Football: Newcastle the undisputed kings of the North-east

Phil Shaw on the painful reality for two football clubs reduced to a twilight zone
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The Independent Online
As if relegation from the Premiership were not enough of a crying shame, the followers of Middlesbrough and Sunderland were yesterday coming to terms with the realisation that neighbouring Newcastle United are in a different league - perhaps twice over.

When the demoted pair go to Greater Manchester, it will be to Gigg Lane and Edgeley Park instead of Old Trafford. The Valley, rather than Highbury, will be their destination in the capital. Meanwhile, Newcastle can spend the summer in eager anticipation of the draw for the European Champions' League, in which they will participate if they survive August's qualifying round.

The previous campaign ended amid television images of tearful Tynesiders. This time, as the Match of the Day credits rolled over shots of distressed Middlesbrough and Sunderland fans at Leeds and Wimbledon respectively, the Geordie faithful were agog on the Tyne. The runners-up spot was an unexpected reward for the eight-match unbeaten run Kenny Dalglish's side put together following the nadir of Monaco.

To point out the cyclical nature of football's emotional extremes will be scant consolation on Teesside or Wearside, although Boro may yet gain the considerable consolation of the FA Cup and entry to the Cup-Winners' Cup.

Win or lose at Wembley, their chairman, Steve Gibson, is threatening High Court action to win back the three points docked by the Premier League for failing to fulfil December's fixture at Blackburn. The motivating force may be embarrassment masquerading as a sense of injustice: it bears repeating that even if Boro had sent out a weakened side at Ewood Park, and lost heavily, they would have survived the First Division cut.

Legal action, and the ill will it would generate, might prove to be another of Boro's expensive follies. For while they have spent barely half Newcastle's transfer outlay under Kevin Keegan - the undoubted role model for the Riverside revolution - Gibson and Robson have had relatively poor value for their pounds 30m investment.

Of their exotic imports, only Juninho has been an unqualified success. Gibson, pointing to the lucrative contracts they have signed, is adamant that they will leave only when Boro agree to let them go. However, they might be advised to cut their losses rather than have team spirit further undermined by the idiosyncrasies of Fabrizio Ravanelli or Emerson.

Compared with Gibson's claim about "men in grey suits" sending Boro down, Sunderland's man with grey hair was a model of dignified resignation on Sunday. But supporters must be wondering why Peter Reid spent less than a third of the pounds 10m transfer kitty reportedly made available by his chairman, Bob Murray.

Trying to stay up on the cheap worked no better for Reid than buying abroad did for Robson. It says everything for Sunderland's inadequacies that their joint leading scorers, Craig Russell and Paul Stewart, amassed four goals each. As in their last one-season sojourn in the top flight, 1990-91, they never won back-to-back games.

After averaging gates of 19,000 this season (10,000 less than Boro), the new 42,000-seat stadium at Wearmouth looks wildly over-sized for such attractions as Oxford and Reading. One journalist, judging many of the manager's recruits to be past their prime, has suggested they call it Jurassic Park. Tonight, when Sunderland bid farewell to Roker Park in a friendly against Liverpool, it will be revealing to see who, if anyone, bears the brunt of the crowd's disappointment.

Ironically, after all their rivals' gloating over Keegan's exit, Newcastle have now confirmed their status as the North-east's premier club and also made a European breakthrough which even their chairman believed would have to wait. Sir John Hall admits he was ready to "write off" this season as Dalglish took stock of the situation.

Not so long ago, Sir John recalled, Newcastle hoped to be in the European Super League which he believes will come "sooner than people think, with the next TV deal". Now, with "the right manager" in place, they expect to be in it. "While we may not have won anything," he said, adding the words that must have hurt at Middlesbrough and Sunderland, "the future's all ours."