FABIO Capello’s one trip to St James’ Park never took off. About two years ago, the Italian was due to take in an evening kick off in Newcastle but his flight was delayed by fog and he never made it.
Seemingly deterred by the experience, he’s never attempted a repeat trip – even this year when United have been flying high with a water-tight defence with three England-eligible players in it.
His record at Sunderland is hardly better – just one game at the start of last season, when Chelsea were the visitors.
But is it really a case of out of sight and out of mind for the North East when it comes to the Three Lions?
The Journal has put the facts under closer scrutiny and the evidence is not quite so damning.
At first glance a total of 18 North East-based players from the 114 who have been capped since 2000 looks like a paltry figure – even worse when you consider that six of those players only actually earned one cap while they were playing in the region.
Dig a little deeper, though, and there are not many that you could argue were unfairly overlooked. We have listed all 141 Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle players who would have been eligible for an England cap over the last 11 years and there are only a sprinkling who would have been in serious contention.
Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan did very well last year but the former’s ability to start an argument in an empty phone box counted against him, while the latter probably didn’t have quite the skill set to lift him above the category of very good domestic player.
David Wheater and Steven Taylor have been two of the better defenders produced by this region and both have been called up to squads of late. Taylor’s form deserves closer scrutiny but all of those in the current squad have two seasons of good form behind them – injuries mean that the Newcastle Academy graduate has only the back end of last season and the first 11 games of this to back up his claims.
Of the rest? It is difficult to construct a water-tight case for any. Good players like Kieran Richardson at Sunderland or Joe Bennett at Boro have their merits, but are they among the 23 best in the nation?
Nedum Onuoha could have done a job in a problem right-back slot but for the North East’s three outstanding prospects last year, there were call-ups. Jordan Henderson, Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll were all pulling on the Three Lions this time last year after sparkling domestic performances.
Newcastle number two John Carver does not agree that the region is unfairly overlooked. Speaking to The Journal he says that it would be “madness” for England to discount such a thriving football area – and doesn’t think the FA have.
He points to the fact that one of his former colleagues – scout David Geddes – is employed by the FA on an almost full-time basis to track England-eligible players.
“I just don’t think they have ignored the North East,” he said. “In fact, I know for a fact they haven’t. David is at almost every home game that we play so he will be keeping the FA abreast of everything.
“England aren’t going to ignore an area like the North East, it would be completely counter-productive.”
Capello’s big fault has been to see the North East as a graveyard for those already on his radar. Having seen him hit 20 goals in his maiden season, Sunderland supporters were particularly put out when the Italian suggested last season that Darren Bent’s move to Aston Villa had enhanced his international chances.
Before the bitter recriminations of his departure, Black Cats had adopted his England claims as a cause celebre and there was outright indignation when he failed to make the 2010 World Cup squad.
Bent’s goals-to-game ratio was superb but Capello, who preferred to send number two Franco Baldini to Wearside to watch the forward, ignored him. That suddenly changed when Bent moved to the West Midlands, an area more conveniently served by transport links to London, a cynic might point out.
Bent’s case is by no means an isolated one. Michael Owen was consigned to the international scrapyard while at St James’ and it took moves away from the North East to help Adam Johnson and James Milner make the senior squad.
It has created a thick layer of cynicism surrounding the England set-up in the North East which is not healthy. A shade over 21 years ago at Italia 90, the Three Lions squad that revitalised a nation’s love for the game had the grit and values of the region imprinted on its DNA.
England were led by Durham’s Bobby Robson and spearheaded by the wit and ingenuity of a young tyro named Paul Gascoigne. Up front Peter Beardsley partnered Gary Lineker while Chris Waddle terrorised the world’s defences from the wing.
None played in the region, of course, but there was a genuine affection for the team in our cities that isn’t particularly apparent at the moment.
Hopefully Capello’s successor will make moves to change that. No one is expecting England to guarantee the presence of North East-based players in the squad but it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more conciliatory in the future.
Maybe attending a game might be a start.
After all, England need all the friends they can get at the moment.
NORTH EAST’S CAPPED STARS
114 players have been capped since the start of the 2000/1 season. Just 18 have belonged to the three North East teams playing in the Premier League in the intervening 11 years.
Darren Bent (Sunderland)
Nicky Butt (Newcastle)
Andy Carroll (Newcastle)
Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)
Kieron Dyer (Newcastle)
Ugo Ehiogu (Middlesbrough)
Jordan Henderson (Sunderland)
Jermaine Jenas (Newcastle)
Gavin McCann (Sunderland)
Danny Mills (Middlesbrough – loan)
Michael Owen (Newcastle)
Scott Parker (Newcastle)
Kevin Phillips (Sunderland)
Alan Shearer (Newcastle)
Gareth Southgate (Middlesbrough)
Alan Smith (Newcastle)
Danny Welbeck (Sunderland – loan)
Jonathan Woodgate (Newcastle)
HOW MANY CAN FEEL HARD DONE BY?
To put those figures in context, here are the 141 England-eligible players who made senior appearances for all three clubs during their Premier League campaigns since 2000/1.
NEWCASTLE UNITED (46): W. Barton, Lee, Dyer*, Shearer*, Griffin, Harper, Quinn, Cort, McClen, Shola Ameobi, Coppinger, Hamilton, Robbie Elliott, Jenas*, Chopra, Ambrose, Bramble, Woodgate*, Bridges, S.Taylor, Brittain, Butt*, Milner, Bowyer, Ramage, Owen*, Parker*, Clark, Carroll*, K.Lualua, Barton, Forster, Guthrie, Nolan, R.Taylor, Tozer, Donaldson, Ranger, Campbell, Williamson, Routledge, Simpson, Perch, Gosling, Sammy Ameobi, Rob Elliott.
SUNDERLAND (38): Gray, McCann*, Phillips*, Dichio, Craddock, Williams, Thirlwell, Wainwright, Lumsdon, Ben Clark, Proctor, Wright, Piper, Thornton, Hoyte, Stewart, Whitehead, Stead, Alnwick, Nosworthy, Richardson, Higginbotham, Hartley, Waghorn, Henderson*, Davenport, Ferdinand, Turner, Campbell, Bent*, Kilgallon, Colback, Cattermole, Onuoha, Welbeck*, Laing, Wickham, Gardner.
MIDDLESBROUGH (55): Gordon, Vickers, Pallister, Mustoe, Ince, Deane, Beresford, Maddison, Ehiogu*, A. Campbell, Windass, Summerbell, Stamp, Whelan, R.Stockdale, Cooper, Parnaby, Baker, A.Ormerod, Hudson, Southgate*, Greening, Wilson, Murphy, Riggott, Downing*, Christie, Ricketts, Davies, Mills*, A.Taylor, Turnbull, Bates, Morrison, Parlour, McMahon, Graham, Wheater, Knight, Kennedy, Johnson, Cattermole, Liddle, Walker, Craddock, Euell, Hines, Young, O’Neil, Grounds, Hoyte, King, Steele, Porritt, Bennett.