Northern plights: A crucial weekend for the North-east

With Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough all struggling to stay up, Michael Walker charts the build-up to a crucial weekend for the North-east
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In the North-east, they give thanks hourly for West Bromwich Albion. But for the Baggies, the bottom three places of the Premier League would be occupied by Middlesbrough, Newcastle United and Sunderland. The Hotbed of Soccer they called it once; Deathbed they call it now.

What humour there was in that joke is waning due to the gravity of the situation, and gravity is exerting its pull. Were it not for West Brom, and their Saltburn-born manager Tony Mowbray, the three North-east clubs, who can generate 120,000 fans between them at home, might all go down together. As it is, two seem destined to drop and the third will finish 17th.

Today is another crunch Saturday for all three. Boro host Hull, Newcastle travel to Stoke and Sunderland have Manchester United at the Stadium of Light. Last Saturday, the three lost, scored one goal between them and on Tees, Wear and Tyne, the smell is of relegation. It has been another long week on the cold shoulder of English football.

Monday

With grim accuracy, the Monday sports pull-out in the Northern Echo starts the week. On its front page above three pictures of Alan Shearer, Ricky Sbragia and Gareth Southgate are the words: "Going, going ... gone?"

The opening sentence of the accompanying report was: "North-east football is in crisis after another catastrophic weekend left the region's three biggest clubs facing relegation to the Championship."

Nail and head. It had been another bad Saturday, three more defeats meant the gloom that settled on the region around November showed no sign of shifting. But Mondays bring a return to work, or in Shearer's case, a first day of a first full week in a new job. His enthusiasm had not been hit by the loss to Chelsea but it means one game less to stage an escape. Newcastle's record is now one win in 13.

In time, Shearer may come to feel like a man asked to fight a firestorm with a water pistol. But Monday night comes and Shearer is at St James' Park, three seats along from Mark Hughes, to watch Newcastle's reserves against Manchester City's. Clinging rain swirled around the stadium.

This is Shearer's new reality. He sees Andy Carroll rattle in two goals, the second from an astute pass by teenager Nile Ranger. It gives Shearer something to ponder on a bleak night, and he later says he likes Ranger. Both he and Carroll have made the squad for Stoke.

Overall, though, Tyneside's mood is flat. Symbolism arrives in photographs of the weekend's removal of the cranes at Swan Hunter. After 145 years, this is closure. Loaded onto a barge, the cranes are taken down the Tyne, out into the North Sea and off to India. A city's industrial base literally floats away.

Tuesday

What was Ricky Sbragia thinking? The day dawns and the Sunderland manager is quoted as saying that his squad lacks "talent". Quite a lot of Sunderland fans would not dispute that but to hear their manager say so in the middle of a relegation battle causes consternation.

True, Sunderland have taken two points from their last six games – in which, alarmingly, they have only scored two goals – so Sbragia has an argument, but the previous day chairman Niall Quinn had spoken of selling season tickets in this economic climate and it is Manchester United next.

Down on Teesside, they know how hard it is to sell tickets. So for the visit of Hull City to the Riverside, Middlesbrough have come up with "One Hull of a Deal" to try to get the stadium full for what could be Boro's biggest league game of the century. Hull are doing their bit; they've sold 4,000.

There is confirmation that Boro captain Emanuel Pogatetz will miss the Hull game and that Gary O'Neil is suspended, but on the club website they are breezily talking to fans who have renewed season tickets already. Alan Cruickshank says: "I'd love to be watching Premier League football next season but if the worst does happen then I'll watch in the Championship – I've done it before. Who knows what will happen? It's Boro we're talking about after all."

In Sunderland, the players are holding a meeting but there is a bit of that chirpiness at St James'. An open training session brings around 5,000 to see Shearer, back again, score in a seven-a-side kickabout. The finger went in the air. Afterwards there was a handshake with managing director Derek Llambias. Something is changing there.

Wednesday

On the metro to Sunderland to see Sbragia, the man in the next seat has a tattoo on his neck. It reads: "Made in Hartlepool." It is not Peter Mandelson.

Sbragia talks a better game today. He describes yesterday's remark as "flippant" and adds that he is "happy" with the squad. The likeable thing about Sbragia is his refusal to be part of showbiz. He is a football man. The trouble for Sbragia is that a chunk of football is showbiz.

Sbragia is neither gung-ho off the pitch nor on it and, having had three years in charge of the reserves at Old Trafford, he has that insider's respect.

But he knows that post-Porto, Sunderland must try to make United wobble afresh. "We have to try get in their faces a little bit and we have to take the game to them," he says.

Sbragia wonders aloud about matching Porto's 4-3-3 approach but there will be near astonishment if he does that. The man who came in after Roy Keane (who lost six of his last seven matches) immediately organised seven points from the next three games. But slowly things have frayed and Sbragia's natural caution is not a galvanising influence. He talked of "at least going down fighting" today, which is not what people want to hear.

Wearside is frantic with the thought of a third relegation in six years – especially if Newcastle survive. Quinn spoke last month of being "tantalisingly close" to a secure future and structurally the club is looking solid: the under-18s have won their league, the reserves should clinch theirs next week. Multi-millionaire backer Ellis Short is waiting to commit.

But in the air is a feeling that Quinn must gee up his manager to gee up his first team if that progress is not to appear peripheral. After United, it's Hull next week.

Hull are already motivating Middlesbrough, whose players have given up their day off to train. David Wheater, core Boro at 22 – and an extra in the film Atonement – says: "On a scale of one to 10 in importance, this match rates about a 12."

Shearer turns up at Anfield to watch Liverpool-Chelsea.

Thursday

The first pre-match press conference of Shearer's managerial career. He is relaxed, authoritative, impressive. Thinking of Stoke City, he repeats the line about "the difference between knowing and doing" but Shearer is already doing.

Steve Harper, the club's longest server, says "the gaffer" has brought fresh discipline to the training ground. Punctuality matters to Shearer, mutual respect too. The players are eating together and training is at a higher tempo. Fitness is an issue.

"We have to be strong enough and fit enough to last 90 minutes, not 45 or 60," Shearer says, having listed the injured for Stoke. But he likes his players' response.

"They've taken to the ideas, the little things, really well. I think they've wanted to do that. They've wanted to be told where to be, at what time to be there – and to be together. They've wanted to be pointed in that direction."

It is 16 years since Harper joined Newcastle. He has that perspective but also that of a County Durham man, son of a miner. "It's sad for the region," he says, "it would be great if all three stayed up but for the next seven weeks, in fact for the whole season, it is only about us.

"It would be a massive blow for everyone if we were relegated. Very, very sad. The big clubs that have gone down, if the worst does happen, they show you have no given right to bounce straight back."

A keen reader, Harper is asked if he has ever thought of writing a book about all he has seen. "No," he replies, "it would be longer than Lord of the Rings."

Boro chairman Steve Gibson slags off New Labour. "Public schoolboys," he says, "we have estates in Middlesbrough that have an average male life expectancy of 51."

Nissan's Sunderland plant receives an EU grant of £380m to develop green-car technology. The jobs of 4,500 seem safer. Co-incidentally, or not, Sunderland announce that more than 25,000 season tickets have been sold for next season.

Friday

Good Friday. It is for some. At Wigan, Fulham, Bolton.

Some historians employ the philosophy "geography is destiny". A football application would be that an upbringing in Scotland's 20th- century industrial working class helps define why Stein, Shankly, Busby and Ferguson made great football managers.

For Sunderland, it is rather worrying therefore that the Football League's second division was founded at a meeting on the city's Fawcett Street in 1892. It is an umbilical connection of which they do not wish to be reminded. (And the last time Boro went down, in 1997, they took Sunderland with them).

A more inspiring memory, and the geography philosophy, led to Middlesbrough yesterday morning. The sun beamed down on the stall selling wooden roses on Linthorpe Road, and over on Valley Road it was the same. Past the boarded-up houses on Marton Burn it shone, and on Ayresome Green Lane. It leads to Bell Street. Bell Street and Valley Road, a 15-minute walk apart. The former was home to Don Revie, the latter is where Brian Clough grew up. "Some might have thought this just another council house," Clough once said. "To me it was heaven." Clough and Revie: a reminder of what Middlesbrough has given English football.

From The Damned United to the Doomed Boro. Yet Gareth Southgate has found an omen. "The last four seasons, the team that's been second-bottom [19th] at this stage of the season has got out of it," Southgate says. And he's right: West Brom (2005), Portsmouth (2006), West Ham (2007) and Fulham (2008). "So there's evidence that it can be done."

Some optimism. The unpleasant complication for the North-east is that if Boro do emulate that quartet, it is likely to be at the expense of either Sunderland or Newcastle United, or both.

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