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 Randallreports 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:
Sadly, 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.
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.
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