Ten years ago, football in the North East of England was in a very promising spell. Newcastle United had just returned to the Premier League, a year later finishing fifth. Sunderland, before all the tears on their fly-on-the-wall Netflix documentaries, were a side who delivered mid-table security year-on-year.
Their neighbours Middlesbrough were always in the mix for Championship promotion as well. Now, there is an unignorable risk that the top flight could be without a North East side for the first time since 1991. For the sake of a region, it is in everyone’s interests that Mike Ashley leave Newcastle at his nearest exit.
It would be unreasonable to blame Ashley for the plight of every North East club. Years of similar mismanagement under Ellis Short have landed Sunderland in League One. Middlesbrough’s Steve Gibson, then, can count himself a lucky man that he is so popular on Teesside, but that is because he is Middlesbrough through and through; a lifelong fan who saved the club from liquidation back in 1986.
Simply put, he is a man who cares, which is a far cry from many other football owners, as we’ve seen with what happened to the likes of Bury.
The region’s potential has been left untapped by a lack of success. For Newcastle and Sunderland, years of maladministration have hurt fan expectations. The Magpies enjoyed one of their best finishes since the Bobby Robson era under Alan Pardew, bringing European football to St. James’ Park once again.
This was a remarkable achievement given the relatively small financial outlay. They even had their finest manager since Robson in Rafa Benítez. But there was no desire to build on these successes.
Frugality has always been Mike Ashley’s game; he wanted players brought in for small sums, to then sell on for profit. This strategy isn’t an issue; Leicester and Southampton have shown you can still enjoy success while occasionally selling on your assets. But it requires drive to keep this model successful, and a modicum of footballing knowledge, something the Newcastle hierarchy clearly lack (see Joelinton).
So why does this colossal task land on Mike Ashley’s shoulders? Simply put, he holds the strongest cards. While new boy Kyril Louis-Dreyfus boasts a humongous wealth (estimated to be billions), Sunderland are still mired in their football league odyssey. Gibson has Middlesbrough challenging for promotion again, but they have always lived in the shadow of their neighbours.
Enter Mike Ashley. All he needs to do is sell the club, which hasn’t been for wont of trying, truth be told. A new owner can come in, invest where needed (everywhere in Newcastle’s case, realistically) and watch the club finally thrive the way it can and should. Lo and behold, an example is set for other owners and players. Sunderland, now armed with their millions can catch up close behind. Players in turn can finally buy into the region’s potential as well.
What is a team if not the eleven men on the pitch and the manager? As it stands, from a player’s perspective, the North East is not an attractive prospect. It’s far from central to the country where a city like London has now become the go-to. In the case of Newcastle, the club’s facilities also leave much to be desired. Their training ground and academy don’t seem to have joined us in the 21st century yet. Their whole infrastructure is crying out for investment.
As Kevin Keegan claimed recently in his interview with Alan Shearer, ‘you can work as hard as you can on the football field but if everything else is not right then it filters through’. Mike Ashley is a symptom of football ignoring the North East. A cockney businessman imposing his own reign on a terror on an area he neither cares for nor engages with.
Things have not been ‘right’ at Newcastle for over a decade, at least with Rafa there was a tug-of-war because he gave fans hope. Now stuck with another yes-man, the Toon Army could be facing their third relegation of a horrific tenure.
The Tyne-Wear derby was always the most anticipated fixture of the year for the Newcastle and Sunderland fans. Centuries of English history and neighbourly hatred boiled down into an eleven-a-side mano-a-mano.
While I long for those distant memories to return soon, I pray the Football League is not their setting. The Premier League needs its North East giants to awaken from their slumber.
Image: sgwarnog2010 via Creative Commons