Sunderland’s dismissal of Martin O’Neill has prompted the usual cries that “The North-East is a footballing hotbed”. How often have we heard this comment? Probably ever since the region did have some credible claim to be an area of sporting excellence. Scratching my head, I wonder when exactly was that, and also, what criteria has to be met in order for an area to be labelled a hotbed?
I would say that Manchester is the hotbed of soccer right now, with United and City dominating English football. But then, surely, London has its say – Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. Hotbed doesn’t mean success, either, otherwise Newcastle and Sunderland would be living in a world best described as a “tepid pool of mediocrity.” No, hotbed means everyone’s a mad keen football fan, and using that criteria, that would apply to virtually all of Britain.
The Geordies’ would have you believe that Newcastle and Sunderland are massive clubs “just waiting to happen”. It’s certainly a case of “wey aye man” when it comes to support, for Newcastle and Sunderland play in front of healthy crowds, averaging 50,000 and 40,000 respectively. But there were times, in the pre-Keegan days at St. James’ Park and at the old Roker Park, when both clubs’ support fell alarmingly.
If you’re judging “hotbed status” in terms of success, then both clubs are found wanting. Since they last won the Football League in 1926-27 (Newcastle) and 1936-37 (Sunderland), so-called smaller clubs from other hotbeds like Burnley, Derby, Ipswich, Nottingham Forest, Blackburn, Portsmouth, Wolves, Aston Villa and Chelsea have all won the trophy, as well as the Arsenals, Tottenhams, Manchesters and Merseymen of this exclusive world. Sunderland haven’t had the faintest glimpse of the title, while Newcastle’s best opportunities came in the 1990s when Keegan’s swashbucklers threatened to lift the title.
Why do fans from the North-East think their clubs are deserving of anything more than they have delivered over the past 60-odd years? There’s a degree of cloth-cap working class nostalgia tied up in this myopic view that the “Toon” (whatever happened to the Magpies?) and “Black Cats” have the potential to be the Barca and Real of the North. But a succession of big names have unsuccessfully tried to bring success to the region. At Newcastle, Keegan, Dalglish, Gullit, Robson and others have all been unable to win silverware, despite some near-misses and cup final defeats. At Sunderland, they’ve been unable to attract a genuine big name manager to the club. Martin O’Neill was the nearest they’ve come. Just look at the names and you can see why Sunderland have never broken through the barrier, despite having 40,000 fanatics in the Stadium of Light: Steve Bruce, Ricky Sbragia, Roy Keane, Mick McCarthy and Howard Wilkinson. With the exception of O’Neill, who they may regret dispensing with, not a real Premier-class manager among them.
Examine the history books and both clubs’ claims continue to be diluted. Newcastle United’s golden age was in the Edwardian sporting age. Between 1903 and 1910, Newcastle won the title three times and finished in the top four on four occasions. They also reached four FA Cup finals, winning just one (1910). Following that sepia-tinted era, Newcastle won the championship in 1927 and picked up three FA Cups in the 1950s. The only trophy won since has been the now-defunct Inter Cities Fairs Cup, the great grandfather of the Europa League. They beat a host of strong clubs (Sporting Lisbon, Feyenoord, Setubal, Zaragoza and Rangers) on the way to defeating Ujpest Dosza 6-2 on aggregate.
Newcastle’s long-suffering supporters have had their hopes raised by trips to Wembley, only to head back to Kings Cross bemoaning yet another anti-climax. In 1974, 1998 and 1999, they scarcely showed up on the pitch in FA Cup finals. As for the league, Keegan’s team should have won it in 1996 but they lacked the nerve or self-confidence to reach the finishing line. A great pity. A lack of consistency, a string of poor buys and an inability to compete with the real “big clubs” has left Newcastle as merely Europa League candidates – not a bad place to be, but certainly nowhere near being title contenders. Consider this statistic – in 65 post-WW2 years, Newcastle have finished in the top six 14 times. That’s scarcely the form of champions.
Sunderland, meanwhile, have to go back even further than Newcastle to relive their finest hours. Three titles in four years between 1891 and 1895. Admittedly, they won it in 1936-37, but this is a club that has flirted with the lower divisions as much as the top. We will all, however, fondly remember Bob Stokoe and Jim Montgomery, FA Cup 1973. And now, they have Paulo Di Canio, who despite his obvious credentials, will not have an easy time. If Sunderland go down, the board – who may now be wondering what sort of hornets’ nest they have stirred up – may use it as an excuse to prematurely end its relationship with the Italian, in much the way a well known politican used Di Canio’s arrival to bow out from the club.
One reason why “the hotbed” may struggle to rise above its current second-string status could be its geographical isolation. It’s all a bit out of the way and given the huge emphasis on the “knowledge economy” in the UK, the traditional homes of mining, shipbuilding and heavy industry must have it hard to convince global investors that the region is a volcano waiting to erupt.
Isolationist is how one might describe the non-league segment of the region. The Northern League, which sat outside the “Pyramid” until 1991, comprises some of the oldest and most celebrated names from the old amateur days. Crook Town, once a mighty club, are languishing in the second division (there’s no Premier Division, it’s strictly old money “First”) and there’s clubs like West Auckland, Whitley Bay, Shildon, South and North Shields, Tow Law Town and, of all teams, Jarrow Roofing!
But while on the pitch, Northern League teams fare very well compared to their contemporaries elsewhere – witness the number of its clubs that have very healthy FA Vase runs – some teams play in little more than 100 people. This season, the average gate in the first division is 247, up from 166 in 2011-12, but there’s a good reason for that – Darlington 1883, the reformed club from the ashes of the former Football League club. Mostly, however, Northern League clubs have seen better days.
The same could be said of both Newcastle and Sunderland, but one day, they may both rise again. They’re not in dire straits, but they are brothers in arms. They just need to come to terms with the fact that when they look in the mirror, they’re not looking at a United, City, Arsenal or even Liverpool.