ON February 1 2011 you would have been hard-pushed to find many North football fans expecting a particularly happy new year.
The mid-season transfer window felt like a defining moment for Newcastle United and Sunderland. So it proved, but in different ways. While the Magpies thrived in adversity, it began a downward spiral on Wearside.
January was no barrel of laughs for Middlesbrough either, losing their best player to Bolton Wanderers, and captain to West Ham United. Like Newcastle, Tony Mowbray’s team seemed to get better the more difficult the situation.
The region’s teams can go into 2012 with cause for optimism. In the case of managerless Hartlepool United it is more blind faith, but the rest will finish 2011 in good heart.
In January, the Big Three all lost talismanic players and failed to adequately replace them.
Darren Bent’s £18m move to Aston Villa was the first and most surprising departure.
The genuine goalscorer his club lacked since Kevin Philips, Bent found the net twice in his last ten Premier League games for the Black Cats after being injured on England duty in November. It seemed like a poor run of form, but it subsequently emerged a player with a history of itchy feet had lost his appetite for Sunderland.
It began a depressing exodus from the North East. Andy Carroll, David Wheater, Gary O’Neil, Jordan Henderson, Kris Boyd, Leroy Lita and Asamoah Gyan all followed.
When Bent joined Villa, Steve Bruce had 13 shopping days to find a replacement. His failure cost him his job at Sunderland. Having broken Bent’s club record transfer fee to sign Gyan, Bruce was in no great hurry to buy another goalscorer, settling for the mercurial Stéphane Sessègnon and Gyan’s proven but perhaps sated international team-mate Sulley Muntari.
Without the on-loan Danny Welbeck through injury for much of the second half of the campaign, the Black Cats went cold with the weather for a second year running, and it took a final-day victory over relegated West Ham as Newcastle snatched defeat from the jaws of victory to leapfrog the Magpies in the season’s final minutes.
Finishing in the top half for only the third time in 55 years was a significant achievement quickly forgotten.
Newcastle seemed to have reaped what they sowed after selling Carroll to Liverpool for £35m in the final hours of January’s window. Having spent months denying Carroll would go, manager Alan Pardew was made to look an utter fool. He does not look so foolish now.
Bigger names were promised, but Newcastle settled for a supposed crock on a free transfer. Demba Ba has 14 goals this season, to Carroll’s two.
You will not hear any pledges on Cheick Tioté, handed a six-and-a-half-year contract in response to Carroll’s departure, but now on the wishlist of England’s top clubs.
The £2.3m sale of Wheater to Bolton Wanderers and O’Neil’s free transfer move to West Ham were Middlesbrough preparing for life after parachute payments. 2010-11 was their last chance to leave the Championship before the subsidy expired, but by January their only realistic route was down. Not only did the recently-appointed Mowbray spare them that, he led them to a top-half finish by re-energising the club and restoring its values.
The cost-cutting continued in the summer, but so did the on-field improvement. Kicking off 2011’s final match in an automatic promotion place is a huge tribute to Mowbray’s managerial skills.
Always destined to outgrow Sunderland, Henderson’s summer move to Anfield was no surprise, while Joey Barton talking and tweeting his way out of St James’ Park was depressingly predictable. More surprising was Newcastle captain Kevin Nolan also heading south.
Nolan spoke often of his desire to see his career out in the North East, but left after 91 appearances. Both sides did their best to make out the other forced the move to West Ham.
Barton too played the victim, though from the moment he signed up to social networking website Twitter, a parting of the ways seemed inevitable. He used it to constantly criticise Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias, even after being gifted to Queens Park Rangers. Barton’s toys came out of the pram in a pre-season friendly at Leeds United when Yohan Cabaye was handed the set-piece duties previously his domain. For all Barton’s talent, he was simply not worth the effort.
Little was expected of the new recruits, who mainly came from France. But Cabaye has been one of the finds of the year, Ba its best free signing.
Tim Krul is the finest example of a group of players who have improved immeasurably with greater responsibility.
The result was an 11-game run equalling the club’s longest unbeaten start to a top-flight season. Neither a subsequent sequence of six without a victory, nor the owner’s crass decision to rename St James’ as the Sports Direct Arena without a penny changing hands, could undermine a great year.
Newcastle were not the only North East team who confounded early-season expectations. The problem for Sunderland was they were tipped to do well.
Ten largely cut-price signings raised hopes, though with James McClean bought as a future, not present first-teamer, the gaps at left-back and left-wing remained. Changes were as widespread in the boardroom, where owner Ellis Short replaced Niall Quinn as chairman.
The beginning of the end for Gyan was a goalscoring man-of-the-match performance for Ghana against England in March. It prompted unfounded talk of Real Madrid interest, and his head was turned.
Sunderland had held him to his contract when the transfer window closed, but days later he left for Dubai, where transfers were still permitted, on loan. Yet again, North East fans had been misled.
Brilliant at home in 2010, Sunderland were every bit as bad at the Stadium of Light this year, winning four of 19 games.
A tenth defeat did for Steve Bruce – or rather the crowd’s reaction, large sections chanting “You fat Geordie b******, get out of our club”. Having written in the programme “there is no reason to panic”, Texan Short pulled the trigger days later.
Martin O’Neill’s four games have reinvigorated a club which had gone stale. A striker to fill the gaping hole left by Bent, Gyan and Welbeck is desperately needed, and O’Neill’s insistence he has not thought about January budgets or targets is concerning, but he is getting more out of what he has.
So is Berwick Rangers caretaker Ian Little, who claimed the Scottish Third Division’s November Manager of the Month Award for his first few weeks in charge.
Carlisle United buried the ghosts of 2010, winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in their second consecutive Wembley visit. A point outside the League One play-offs with a new stadium planned, they are an upwardly-mobile club.
For the first 10 months of 2011, Hartlepool’s was a success story which spectacularly ran out of steam. They followed a season looking up rather than down for once by signing Nolberto Solano, and announcing an innovative season-ticket campaign which saw more than 5,500 takers, most at £100.
They started the season with nine unbeaten league matches, but seven consecutive home defeats cost manager Mick Wadsworth, and while caretaker Micky Barron registered his first win on Boxing Day, the chances of landing his dream job are in the balance.