Football: Have they seen the Light?

Simon Turnbull examines the quality of life after the drop in the North-east
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The Independent Online
As north-east football's biggest gate for 17 years prepared to cram into the new Stadium of Light, Bob Murray surveyed Sunderland's pounds 15m bricks and mortar signing with justifiable pride. "We wanted to make a statement about the club and the city," the Sunderland chairman said, "and I think we have done that with this ground." The 41,600-seater stadium by the banks of the Wear, the biggest club ground in England apart from Old Trafford, did indeed speak for itself at its opening night. But the message over the public address system was loud and clear too.

"Ronald De Boer, Dani, Witschge, Babangida and Laudrup," the announcer said, completing his run through the visiting team's line-up. "And great news of a new signing for Sunderland," he continued, barely pausing for breath. "Jody Craddock has signed from Cambridge this afternoon." As a statement of just how far away Sunderland - with their staggering support and their splendid new home (cringingly naff-named though it is) - happen to be from a place among the leading lights of the game, it could not have been more clearly defined. The man behind the mike added his own ironic twist. "Jody" was pronounced not in the Wearside or Cambridgeshire manner but as a continental "Yody".

Sunderland did have a Dutchman on display as they held the former Dutch masters to a goal-less draw on Wednesday night but Edwin Zoetebier, a pounds 225,000 goalkeeping acquisition from Volendam, hardly rates as the kind of international quality signing Murray is confident Wearside's Stadium of Light will attract. In Lee Clark, though, Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, has clearly made a sound investment. The perceptive scheming he developed on European nights with Newcastle, but which both Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish ultimately deemed surplus to requirements, can only help elevate Sunderland above the second-class domestic citizens among whom they have fallen. If pounds 2.5m had been spent on the talented midfielder a year ago, Sunderland's new ground would have started its life on the Premiership map.

That Port Vale, Reading and Oxford will be among the names to be put up in lights there is an illuminating indictment of the glaring false economy that cost Sunderland their first-class ticket last season. Just pounds 3.8m was spent on building a team fit for its future home. Middlesbrough, 25 miles away, spent pounds 3.2m more on Fabrizio Ravanelli alone - and, that on just his transfer fee, not his wage-packet. Yet the north-east rivals both ended in the same place: a class apart - or adrift - from Newcastle.

Like their neighbours, Middlesbrough's supporters have shown remarkable faith. The 26,500th and last of the Riverside Stadium's season ticket allocation was sold two weeks ago. A pair of cup final defeats and a largely self-inflicted relegation (failure to turn up at Ewood Park was always likely to be more than a pointless exercise) has clearly not disillusioned Teesside.

Juninho may have gone but Paul Merson is as good a new No 10 as Bryan Robson could have hoped to enlist for Middlesbrough's recovery mission. David Platt and Dean Sturridge are on Robson's recruitment list too. The problem for the Middlesbrough manager could be the luxury items that have not been shifted in the summer sales. Ravanelli's goals might still prove priceless but the Italian, whose pounds 50,000 weekly wage demands have priced him out of a move, has unsettled the Middlesbrough dressing-room. His colleagues have long resented his lack of commitment, which was hardly repaired by his declaration of loyalty on Wednesday - the day after his agent sounded out Newcastle's interest.

Emerson has remained at the Riverside too. But Robson's team has a champion look about it, with Merson as an attacking foil for Ravanelli or whoever might replace him, the redoubtable Robbie Mustoe and Craig Hignett in midfield, Nigel Pearson and Gianluca Festa at the heart of defence and Mark Schwarzer six weeks away from a return to goalkeeping duties. Peter Shilton, a midweek addition to the Boro coaching staff, could possibly start the season if Andy Dibble fails to impress on his week-to-week contract and Robson, at 40, has been blowing the cobwebs off in pre-season games.

"I'll play if I'm needed," Robson said. "But I'm happy with the squad I've got. We still have a lot of the players who won us promotion two years ago and the better players we added last year. We have Paul Merson, too, of course. But it's up to the players to perform. Nobody has a divine right to promotion. We'll have to work hard."

It may have been a statement of the obvious but it was a statement about Middlesbrough and where they stand after their season of demolished dreams. The rebuilding work starts at the Riverside at 3pm on Saturday.