. H(o/a’)way UTD111:

    sense of humour not so much broken down as carted off for scrappage.

    Or could it be that …

    Light-hearted claims about Mackems being obsessed with “illustrious” neighbours = good-natured banter


    Light-hearted comparison of the literacy of Wear/Tyne websites = stupid insults

    I’ll leave questions of Toonly arrogance to the wider football jury.

    But there was nothing personal – I even ticked a thumbs-up for your last posting.

    Wjy not come back next season for the first derby game Who Are You? feature? Let me know if you’re up for it.

  5. I am in my mid sixties now but both my maternal grandfather and my father were football fans who could not afford to go to away matches and both alternated between watching Sunderland and Newcastle home matches although both were primarily Mackem supporters.

    I was taken to my first match at Roker Park at the age of four and “sat” in the Roker end, either on my fathers shoulders or on a barrier. I have never forgotten the hot Pork and pease pudding baps bought on the way home from the pork butchers shop.

  6. Salutsunderland

    Actually, I was just intrigued to find a mackem who could write… I knew a “literary step up” would be beyond you.
    See? I can do the stupid insults too, but that’s just kids stuff mate – hang your head in shame.

    I was actually “drawn here” as you put it, because I thought you were striving on this website to rise above that sort of rubbish. And I felt comfortable adding a geordie view. Thanks for reverting to type and bursting that particular bubble.

    Don’t believe everything you read in the papers – the “god given right to succeed arrogance” is a media invention. They are running scared of any team with the potential to break into their cosy London-based elite. You’ll see this first hand if ever Sunderland look likely to rise to such giddy heights. They are ruthless.

    I will always want to see any NE team do well against the arrogance of the elite – including Sunderland. You need to take a good look in the mirror.

  7. UTD111:
    Another theory in football is that the reason most neutrals laughed at Newcastle’s relegation is that the “we’ve that God-given right to succeed” arrogance, which has developed in recent years, has tended to smother all the previous goodwill.
    As for being drawn unwillingly to Salut! Sunderland by the quality of articles, I suppose you may at least find the literary step-up character-building.

  8. Urban myths 2? Can anyone actually verify the story that Peter Mandleson once went into a Hartlepool chip shop and pointing at the mushy peas asked for a portion of guacamole?

    As for TB supporting both teams. It was not uncommon for footy fans up until quite recently to go to Roker one week and Sid James’ the next. My first match at Roker was the 3-3 draw with Leicester City on the club’s return to the top flight in 1964.

    But in the late 60s early 70s you would just as easily have seen me watching the Mags and indeed I was there when they went 3-0 up in the first leg of the Fairs Cup Final with future Sunderland skipper Bobby Moncur scoring twice. So I have done something a lot of Mags haven’t ie. seen a Cup winning side!

    I lived in London in the mid 70s where the response to my strong pitmatic accent led me to develop a very defensive attitude to my roots. As other people have commented on this website, the strength of feelings generated by the Wear/Tyne divide has increased manyfold in the last two or three decades.

  9. There’s a theory that Sunderland fans sing so many songs about Newcastle United because of an interest in their illustrious neighbours which borders on obsession. I have to say, your blog seems to be proving this theory with all of these indepth United stories!
    There would be numerous benefits for you in leaving NUFC stories to the NUFC blogs – not least of which would be that I wouldn’t come in here!!

  10. All true …. but it actually would have been possible for TB to have done exactly what was said (apart from the sitting part, unless he was on a barrier).
    I did it … and I’m of a similar vintage. In the late sixties Milburn had a testimonial at St James’ where he played alongside several famous players of the fifties, including, notably, Ferenc Puskas. Though a Sunderland supporter I went along to see them. I remember it ended early because of heavy rain, and I got drenched!

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