Football history is also social history, and the story of Newcastle United is no different. In the 1980s, it was a story of old money and new money, of a patrician establishment based on hereditary principles doing battle with new entrepreneurial and populist forces. While John Hall led the latter, it was Gordon McKeag, chairman of the board from 1988 to 1990, who desperately dug in on behalf of the old guard.

Born in Wickham in 1928 and educated at the Royal Grammar School, Durham, and Cambridge, McKeag had joined the board in November 1972 on the death of his father William. In those days football was less a business and more a family concern, shareholdings and positions on the board passed down from father to son.

Gordon’s father, William, had been on the board for 28 years and had briefly been chairman in the 1950s, but his main career had been in politics and the law. Twice mayor of Newcastle and a freeman of the city, AldermanWilliam’s were big boots to fill.

In that respect, as in many others, McKeag was defined by what he was not. He was not his father. Neither was he his great rival and predecessor as chairman, Stan Seymour Snr, whose father had the distinction of both playing in the last Newcastle side to win the league, in 1927, and also acting as chairman and manager during the great FA Cup winning years of the 1950s. While the Seymours were a footballing family, the McKeags were lawyers and bureaucrats.

But, most of all, Gordon McKeag was not John Hall. And he was not the future. In fact, it was his greatest misfortune to find himself on the wrong side of history. McKeag’s time as chairmen coincided with my own first seasons going to every home match. Unfair as they might be, my personal memories are of a slightly ridiculous figure, part Alan Partridge, part Jacob Rees-Mogg, his glued-down, wavy side parting and blazer redolent of his defining air of anachronism.

On the pitch, his time as chairman coincided with terminal decline, as he reaped the disastrous consequences of the decisions taken during his time on the board. Above all, Waddle, Beardsley, and Gascoigne had all been sold in the space of three years, and the legacy of promotion under Arthur Cox squandered. McKeag sacked Willie McFaul in the winter of 1988 as relegation loomed, and Jim Smith was unable to turn the tide. Sit-down protests and talk of boycotts followed. Sack the Board was a constant refrain.

Of course, defeat in the play-offs would follow, and Smith’s ageing team were unable to rally themselves the following season. Having taken over a team that finished 8th in the old First Division, two years later McKeag left a team 11th in the Second Division and heading only in one direction, attendances with them.

Off the pitch, the new Millburn Stand had only recently been completed, but the Leazes and Gallowgate Ends were crumbling symbols of neglect. Desolate, open concrete terraces that carried the crowd’s noise and hope away in the wind. More than anything McKeag came to symbolise that climate of neglect in the minds of supporters.

Above all, it was the share wars that defined McKeag’s tenure, as he did battle with Hall’s Magpie group, the latter supported by a vociferous local press campaign and supporter protests. A man of principle, he refused to give way, a latter-day Canute as the tide washed over him. But when the board’s countermove – an ambitious share issue – flopped, he resigned in December 1990. Two years later, along with rest of the board, he would sell his entire shareholding and Hall’s takeover would be complete.

However, that was not the end of McKeag’s contribution to football, as he continued and multiplied his roles in the senior administration of the game at a national level. He became the President of the Football League, a director of the Football Association, and Chair of the FA Challenge Cup Committee. There, too, he symbolised the old guard of amateurs in blazers, but his face became familiar on television at draws for the FA Cup, and he spent rather more time at Wembley than the club he had run.

By all accounts, McKeag was a stout and proud defender of the North-East, as well as a keen and able amateur sportsman. But the nature of those sporting interests is telling too: captain of Percy Park rugby club, county squash player, and president of Jesmond Lawn Tennis Club where he was a member for more than 30 years. This was a member of an old-fashioned elite, far removed from ordinary supporters.

With hindsight his two brief years as chairman were some of the most important in the club’s history as it moved from being a relic of hereditary privilege to the vehicle for the victors of Thatcherite economics. That made possible Keegan’s return and the Premier League years under Sir Bobby. It transformed the club and built the stadium that towers over the city today.

But it was also a fork in the road. The removal of the old guard did not lead to a democratisation of the club’s ownership. It was perhaps the only moment when some form of wider fan ownership might have been a realistic possibility. Instead, a new capitalist elite took control of clubs across the country.

Indeed, McKeag himself warned that it was not John Hall who was the problem, but rather whoever followed him. When he died in 2005, he was still a regular at St James’s Park. At least he was spared the advent of Ashley and the grim realisation of his warning.

MATTHEW PHILPOTTS – @Mjp19731