Interview: Jeff Stelling, Newcastle United Foundation’s hall of fame dinner host

IMAGINE distilling 120 years of proud history into a few stand-out heroes, the odd legendary team and a couple of managers whose achievements still echo through the eras.

IMAGINE distilling 120 years of proud history into a few stand-out heroes, the odd legendary team and a couple of managers whose achievements still echo through the eras.

That is the job that faced the Newcastle United Foundation as they embarked on one of their most ambitious projects to date: setting up a Magpies Hall of Fame to reflect the club’s proud history while also raising money for good causes.

It is difficult not to get carried away when you put the wheels in motion for this kind of thing. After all, the very fact that there is no definitive answer to the question of who is the club’s greatest goalscorer or most exciting winger is what makes it such fertile ground for feverish debate.

Tonight’s star-studded inaugural dinner, to be held in the Bamburgh Suite at St James’ Park, is sure to kick-start more discussions among Newcastle supporters forced into a fortnight’s international break purgatory.

We don’t know the first players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame yet, but the list of confirmed guests tells its own story. Alan Shearer will be there and quite right too; it is difficult to imagine any celebration of the club’s history having credibility without a nod to one of their greatest number nines.

Peter Beardsley and Faustino Asprilla will also be strolling down the red carpet, which is surely a sign that the Foundation’s inaugural inductees will possess the sort of flair which came to symbolise Kevin Keegan’s famously swashbuckling mid-nineties side.

The rest of the guestlist offers clues to other inductees. Bob Moncur is surely a shoo-in as the last United captain to lift significant silverware while John Beresford, Steve Howey, Rob Lee, Vic Keeble and Alan Foggon all have their claims to greatness.

Above and beyond that, it looks slightly less clear-cut. The club’s press release only confirmed awards for five individual players, two teams and a “legendary” manager – all of whom have been voted for by fans, officials and the Press over the course of the last few weeks.

It should be a memorable evening – probably the first of what will become an annual event – and the man charged with holding it all together can’t wait to play his part.

Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling seems an appropriate choice, even if his loyalties lie on Teesside rather than Tyneside. North East-bred but with that unique ability to transcend rivalry just through being a decent bloke and a proper football fan, his enthusiasm at being part of a black-and-white first shines through.

“In the past I’ve been lucky if I get back a couple of times a year but recently I’ve been back quite a lot,” he said.

“It’s always fantastic to get back and it is a real privilege to be asked. You just get such a brilliant welcome.”

For Stelling (pictured left) – a journalistic veteran of some three decades – the name he would like to see in the Hall of Fame is sadly no longer with us.

He sees Sir Bobby Robson as one of Newcastle’s greats and a distinguished part of a history that has not always yielded the trophy haul the club “deserves”.

Stelling said: “My favourite memories are things like the joys of talking to Sir Bobby Robson. It was just such a delight to be in his company. He was such a passionate, infectious guy who had a great sense of humour as well. That stands out.

“Newcastle have had some tough times but people have some fantastic memories because there have been some fantastic players.

“Over the years, I look back at some of the great number nines, remembering all the way back to people like Wyn Davies, Malcolm Macdonald and so on and so forth.

“Obviously the Entertainers team, the David Ginola team, that was special and everyone remembers that night at Anfield. I remember it vividly.

“I was down in Plymouth covering snooker, and trying to find a pub where I could watch Liverpool v Newcastle in one of the dodgiest parts of the city was not easy.”

Despite not having a Newcastle United background, Stelling sees kindred spirits in the black and white fantatics.

He said: “My earliest memories of football in the North East were the mid-sixties and badgering my sister or my dad to take me to The Vic to watch Pools. In those days, women didn’t go to football very much but my sister would take me.

“We didn’t have very much so if we couldn’t afford it, we used to wait until the gates opened with ten minutes to go until the end so we’d wait outside to get in and see the last ten minutes.

“As far as Newcastle is concerned, the funny thing is that as a kid, there’s sometimes no logic in the teams that you support and my First Division team – or Premier League as it is now – was Burnley.

“I used to go to St James’ Park to watch them and if they were at Sunderland, I’d go off to Roker Park.

“Being a council house lad from Hartlepool, that wasn’t very often as I couldn’t afford the train fare and we didn’t have a car. But that made the times you did get up to St James’ Park all the more special.

“Everybody remembers Bobby Moncur from the Fairs Cup team during that era, and of course he had a spell as Hartlepool manager as well.

“It’s a long time ago since that trophy, I’m sure Newcastle fans don’t need reminding.” It is nice to hear that someone who works for a company that is often accused of over-sanitising the sport “gets it”.

It might also explain his enduring appeal to football fans, whatever their allegiances.

Stelling said: “Historically, the North East was always a working-class area: shipbuilding, steel and Northumberland and Durham’s coalfields. In those days, it was a working-class sport. We were very much from the same sort of areas and it’s been handed down through the generations. It’s tradition that you go and support your hometown club.

“It’s a passion, isn’t it? It’s a release. You go to the football and you’re all in that together. There’s nothing quite like a packed St James’ Park, is there? It’s a fantastic escape from the realities of how tough it can be.”

This is a Foundation event, which makes the last two awards of the evening particularly appropriate.

They will be handed out to two United stalwarts who have made significant contributions to grassroots football and the community, so effectively supporting the foundations of the club’s Foundation.

For Stelling, those final baubles might just be the most important of the evening.

He said: “It’s so important clubs are taking their work in the community so seriously. There can’t be a club that’s more important to its community than Newcastle. It’s fantastic that they are so involved in educational work, charitable work and showing kids how they can live their lives.

“Footballers and football clubs can set a fantastic example for everyone. I know from being on the fringes of the game that footballers get a bad Press and people don’t hear half of the fantastic things that they do.

“I think it’s great that they’re so involved now.”

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