Fans find it’s the same old story

Takeovers and trophies, success and struggle, it has been another eventful year for North-East sport.

Takeovers and trophies, success and struggle, it has been another eventful year for North-East sport. Chief Sports Writer Paul Gilder reviews a tumultuous 2007

NEW beginnings and fresh starts should have defined the North-East’s sporting year, but for the region’s top-flight football supporters, the stories told in 2007 proved to be the same old ones.

Under-performance and under-achievement, great expectations and dashed dreams. The last 12 months have promised so much, but delivered so little.

The theme is a familiar one for all those who hold Newcastle United and Sunderland close to their hearts. Supporters on both sides of the Tyne-Wear divide will hope 2008 belongs to them, yet with each year that passes, it seems a little more optimism evaporates.

The changes have been legion at St James’s Park but still old trends endure. The manager is under intense pressure, the team lurching from one disaster to the next. The names are different, but old habits are proving impossible to break.

From Freddie Shepherd to Chris Mort, from Glenn Roeder to Sam Allardyce, this should be a different, revitalised Newcastle United. But frustrating facets remain, and the club preparing for 2008 feels too much like the one that started 2007 for comfort. It has been a momentous year on Tyneside, although the drama has occurred far from the St James’s Park pitch. It has been a year about boardrooms rather than dressing rooms, a year about businessmen rather than sportsmen, a year about finances rather than football.

That Roeder lost his job came as little surprise, so ill-equipped had he proved for Premier League management. That the club’s long-serving chairman soon followed had not been foreseen.

From the moment Mike Ashley’s offer for Sir John Hall’s decisive shareholding was accepted, Shepherd’s position was a precarious one. His initial response was as brusque and bullish as always, but change was in the air.

The man long used to doing the hiring and firing was himself removed from office. The end was unceremonious, although he left clutching a £40m sweetener. Not bad given that his 15-year spell at St James’s Park had failed to produce the silverware craved by so many for so long. Allardyce’s appointment as Roeder’s replacement proved to be Shepherd’s last significant act as the club’s chairman. From the hopeless to the hapless, managerial change has, once more, failed to inspire improvement. It remains to be seen what the future holds for the former Bolton boss, but should 2008 start like 2007 has ended, the association could be a shortlived one.

This is, after all, Newcastle United and, unlike the years, it seems some things never change.

Sunderland have at least enjoyed some success, although Luton feels like a long, long time ago. It was there, at Kenilworth Road on May 6, that the Black Cats secured the Championship title, but the winning feeling has since been forgotten and the celebrations, like the champagne, gone flat. Relegated in 2003 and 2006, the Wearsiders have done little to suggest that 2008 can be different. Too good for the Football League, ill-prepared for the Premier, their efforts thus far can inspire little optimism that an unfortunate trend can be bucked.

It was supposed to be different this time, but the “magic carpet” Niall Quinn promised remains on the ground. Sunderland have become renowned as English football’s foremost yo-yo club in recent years. Such a reputation remains.

Roy Keane’s confidence remains intact, but there is little doubt that a man without peers as a Premier League player has found top-flight management to be rather more difficult. Be it recruitment or results, the Irishman has been forced to get used to things going against him in recent months.

Keane worked wonders to lead Sunderland to promotion in his maiden season in management. But subsequent events have proved that miracles are beyond even the Irishman’s capabilities. Keane smashed the club’s transfer record during a £36m summer spending spree, but significant shortcomings remain. Further funds are available but should Keane fail to spend well, an instant return to the Championship that would render his achievements an irrelevance is beckoning.

Middlesbrough remain mired in the mediocre but at least Hartlepool’s progress offers encouragement in a footballing hot-bed that is threatening to turn cold. Promoted back to League One, the Victoria Park favourites are again a club on the up. Carlisle – challenging for a place in the Championship – can make a similar boast, as can a Darlington team flying high in the League Two table. For once, Gretna cannot. In securing promotion to the SPL, the Black-and-Whites appeared to have proved that dreams can come true. But subsequent events have been nightmarish.

Berwick Rangers secured the Scottish Third Division championship crown but, like Sunderland and Gretna, the Borderers have struggled in a higher division. For all three, it has been a year of two halves. For all three, success has been soured.

It is perhaps inevitable that football attracts the most attention. But the year’s most uplifting stories have all come in other sporting fields.

Fabulous Flournoy’s Newcastle Eagles captured British basketball’s most-coveted prize – the BBL Play-Offs – for the third successive season, Olu Babalola’s MVP performance proving too good for the Scottish Rocks at the Metro Radio Arena.

In golf, Ashington’s Kenneth Ferrie became the first North-East player to secure qualification for the US PGA Tour, the talented 29-year-old booking his place on the sport’s biggest stage during a successful campaign in Florida. Having contributed three players to the England squad that reached a second successive World Cup final in France, Newcastle Falcons engineered a considerable coup in luring Kiwi legend Carl Hayman to Kingston Park.

And although he ended the tournament empty-handed, Phill Nixon’s progression to the BDO World Darts Championship final will long endure in North-East sporting folklore. The 50-year-old house husband – perhaps better known as the Ferryhill Flyer – started the competition as a little-known 150-1. He ended it a hero and a sporting inspiration.

The year’s greatest achievement, however, belonged to Durham’s cricketers. Martyn Moxon’s decision to resign his post as head coach in March appeared to leave the county’s preparations for the forthcoming campaign in tatters, but such fears proved unfounded. Geoff Cook’s appointment as Moxon’s successor was a masterstroke and, having added the West Indies batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul to his Riverside squad, the Teessider’s fast-improving side went from strength to strength as a remarkable season unfolded.

The campaign culminated on a memorable August afternoon at Lord’s as Durham claimed their first major silverware as a first-class county, engineering a 125-run triumph over Hampshire in a Friends Provident Trophy final that no-one fortunate enough to have been in attendance will ever forget. The celebrations lasted long as the moment was cherished and the exploit enjoyed.

It was an admirable achievement for Cook’s team who, having won the Pro-40 League’s Second Division, completed their campaign as the County Championship’s runners-up, losing out to Sussex on the domestic season’s dramatic final afternoon. They might have been second best on that occasion, but Durham’s status as the region’s top dogs was secure.

Thanks to Cook and his players, the North-East’s sports fans had significant silverware to celebrate in 2007. It was just as well for on this year’s evidence, the region’s football clubs remain as far as ever from challenging for the game’s biggest prizes.

From the hopeless to the hapless, managerial change has, once more, failed to inspire improvement for Newcastle

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