When Blackburn Rovers demanded a League enquiry into their treatment at the hands of United in the late 1970s, the task was given to the Burnley Chairman Bob Lord. Lord had been beaten to the position of Football League Secretary by his opposite number at Newcastle – the second Baron William Westwood, no less – and didn’t mince his words. Lord had forgotten more about football than Lord Westwood had ever known, wisecracked the Burnley businessman. His own only failing had been to have the word “Lord” at the wrong end of his name and to have not been born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

If there was more than a grain of truth to the first claim, he was straightforwardly wrong in the second. While it would be tempting to think that the charismatic Lord Westwood – with his aristocratic title, black pirate eye-patch, and silver-white hair – was the product of the privileged old establishment, the reality was rather different. Born on Christmas Day 1907, Westwood was the son of a Scottish shipyard worker and started his own working life as a relatively humble railway clerk. His father, also William, had risen through the ranks of the Ship Constructors’ and Shipwrights’ Association to become National Supervisor and then General Secretary from 1929 to 1945.

As a leading trade unionist and, increasingly, a political figure of national standing in the wartime government, Westwood senior was awarded an OBE and then a peerage in January 1944. As the first Baron Westwood of Gosforth, the elder William then served in the Attlee Labour government as the Chief Whip in the House of Lords. When he died in September 1953, his title passed to William, his oldest son from his first marriage.

Seven years later, in 1960, Westwood followed his father’s footsteps into the United boardroom. By that time, he had lost his left eye in a car accident in 1956 and made a successful career that saw him become director of a number of major companies, including Hornby, the model railway manufacturers. They even produced a “Lord Westwood” locomotive in his honour in 1973.Three years after joining the Board, Westwood became Chairman, a post he would hold for the next 14 years. Even after that, he retained a powerful position as club President until his resignation in 1981, at the age of 73. With the Fairs Cup triumph of 1969, he remains the last Chairman to see his team lift a major trophy.

The early years of his tenure saw a return to the First Division in 1965 and the steady construction of that hard-working and, ultimately, successful team under Joe Harvey. However, the overall trajectory was one of considerable decline, both on and off the pitch, not to mention some of the most bitter public disputes the club has known, with players and supporters alike. His time in charge culminated in the shambolic relegation season of 1977-78 and the moribund years that followed in Division Two. The BBC was even moved to devote an edition of its Tonight programme to “The Decline and Fall of Newcastle United”.

Most famously, Westwood and the Board contrived to force the entire first team to the brink of a strike in 1976-77. Discontent had been brewing ever since Pop Robson had left in 1971, branding the club unprofessional. By the time Malcolm MacDonald departed in the summer of 1976, he was claiming that he’d never seen such dissatisfaction among a group of players. The root cause was financial and the lack of bonuses in their contracts. Meanwhile, the overt branding of the new Bukta kit didn’t help the player’s sense of exploitation. Westwood met a deputation of players and persuaded figures such as Pat Howard, Irving Nattrass, Tommy Craig and Mick Mahoney to stay.

If peace was restored briefly, Gordon Lee’s departure to Everton in January 1977 lit the fuse again. The players wanted the popular and influential coach Richard Dinnis to be given the job. Not once but twice the Board refused, seemingly going back on their word to the players. And not once but twice they caved in, acquiescing to the player’s demands after caretaker boss Dinnis led the team to a surprise fifth-place finish and qualification for the UEFA Cup. Westwood was furious at the team, at one point claiming he was being “knifed in the back” and banning the players from talking to the press. Twelve games into the following season, he sacked Dinnis, and his uninspiring and distinctly second-choice replacement, Bill McGarry, guided United to their worst ever top-flight finish.

If the bungled appointments of Lee, Dinnis, and McGarry in a two-year period suggested poor leadership and decision-making, the interminable and ill-fated redevelopment of St James’ Park told a similar story. A major falling out with the city council, who owned the lease, had stymied investment since the 1960s, not least costing the club the opportunity to host games in the 1966 World Cup. The lease was due to expire in 1971 and the council insisted that any redevelopment include a multi-sports complex shared with the university. After the club explored a new stadium in Gosforth or even ground-sharing with Sunderland, a deal was brokered for an ambitious four-phase project, but it was halted after completion of only the first stage, the East Stand.

On the receiving end of an attempted boardroom coup by local businessman Malcolm Dix, Westwood held firm, as the abuse turned into outright hatred and even a bomb hoax. Eventually, he moved himself up and out of the firing line, allowing Bob Rutherford to take on the Chair while he took on the role of President. The Newcastle United Supporters Association bemoaned the “game of musical chairs”.

Perhaps appropriately, Westwood’s eventual departure was also shrouded in controversy. As the club faced financial ruin in early 1981, the directors were asked to contribute £16,000 each. Having recently suffered in the financial collapse of one his companies, Westwood refused and resigned.

Like Gordon McKeag a decade later, Westwood also rose in the world of football administration, serving at the most senior levels of the Football League and the FA, as well as on UEFA committees. By all accounts, he had sharp wit and was a charming conversationalist and after-dinner speaker. But like McKeag, he also oversaw a near-terminal decline at the club as he struggled to adjust to modern commercial realities, player power, and a more strident supporter culture. Many of these forces were out of his control, but ultimately the pirate Baron brought the club to the lowest point in its modern history.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731