The North East of England has for decades been associated with decline. Once a great production engine driving Britain’s growth, the region has seen it’s traditional industries from shipbuilding to mining stripped down to a few remnants. Locals may object to the “grim up north” narrative and point to the many positives to be found in the area. They may mention football. But given the current state of the North East’s two top flight clubs they may opt to avoid mentioning it.
By rights the North East should be a force to be reckoned with in English football. The region loves the game, as can be seen by the massive crowds that Newcastle and Sunderland continue to attract despite the quality (or lack of it) on offer. The area has provided numerous English legends from the Charlton brothers to Gazza to Shearer. Newcastle’s identity is heavily tied to the city’s affection for the Toon while Sunderland enjoys a similar fanaticism for the Black Cats. Their rivalry remains one of the fiercest in the UK. Unfortunately though the games have never had much significance beyond local pride. The North East may love football but the footballing gods don’t seem to have much affection for it.
The area seems perennially cursed by underachievement but this year it is even outdoing it’s own low expectations. Currently, Sunderland sit in nineteenth in the league, one place above Newcastle who prop up the table. Early day for sure, but the fact that neither side has actually managed to win one of their eight games this season is a pretty damning indictment of their prospects. It’s possibly too soon to talk of relegation battles but unless something changes both teams look as if they will struggle to remain in the top tier.
Sunderland’s hopes for a bright new dawn under Dick Advocaat faded into darkness after a terrible run of results that ended with the Dutch veteran stepping down yesterday. The McClaren era at Newcastle is off to a similarly bad start with the Magpie’s most recently getting hammered 6-1 by Man City this weekend. Sunderland are just beginning the search for a new boss while Newcastle will presumably not be far behind unless McClaren can turn the ship around.
While this seasons performance may be particularly bad, in recent years the North East has never really been to award the loyalty of it’s fans with success. Newcastle did manage to finish fifth in 2012 but only three seasons earlier were relegated to the Championship. Since then the club has limped on, never in real relegation trouble but not getting close to the European places either. The Kevin Keegan years in the mid-90s remain the closest the club has got to silverware and even that is slightly marred by throwing away a 12 point lead in 1996. Toon fans are still forced to relive that painful experience via the constant re-running of that Kevin Keegan meltdown. Off the field the club’s been mired in controversy surrounding the unloved figure of owner/Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley. Despite the very clear dislike shown to him by a large section of Newcastle fans, Ashley seems to have no intention of leaving any time soon, much to the frustration of those who see him as the root cause of the problem.
Sunderland, meanwhile, have spent most of their time since regaining Premiership status in 2007 trying to hang on to it. So far they’ve succeeded, although a few times only narrowly. The club seems unable to reach the safety of mid-table stability. A succession of managers have attempted to take Sunderland on to the next level only to be dismissed or resign. Dick Advocaat’s decision to carry on was initially seen as a move that could finally stop the revolving door but it didn’t take long for it to start swinging again.
On one hand the North East does not have any special right to success. Big crowds don’t entitle a club to anything and these days seem to be increasingly irrelevant with teams like Swansea and Bournemouth in the Premiership while Leeds and Forest appear permanently stuck in Championship limbo. But at the same time, for two clubs that big, you would expect some glory years to balance out the bad times. But Newcastle’s last trophy was the Championship title in 2010. For United’s last major trophy you have to go all the way back to the 1955 FA Cup. Sunderland have won the Cup more recently in 1973, but like Newcastle have only won Championsip titles since.
Of the two teams, Newcastle are probably the biggest disappointment. United seem permanently dogged by off field problems and tension between the fans and the owner but there is quality in the side. Very little of it has been on show this season though. McClaren is beginning to cut an increasingly forlorn figure already. His career has been bipolar ranging from the impressive (Middlesbrough, Twente) to the infamous (England). Unfortunately current signs suggest that he’s veering towards the latter this time.
Sunderland’s poor start, meanwhile, is perhaps less surprising. The Advocaat appointment brought hope but this is still a team that escaped the drop by three points last year. Now manager-less again, the prospect on Wearside looks gloomy. Nigel Pearson, the ex-Leicester boss, appears to be front runner for the vacancy. Although his time with the Foxes in the Premiership was mired in controversy, Pearson did relatively well with his team. Ultimately it was his sons unfortunate antics that got him the sack rather results. Perhaps this new start will be an opportunity for both parties.
So a new season is under way and North East football fans are readying themselves for another turbulent season. Both teams are hardly doomed to relegation but it appears they can expect little more than mid-table safety this term. It’s not all bad in the region however. Middlesbrough are currently second in the Championship and look ready to launch a serious tilt for automatic promotion. That though will come as little comfort to their top flight neighbours.