Martin Hardy: Football is a religion...and the North-east has miracle workers

The Weekend Dossier

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The Independent Online

Moral victories, even morals for that matter, have been thin on the ground this week for English football. It has been a tawdry week, beset with racism rows, resignations, spats and court cases between men of serious wealth.

But in an area called an "island within the British Isles" by Tony Mowbray, events suggest the North-east of England is finally moving in the right direction. That the two managers in charge of Newcastle United and Sunderland have figured so prominently in the list of potential replacements as for Fabio Capello is significant. Alan Pardew and Martin O'Neill present legitimate arguments as to why they could be the next manager of England because of their progress at hugely demanding clubs. Given the revolving-door culture that has embraced the region in recent times, that in itself is nothing short of a minor miracle.

It is 17 years since Newcastle came within a whisker of winning the Premier League title, and it is eight years since Middlesbrough lifted the Carling Cup, their first major trophy.

In recent times, the three clubs have near-imploded; a situation that has been exacerbated by the number of men charged with finding a magic formula in a unique region. In the last four years, 12 managers have been asked to perform a miracle. That is not achievable and certainly not sustainable.

From somewhere, and it is an ad hoc mixture of good fortune, good men and good timing, a sense of purpose is beginning to emerge.

O'Neill had been out of the game for 15 months when he was offered a return to a club he supported as a boy because of a poor run of form from Steve Bruce's side and an underlying feeling that Sunderland supporters would never truly accept a Geordie in charge of their club.

Since O'Neill's appointment, Sunderland have won nine of their 14 games, a phenomenal run. His winning statistic is 69 per cent (at Celtic, where he won three league titles, it was slightly higher at 75 per cent).

Being stuck in the middle of nowhere appears to appeal to O'Neill. He was with Northern Ireland when they shocked Spain. He was with Nottingham Forest when they shocked Europe. Politically, the North-east is overlooked and out of the way, yet the new manager is happy to play on a bit of tribalism.

"In my growing-up days, the North-east was very strong and, I might be in the minority in this, I'd want Middlesbrough to get promotion as well," he said. "It would be nice for this region to be strong again and you'd want top-class players wanting to come to play for the clubs here. Sunderland is a proper club. It used to be the hotbed up here. It would be great to get back to that. I don't think people's values have changed that much. Sunderland has been everything I thought it would be and I'm still learning about the area, but the passion is there in abundance."

Passion saw 60,000 people watch the two fourth-round FA Cup ties between Sunderland and Middlesbrough; two games that were televised not long after Christmas on freezing cold days. Yet passion is not enough, that is clear from years of underachievement.

It was heartening then to hear Pardew, as he sat slap bang in the middle of the England storm, talking about the need to improve what lies beneath Newcastle's first team and their dramatic progress this season (currently fifth and only a point behind Chelsea).

"We're having a great season and we're hoping to continue," he said. "I look at the club further down and we've got young players coming through. We're hoping to build foundations at the club. It's about getting the right product to work with, and the product here needs to improve. I've made that clear to them, that we need to get young players here who have got more chance of getting into the first team. That's not easy to do, but it's something we're going to focus on. It's not about a radical overhaul. We just want to improve, and that's what we're trying to do."

The context of that statement is important. Pardew has put out many fires in his reign. Now he is talking about building on the success he has achieved. That he is politically savvy is also important. Finding a way to be the man in the middle of the supporters and Mike Ashley has not been easy but Pardew has managed it. Meeting fans has given him an insight into the obsessive nature of North-east support, which can be suffocating.

"The North-east is an island within the British Isles," said Tony Mowbray, who has a belief in a style of play that still resonates within the North-east. His argument is that football is about escapism in a traditional area. "The working-class man who works all week to go and have his pint, goes to the match, he's with his mates, he's passionate about his team and he wants to vent either his support or his frustration at the weekend," he said. "We all live with that and understand it. The area is steeped in football. It's the steel industry, the coal industry, it's all there, or it was. It's a working-class environment."

An environment, however, that has won just one piece of major silverware in the last 38 years. "Winning matches, then trophies, is important," says O'Neill. "It gives you strength and, as Alex Ferguson once said, it gives you power round the club. That stops rumblings. He's earned that time to do the job because he won consistently and has been able to develop the team. How long is it before it feels like your club, years? You have to win, and win something, that's the only way."

That sentiment will not go down badly either.

Revolving-Door Policy: The Last Four Years

Newcastle United

Kevin Keegan: 16 Jan 08 to 4 Sept '08

Chris Hughton (caretaker): 8 Sept to 28 Sept '08

Joe Kinnear: 29 Sept to 7 Feb '09

Chris Hughton (caretaker): 7 Feb to 1 April '09

Alan Shearer: 2 Apr to 24 May '09

Chris Hughton (caretaker then permanent): 1 Jun '09 to 6 Dec '10

Alan Pardew: 9 Dec '10–

Sunderland

Roy Keane: 30 Aug to 4 Dec '08

Ricky S'Bragia: 4 Dec '08 to 24 May '09

Steve Bruce: June '09 to 30 Nov '11

Eric Black (caretaker): 30 Nov to 3 Dec '11

Martin O'Neill: 3 Dec '11–

Middlesbrough

Gareth Southgate: 7 June '06 to 20 Oct '09

Colin Cooper (caretaker): 22 Oct to 25 Oct '09

Gordon Strachan: 26 Oct '09 to 10 Oct '10

Steve Agnew (caretaker): 11 Oct to 25 Oct '10

Tony Mowbray: 26 Oct '10–

Five Asides

1. Right-back to the future for Richards?

What a bold and progressive step it would be if the new England manager was to recall Micah Richards from the international wilderness and make him his new captain. Much was expected of Richards when he emerged as an 18-year-old but his development was pushed ridiculously fast. That he has recovered to be such a key part of Roberto Mancini's plans says his character can now match his raw talent. Richards also has the physique and the ball-playing skills to be the central defender everyone thought Rio Ferdinand would become.

2. Group text massages the wrong egos

Another glorious week for footballers on Twitter; where Ravel Morrison found himself at the centre of an alleged homophobic tirade, Jack Wilshere backed an outgoing England manager and Wayne Rooney did little to dispel the notion from South Africa that he thinks he is bigger than the team by picking the next England manager.

3. Never forget your past – it shaped your future

It was the 20th anniversary on Wednesday of Kevin Keegan's first game as a football manager (a 3-0 victory against Bristol City). Much water has passed under the Tyne Bridge since then. Suffice to say, Newcastle would be a fraction of the club they are without his first two involvements at St James' Park.

4. Never mind a manager and captain – who's up front?

It is less than four months until England play France in their opening Group D game at the European Championship. Who will the new manager turn to, to lead his attack? Danny Welbeck (6 Premier League goals), Bobby Zamora (6) and Peter Crouch (6) have less goals between them than Robin van Persie (22) has on his own and the suspended Wayne Rooney (15) is the only English forward to have reached double figures. Andy Carroll (3) has slipped off the radar, Harry Redknapp sold Darren Bent (9) and ignores Jermain Defoe (8) at his own club. Danny Graham (8) has no experience, leaving Daniel Sturridge (9) as the safest of a pretty unsafe bet.

5. Should a player only be paid for playing?

There is a suggestion that Tottenham are pushing for a new pay-as-you-play deal for the talented but seemingly always injured centre-half Ledley King (above). You cannot blame them if they are. King has started 65 Premier League games in the last five seasons. Bad luck or not, he is a diminishing return.

Martin Hardy's verdict on all the weekend action

Man United v Liverpool

Odds: Home 4-5; Draw 13-5, Away 7-2.

Kick-off: Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news: Tom Cleverley returns to contention for Manchester United after recovering from an ankle injury, while Chris Smalling could also feature. For Liverpool, Luis Suarez could make his first start of 2012, and defender Jose Enrique returns from hamstring and back injuries.

Blackburn v QPR

Odds: Home 11-8; Draw 9-4, Away 2-1.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news: Yakubu returns for Blackburn having completed a suspension, but Gaël Givet begins a three-game ban and Chris Samba (hamstring) is out. QPR also have suspension issues, with Djibril Cissé beginning a ban following his red card against Wolves last week, but Heidar Helguson (groin) and Luke Young (hamstring) miss out.

Bolton v Wigan

Odds: Home Evens; Draw 12-5, Away 14-5.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news: Tim Ream could make his Bolton debut after finalising the paperwork of his move from New York Red Bulls, while Ryo Miyaichi could also feature. Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has a fully fit squad to choose from, with Antolin Alcaraz shrugging off a groin injury and Mohamed Diame returning from the African Cup of Nations.

Everton v Chelsea

Odds: Home 9-4; Draw 23-10, Away 5-4.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news: Tim Cahill (foot) should be involved for Everton, while Nikica Jelavic could make his full debut.

Frank Lampard (calf) and John Obi Mikel (hamstring) are back for Chelsea, while Ashley Cole returns from suspension. John Terry and Ramires (knee) are both out, while Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are in Africa.

Fulham v Stoke

Odds: Home 10-11; Draw 5-2, Away 3-1.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news: Pavel Pogrebnyak comes into contention for Fulham after being granted a work permit, but Andy Johnson and Philippe Senderos (both adductor) miss out. Robert Huth begins a three-match ban for Stoke following his red card against Sunderland last weekend, but Matthew Etherington should play a part after overcoming a virus.

Sunderland v Arsenal

Odds: Home 5-2; Draw 12-5, Away 11-10.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news: Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos return to the Sunderland squad after missing the midweek FA Cup win at Middlesbrough, but Nicklas Bendtner is ineligible. Kieran Gibbs (groin) may feature for Arsenal after missing four months, while Marouane Chamakh returns from African Cup of Nations duty. Gervinho is still out there.

Swansea v Norwich

Odds: Home 5-6; Draw 5-2, Away 7-2.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news: Swansea have a near full-strength side to pick from, with Brendan Rodgers unlikely to change from the side that won at West Bromwich Albion last weekend. Norwich may have Elliott Ward back for the first time this season following a knee injury, but Daniel Ayala (hamstring) is out for a month and Zak Whitbread (hamstring) is doubtful.

Tottenham v Newcastle

Odds: Home 4-9; Draw 100-30, Away 13-2.

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news: Harry Redknapp returns in the Spurs dugout after missing Monday's draw at Liverpool but Rafael van der Vaart (calf) again misses out. Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon also return but Younes Kaboul is a doubt. Newcastle miss Ryan Taylor (ankle), Leon Best (knee), Yohan Cabaye (suspension) and Cheick Tioté (international duty).

Wolves v West Bromwich

Odds: Home 6-4; Draw 9-4, Away 15-8.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news: Wolves have injury concerns over Jamie O'Hara (groin) and Dave Edwards (thigh), while Emmanuel Frimpong (knee) has returned to Arsenal and Karl Henry is suspended. West Bromwich await updates on Shane Long (back) and Graham Dorrans (hip).

Aston Villa v Man City

Odds: Home 9-2; Draw 13-5, Away 4-6.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news: Gabriel Agbonlahor (back/hamstring), Marc Albrighton (thigh) and James Collins (calf) could return for Aston Villa, while Robbie Keane makes his final appearance. City hope to welcome back Vincent Kompany (knee) and Samir Nasri (groin) but Mario Balotelli is suspended.

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