THERE is little to choose between the two although those involved in the bids from NewcastleGateshead and Sunderland will be hoping the Football Association decides it does not have to.
If Newcastle has the international reputation, airport and iconic status of St James’ Park, Sunderland have the facilities, the wholehearted public support and the backing of every other club – with the notable exception of the Magpies – in the region, from Carlisle to Middlesbrough.
On the face of things, Newcastle and Sunderland are rival bids competing for the region’s right to stage the biggest football show on the planet, just as these two cities have been competing with each other, economically and socially, since the Civil War.
But for once, maybe there is no need to fight and bicker because as far as England’s 2018 World Cup bid is concerned, the North East is big enough for the both of them. According to Jérôme Valcke, the Fifa general secretary, 12 stadia, of a minimum capacity of 40,000 for the group matches, and 80,000 for the opening match and final, are required to host the Fifa World Cup finals, as well as the very highest standards of TV broadcasting, information and telecommunications technology, transport and accommodation.
As things stand, St James’ Park and the Stadium of Light would be regarded as among the best seven stadiums in the country alongside Wembley, Old Trafford, Anfield, the City of Manchester Stadium, and the Emirates.
Expansions are planned at Villa Park in Birmingham, Tottenham’s White Hart Lane, Elland Road in Leeds, the City Ground in Nottingham and Ashton Gate in Bristol, while there has also been talk of Twickenham, the home of England Rugby Union, being used if Fifa allow a third London stadium to be considered.
A total of 15 cities – Portsmouth withdrew yesterday – have entered a bid, while West Ham and Everton are also considering new stadiums to join London and Liverpool’s bids, but these are nothing more than plans and Newcastle and Sunderland, as separate cities, would receive more support from Fifa than single cities like Liverpool, Manchester and London dominating the tournament.
Newcastle’s manager Chris Hughton described the prospect of an England World Cup without games at St James’ Park earlier this week as “unthinkable”, yet it is worth noting the city played no part in the 1966 World Cup, whereas Sunderland and Middlesbrough both did.
Newcastle’s bid is let down by the lack of land around it, hemmed in by roads, listed buildings and a Metro Station, Fifa may have concerns about car parking and corporate hospitality.
However, Newcastle City Council will surely bend over backwards to accommodate the tournament in terms of car parking space and there is room in the lush green surroundings of Leazes Park, just a few minutes walk away, for corporate marquees.
As for Sunderland, they have worked harder to attract public support and media attention and there is plenty of room around the stadium, but Sunderland does not have its own airport, it does not have a tourist industry, and the hotel beds which come with it, and the main train route goes through their neighbour’s backyard.
Yet, instead of perceiving each other as a threat, the region has every right to believe both cities can be successful. No region in the country has more passion for football than the North East, a fact which can not be ignored by the men in suits even if they sit in offices at the other end of the country.
If it is, Steve Harper feels it will be a tragedy, an injustice that would spark outrage across a region which prides itself on its love of football.
Born in Easington Colliery, in the heart of Sunderland territory, the Newcastle United goalkeeper is well aware of tribal divisions drawn along football lines, but he also knows how much they share in terms of passion for the game.
He said: “It would be a tragedy if Newcastle didn’t get it. The country as a whole has got to win the right to host the tournament first and it would be fantastic if we can win the bid. It will be 52 years since the World Cup was here and we won it and it’s overdue. It would be brilliant if football did come home again.
“If we do, then games have to be staged in the North East, it’s as simple as that in my opinion. This is the real hot bed of football and we have two fantastic stadia. If you look at St James’ Park this is an amazing place to play football so hopefully the FA can put a successful bid together and we can get a few games up here. I can’t see any way if England win the right to host the World Cup that there wouldn’t be any games in the North East.
“I think there might be a march down the A1 if that happens. We will see the second Jarrow March if the FA ignore the North East because it’s a no brainer for the North East to stage several games. The fanbases through the North East are massive and there would be so much enthusiasm for the games.” And, while other parts of the country would be lukewarm to the prospect of a game between Mexico and Poland, Harper is convinced they will be sell-outs in either Newcastle or Sunderland.
He added: “Football fans in the North East are knowledgeable about their football. It isn’t just about Newcastle and Sunderland, they know what it is going on internationally and nationally.
“The passion the fans have for football guarantees you will feel the stadiums. I don’t think that is the same for other parts of the country. Look at the crowds we have got this season, 43,000 people coming to watch Newcastle play Peterborough tells you everything.”