THE AGENDA: What has happened to North East football – and what can we do to put it right?
WHICHEVER way you try to crunch the figures, playing the North East numbers game this season just doesn’t make sense.
The combined gates of Sunderland and Newcastle number 1,597,698. The net worth of their combined owners is £3.1billion and they spent some £40million on transfer fees between them this season.
In terms of the best supported regions, the North East is third only behind Manchester and North London – both areas fattened on trophies and Champions League cash in recent years.
Despite everything, we attract international-class players and some of the game’s most famous names to manage and coach our teams.
Yet with three games to go, our hotbed feels decidedly tepid.
Newcastle are currently 17th in the table and Sunderland 15th, a fair reflection on a wretched season that has rolled back some of the progress made last year.
The frightening prospect of relegation ahead of the most critical summer in Premier League history is all-too-real, a nightmare scenario that could set us back for decades to come.
We have been here before, of course. Just four seasons ago Sunderland pipped an awful Newcastle side on the final day of a frantic season to consign Alan Shearer’s interim regime to one of the darkest days in the club’s modern-day history.
Since then both clubs have found firmer footing. Mike Ashley is no longer a greenhorn charging around the Premier League and his club have found a model and philosophy that has been aped elsewhere in the country.
They have even reconnected with a supporter base that felt cheated by the way the club conducted its affairs that season.
Sunderland, too, have an owner who backs them financially along with an enthusiastic plan to push them into uncharted global waters. The Stadium of Light will play host to another crop of world-class acts this summer, a money-spinning illustration of the strength of their commercial arm.
None of it matters in the maelstrom that is about to hit the region, though. Wearily we must acknowledge that this is another year of the North East punching well below its weight on the football pitch.
No doubt Newcastle fans will argue that it is Sunderland who are weighing the region down.
They have had the better of things in the last ten years, that is true, but United have achieved a top-ten finish only twice in the past decade.
The Black Cats have done it once. That is not good enough.
It is more than just something in the water. For a start, the lack of success is self-perpetuating – it seeps into the psyche. I have lost count of the number of times people in football have told me the North East is a difficult place to play or manage. It is a personal theory that, the more it is said, the more it provides a comfortable excuse for those who have failed.
There is no tangible reason why the support of around 50,000 fans should make it more difficult to perform other than it might be in the mind. When psychologist Steve Peters – currently working with Liverpool – told The Journal earlier this year that it was something that should be looked at, it was easy to understand why.
That old line about expectation – still being peddled by some of the sons of the region who should know better – doesn’t explain it. It is true that there is a fervour in the North East, but it is not a suffocating pressure anymore. No one “expects” success, they just don’t expect to be staving off relegation for the second season in four.
Quite clearly there is no short-term fix – barring the sort of cash injection that turned Manchester City and Paris-Saint Germain into overnight successes.
The Journal has chased up more tips and leads on supposed money-rich foreign takeover interest than you would believe over the last few years, but the simple fact is there is no prospect of a Sheikh Mansour-style transformation of the North East’s big two any time soon. If there was, as Newcastle managing director Derek Llambias has long said, Mike Ashley would happily sell up and allow the fans to enjoy that.
Instead the focus should be trained on the one area where it doesn’t feel as if the North East is pulling its weight – youth development.
The continued success of Manchester United and Arsenal (theirs, admittedly, is a relative triumph if they reach the top four this year) is proof that there is something in bringing in players who feel the rhythm of the clubs they go on to represent.
The Red Devils have had a product of their youth set-up in their squad for every weekend since 1937.
Some weeks Newcastle and Sunderland have barely managed a North East-born player between them – and the recent Tyne-Wear derby was proof that the talent factories are misfiring. Only one Academy product started for either side.
This is not xenophobia. Despite what the otherwise excellent Gary Neville might have said on Sky’s Monday Night Football programme, Newcastle’s French foreign legion are not to blame for their demise.
Character is not a solely English trait and United have not sold their soul by importing talent in a bid to keep up with the most uneven of competitions.
But it does help when players understand the club, the area and the rhythms of the supporters they play for. The immediate impact of players like Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson proved that, and it is a great shame that both departed so soon.
These are aims for the long-term. The immediate priority is for both clubs to steel themselves for potentially the most important three games of their recent history.
It has been repeated like a mantra, but this is not the year to go down. A £60million guaranteed prize pot awaits every team next year as the TV rights bonanza reaches even greater heights and, for those who miss out, the gap will grow wider with every passing year.
The financial contribution that Short and Ashley make will not be used to bolster squads, it will be supplied simply to keep the clubs out of the red.
So the inquests have to be put on hold and the supporters who set the region apart are asked to provide the lead which the players must follow.
One thing is certain – those same fans will be back again next year, whatever the division.