Between a Northern Rock and a Hard Place

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Stu Forster / Getty Images

A Newcastle fan holds a sign announcing the return of Newcastle United Manager Kevin Keegan.

Ask a Geordie, as natives to Newcastle are known, which cathedral they visit in this city in the northeast of England, and they might tell you two. On Sundays, they'd head to St. Nicholas, with its medieval history, 193-feet spire, and Eucharist services twice before noon. But on Saturdays, for more than a century, there's been St. James'. And for its worshipers, bracing the raw winds as they filed up the hill for evening service this weekend, the night promised everything they'd been waiting impatiently for. "The Messiah," says one man, rushing to take his seat, "is back for the second coming."

A small figure with graying hair, dressed in navy sweat pants and cleats, doesn't look much like a savior. But after returning last week as team boss of Newcastle United, the English Premier League football club whose St. James' Park stadium stands atop this city, Kevin Keegan is moonlighting as Newcastle's spiritual leader. Hardworking and proud of their roots, his congregation are "Geordie first and English second," says Brian Aitken, editor of local paper The Journal. And as a blend of "the three F's," he says — that's fun, family and football — for most of those Geordies "football would come first."

So while the club has lost its focus since Keegan ended a successful first spell as team manager in the mid-'90s, the fans haven't. Rival northern English cities like Liverpool and Manchester host two top-flight football teams. London boasts five. For Geordies, though, it's Newcastle or nothing. And "when they've worked all week, the match for them is like it is for people down south going to the theater," Keegan said before this weekend's game, his first back in charge at St James' Park. "They want to see something special."

That's especially true in Newcastle right now. The fortunes of its once promising football club — its current standing halfway down the league was bad enough to earn Keegan's predecessor the boot — have fallen in tandem with those of another of the city's institutions: club sponsor Northern Rock. So when the team's players kicked off a run of lackluster results last September, spooked savers across the U.K. began a run of their own on the bank whose roots in Newcastle stretch back 150 years. While the team was losing three of its five games that month, Northern Rock — caught short of cash when global credit markets froze last summer — was losing billions of dollars as punters desperately pulled their deposits. With the club and its backer in free fall in recent months, "the northeast has been feeling pretty battered and bruised," says Aitken.

Northern Rock is more than just a bank in this city. While its logo is sewn into the black and white jerseys of Newcastle's players — the bank also sponsors the local rugby and basketball teams — its activities are woven into the fabric of the city, too. Aside from employing thousands of Geordies, the Northern Rock Foundation, which receives 5% of the bank's annual profits, has handed out $350 million over the last decade to more than 1,500 good causes across the northeast. From its $2 million endowment of the gleaming Sage Gateshead concert hall, to the $300,000 it funneled into help for local prostitutes, "almost anything that happens in sport, in the arts, the community, charities," says James Ramsbotham, chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce, "they are at the heart of it."

So when Northern Rock found itself at the center of the global credit squeeze, locals, many of whom count among the stoic fans of Newcastle United, didn't desert them either. "NOW IT'S YOUR TURN TO HELP" rallied a front-page headline in The Journal. Lines of savers rushing to take back their money were shorter than elsewhere in the country. Many chose to open fresh accounts. And some even bought the bank's shares. "I always had faith in them," says 84-year-old Eleanor County, clutching her pink savings book outside a busy branch of Northern Rock on Saturday.

Most Geordies, though, remain anxious about the bank's future. In a last-ditch effort to avoid nationalization, the U.K. government on Monday hatched plans to convert into bonds the $50 billion Bank of England loan it used to prop up Northern Rock. That makes a private sale of the bank more likely: those interested in bidding before the February deadline — including a consortium led by Richard Branson's Virgin Group — will no longer need to front up for a big slice of that loan. The bank's battered shares climbed more than 40% on the news.

For now, the job of shoring up the local economy is where Keegan (who else?) comes in. By boosting the club's prospects of a trophy — despite being the 13th richest club in the world, Newcastle haven't won a major competition for almost 40 years — "there's a huge sense of renewed confidence," says Ramsbotham. That same bounce lifted the city's productivity while Keegan was last in charge at the club, fans maintain, and even reduced sick leave in the city. "My boss has never seen me happier," says one, standing outside United's club shop, with its rails of freshly printed Keegan T-shirts nearly all cleaned out.

And so, even after a dreary 0-0 draw against Bolton Wanderers, another struggling club from the North, Geordie fans couldn't be contained. "There's only one Kevin Keegan", a crowd of them boomed on the walk back down the hill from St. James'. Even he, it seems, can't perform instant miracles.