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2009 Ryder Cup - English bid
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Foster aims to keep north-east in running

Mike Aitken, The Scotsman, 6 February 2001

As a long-distance runner, Brendan Foster knew all about loneliness. What the former Gateshead Harrier found more alarming when he hung up his spikes was the sense of isolation which gripped his home in the north-east of England. The region was an international sporting wasteland.

When he points to a map outlining the location of all Britain’s major sporting events, there’s a void between Headingley and Turnberry. It’s called the north-east.

Twice a world record holder who claimed European and Commonwealth gold medals, the driving force in Foster’s life since he left the track to form his own company was a quest to put the north on that map.

Like many Geordies, he couldn’t pick out a lob wedge from a 5-iron, even if Nova International does organise the Compaq European Grand Prix at Slaley Hall. "I’m still too young for golf," he grins. Yet the BBC’s athletics commentator is streetwise enough to understand that the Ryder Cup is one of sport’s crown jewels.

That’s why Nova is using the expertise which made the Great North Run such a success story, to take on the Scots and the Welsh in the struggle for the 2009 match between Europe and America. The English are regarded as outsiders and Foster fears that devolution might again leave the north-east on the outside looking in.

"The Scots have a blue and white one. The Welsh have a red and white one. But what we don’t have is a flag because we’re not a country in our own right," he laments at his office in Newcastle. "In this bidding process, two countries are competing with a region and once again we must be at the back of the queue.

"One of the reasons we embarked on this process is because we’re always at the back of the queue. We don’t have Six Nations matches here. We don’t have Rugby World Cup finals. We don’t have World Cup soccer matches. And we don’t have the Open golf championship every other year.

"In short, we don’t have anything. That’s the inspiration for us to try and bring the Ryder Cup here. Our regular mission as a company is to focus on the north-east. This is a neglected area with a bad image. Economically, it’s always at the bottom of the pile.

"You could say that the one thing we’ve got going for us is ambition. Maybe the Ryder Cup is wildly ambitious for us. But no-one should be able to tell us because we don’t have a parliament or a flag that we can’t at least throw our hat in the ring.

"Devolution was great for Scotland, but the worst thing for us. Before devolution, at least ourselves and the Scots were out of the loop together. Now we’re isolated.

"I also know how much the north-east needs a shot in the arm. Of course we can’t have the Olympics or the World Athletics Championships. The biggest possible event in world terms we can stage is the Ryder Cup."

In his Ryder Cup mission, Foster can draw on the experience of a varied and successful career. After a degree at Sussex University and entering the teaching profession, he went into sports management with Gateshead council. When Nike needed someone to launch their business in Britain, they took on Foster. He repaid the favour by making them millions.

When he branched out on his own with Nova and the View From sports clothing firm, Foster not only turned in a profit but did so on the back of a business which was unashamedly centred in the north-east.

"I once had a conversation with the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and told him about when I was a kid growing up," he recalls. "In those days you didn’t see great runners in the north-east because they never came here. They went to Crystal Palace or Glasgow or Edinburgh. Living in the north-east, you could become a great footballer, but nothing else.

"When I became a good athlete I wanted to know why I couldn’t run nearer my home. That’s why we opened a new stadium at Gateshead. As a result of that initiative, the athletes who came after me, Steve Cram and Jonathan Edwards, didn’t have to go anywhere else to do their thing.

"From there, we went on to establish the Great North Run. Instead of all the big events in athletics happening elsewhere in the world, we tried to bring them here. In that respect, our motivation was driven by emotion rather than business."

Foster was able to underline his point to Mr Blair about the need for greater investment in sport with a series of bleak statistics. The north-east has the highest level of youth crime in the country, the highest death rates from cancer, the highest suicide rate among men over 45, the second highest unemployment rate and the lowest attainment levels in both GCSE and A levels.

While it would be unrealistic to expect any sporting event to alleviate the social problems, the feel-good factor attached to winning the Ryder Cup, not to mention the economic benefits, would have a positive impact. If it’s not hard to understand the reasons why it would be good for Northumberland, Foster is quick to explain why the north-east can also be good for golf.

"We have an area of the country which is as big as Scotland and Wales, but is underdeveloped in golfing terms. Part of our strategy is to put golf on the school curriculum and give every kid a chance to play.

"I can remember going on holiday to Dornoch and seeing youngsters carry their clubs through the streets to the course. That doesn’t happen much here. Our ideal is to put ourselves in a situation where a raggy little kid hears about the Ryder Cup coming, learns the game through this initiative and eventually makes the team in 2009.

"You might smile and think that’s nonsense - but all we’re asking is a chance to make it happen. I suppose it might sound a bit like a scene from Billy Elliot. To have a young golfer from this region come down the 18th with Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup at Slaley Hall. But that’s our dream. And our bid document shows how we plan to fulfil that dream."

Foster, who lives near Hexham, admits feeling a stronger affinity with Scotland than the south-east of England.

Nevertheless, he would happily frustrate Scotland’s bid for the Ryder Cup on the grounds that the north-east’s need is so much greater.

"The impact the 2009 Ryder Cup would make on golf here, compared to golf in Scotland, is huge. That’s because you’re already near the top and we’re starting from the bottom," he argues. "I don’t see how the Ryder Cup could have any more of an impact in Scotland than the Millennium Open. How do you get any better than that?

"You can’t improve on the scale or the power of that event. To have the Open in St Andrews, to have Tiger Woods win and to have Dougie Donnelly interview Tiger afterwards. How could you ask for more?" Foster’s features light up in a broad grin at this comic reference to his BBC colleague. But the point is seriously made.

"Golf has already made its mark on Scotland," he insists. "The Scots have the Open every other year, but the north-east has nothing - so give us the Ryder Cup."

If there’s a tendency to dismiss the north-east as dreamers in this process - the Ryder Cup committee make their first assessment next week - Foster is confident their bid will stand up to scrutiny.

"We’re backing up our promises with £24 million," he says. "We’ve promised to invest that sum in the game, including a £5 million Ryder Cup legacy fund which will build a state of the art academy.

"You can’t stop us from dreaming. We know we’re not in the lead, but if you give us a chance me might surprise you. Jonathan Edwards, one of our two Olympic athletics champions, comes from here. Alan Shearer was the England football team’s captain and Newcastle’s Jonny Wilkinson is England’s top rugby player. We can do it if you let us have a go."

As someone who once took home a bronze medal from the Olympics in the 10,000m, Foster knows all about sticking around for the long haul. If Slaley Hall misses out on the Ryder Cup this time round, don’t expect the north-east to go off in a huff.

"My dad first took me to watch Newcastle United when I was seven," he recalls. "That season they won the FA Cup. I’m a lot older than seven now and they haven’t won anything since.

"So if you live in this part of the world, you get accustomed to waiting. We’re used to being at the back of the queue, but we’re not leaving."

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