Drain of talent is an old problem for North East clubs

ONCE again, you can construct a formidable argument that it makes business sense.

ONCE again, you can construct a formidable argument that it makes business sense.

Around £16million for a player who was barely worth his place in the Sunderland team during their spring collapse, who has less than 100 Premier League appearances and is yet to convince that he can add a sustained goal threat to his game sounds like a fine price.

A deal, really, that Sunderland, with a squad in desperate need of rebuilding, could ill afford to turn down.

But it is what Jordan Henderson’s move to Liverpool says about the North East’s standing in the English game that should really trouble any follower of the sport in these parts.

Henderson is only the latest glittering talent to be exported from the region, but he is far from alone on an illustrious list. Ripped from us in their prime were the likes of Colin Todd, Dave Watson, Dennis Tueart, Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley, Alan Kennedy and, just five months ago, Andy Carroll. And that is just the homegrown players. Few will have forgotten that Darren Bent was smuggled away by Aston Villa in January to add to a list of adopted stars on the move that includes Middlesbrough’s Graeme Souness and one-time Newcastle midfielder Terry McDermott.

The talent tap was cut off for a brief period during the 1990s when Newcastle, buoyed by Sir John Hall’s bold vision, became the nation’s Entertainers and Sunderland enjoyed the first flushes of success following their move to the Stadium of Light.

But Henderson’s departure confirms the return of an unwritten rule of North East football – we will not be able to hold onto our best players.

It is a curious development that may be rammed down our throats further in the coming weeks of a febrile transfer window.

José Enríque will depart if a club comes up with a package that appeals, while Lee Cattermole – watched four times by those predatory Reds in the final weeks of the season – remains vulnerable, especially with a release clause in his contract.

If Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan were stripped from St James’ Park too, it would leave us with a dearth of charismatic personalities in an area that has thrived on them over the years. No doubt that band of nay-sayers who seem to revel in sneering at the North East clubs will argue that the region is nothing special. That all mid-table teams are left vulnerable when the likes of Liverpool – without European football next year but with a rich heritage and ambitious, deep-pocketed owners – come knocking at their door.

They are missing the point, though. Newcastle and Sunderland both have billionaire owners who, while not in Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Al-Mansour’s league, could at least put up the kind of money that could prevent them from becoming regarded as selling clubs. Both Ellis Short and Mike Ashley were attracted to the region on the strength of the passion of the supporters, but they are hard-nosed businessmen rather than the sort of free-spending benefactors that have turned Manchester City into the world’s richest club.

Alan Pardew talks of “firing the imagination” of Ashley in order to progress, suggesting that the owner needs to see proof that Newcastle can move forward on a self-sustainable basis before he starts to invest his own money.

That, of course, is his prerogative. Like Short, he has ploughed millions into the club during the deepest recession in modern times and he will not expect to see any of that back. In addition, there is much about the Ashley and Short model that appeals – not least the investment in youth and the willingness to take a chance on Academy graduates that gave Henderson and Carroll the opportunity to attract interest from elsewhere. But is that the limit of North East ambition now? Are we really destined to follow in the footsteps of Blackburn Rovers, who agreed to sell Phil Jones to Manchester United at the same time that Sunderland were deep in negotiations with the Reds over Henderson?

The North East is virtually alone in boasting two clubs that can regularly attract crowds of above 40,000. This despite no major trophy for decades, a barren decade without European football and only the occasional cup run.

Heartbreaking relegations have not dimmed local enthusiasm – indeed Newcastle managed to pull in the biggest second tier attendance of modern times for their Yuletide derby with Middlesbrough during their season waltzing the Championship.

Yet this apparently fertile ground for footballing success is not seen as big enough for our star names to prosper.

There is logic behind the latest transfer, just as there was when a jaw-dropping £35million bid was lodged for Andy Carroll.

Both players made it clear that they wanted to move to progress their careers and win trophies while, at those prices, Liverpool have been required to pay over the odds.

They are gambling on the potential of Carroll and Henderson.

But cold, hard reasoning will only take you so far. While our best stars are up for sale at the right price, the gap between our clubs and the top four will continue to grow.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer