How did it come to this? How are Newcastle United, with the fifth-highest wage bill in the Premier League and the third-largest crowd, with a season that began with a juicy draw at Old Trafford and Kevin Keegan in charge, with a forward line of Michael Owen, Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins, just how are they relying on the inadequacies of rivals on this final afternoon of the season?
And Sunderland, after investing the guts of £80 million on players in the past two seasons, how is it they are squeaking with unsuppressed anxiety about the day ahead? As for Middlesbrough, how come a club that was in the Uefa Cup final three years ago this month, and who were eighth in the table in November – four points off Manchester United – how are they all but down?
England's geography has brought a rush of those seeking a regional explanation for regional relegation. There is a sense that for all three North-east Premier League clubs to be in peril on the season's final day, there must be a connection, something in the water between Tyne and Tees. Something must be going on.
At a base level, geography does play its part. When he was manager at Sunderland Roy Keane would recall his playing days at Manchester United and remember thinking of the North-east as "up there". And Keane's allegedly magnetic presence on Wearside did not attract the necessary quality, even though Sunderland were prepared to back it up with hard cash.
But that is part of a larger consideration and on day-to-day terms the truth is rather more prosaic: if there is one overriding factor that links Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sunderland which is crucial in identifying why they are where they are this season, it is ill-judged player recruitment.
In any season there are definitive reasons for underachievement – injuries, loss of form, bad luck, refereeing decisions – and at Newcastle and Sunderland this season, managerial upheaval has been pivotal.
But in broader terms over the course of several seasons, the failure to recruit appropriately is of most significance. An unpalatable fact for all three North-east clubs as they sweat on each other's attacks is that in their forward line alone, they each possess at least one recent signing who personifies the problem. Disenchanted fans would say more than one.
This is dull and specific rather than mysterious and environmental, but in Xisco, Djibril Cissé and Mido respectively, Newcastle's, Sunderland's and Boro's current recruitment has to be questioned.
Who was it at St James' Park who thought that Xisco, a 22-year-old from Deportivo la Coruña playing second-division football in Spain two seasons ago, was worth a reported £5.7m? Who was it at Sunderland who checked Cissé's temperament away from match days, and his willingness to be a team player, before sanctioning a £2m one-season loan fee? Who was it at Boro who thought that Mido, a man with four clubs in four different countries in the three years before he joined Tottenham, would settle on Teesside?
These are uncomfortable questions and they need better answers than it's just down to the North-east being in the North-east. All the socio-economic contextualising being applied in recent weeks has validity, it just cannot compare with the bare facts that these were bad football decisions.
"It is absolutely not a regional thing," said Gary Speed, who had seven seasons on Tyneside. "If anything, for the home team it is an advantage. Visiting clubs feel that the North-east's 'up there', out of the way. When I was at Newcastle the majority of home games were won and the fans were brilliant, so it was more of an advantage than a disadvantage.
"All fans are the same. Everton fans are as impatient as Newcastle's, if not more so. You couldn't wish to play in front of better fans than Newcastle's but it does take a certain type of person to do it. I was booed by them in one of my first games, for giving the ball away and it leading to a goal. But what do you do, hide? Or do you go and get the ball again? We ended up winning that game 3-1. It's about the mentality of the player."
Predictably Speed was a good signing but Newcastle's list of bad, expensive ones is longer than an MP's claim form. Marcelino, Viana, Boumsong, Luque and so many others are not playing now but have contributed to a club's downfall.
That historical errors resonate can be seen in Michael Owen. In August 2005 did Newcastle need to spend £17m on Owen when they were neck-deep in debt already and lacked a centre-half leader? No. But they did and it has been little short of a disaster for the club. With wages, a £37m disaster.
A certain type of person: long before Niall Quinn became chairman of Sunderland his view was that to play in front of a passionate, biased but demanding fanbase required "a certain type of character". Yet even he accepted the uncertain thrill to a club like Sunderland of acquiring a foreigner such as Cissé – and El-Hadj Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda and Steed Malbranque last summer – only to return to core beliefs when things went awry.
Diouf and Chimbonda were offloaded in January. Cissé is expected to leave next week. Malbranque has faded after a good start. Whoever is manager at the Stadium of Light next season, this experience has to be discussed before more money is spent. This is not anti-foreign – Quinn has heard his captain, Dean Whitehead, complain recently about Sunderland fans' intensity, while Newcastle sold Joe Kinnear the idea that Kevin Nolan is "a goalscoring midfielder". Nolan has one goal in 32 games this season. It was against Northampton Town. In the Carling Cup. In August. Bad recruitment decisions.
Thankfully there is a sense that the likes of Xisco, Mido and Cissé and other poor-purchase choices have had an educational, if chilling value this long, depressing season. Alan Shearer is unlikely to splurge cash on the unproven, while Sunderland and Boro have made noises about doing their business differently.
If so, it is about time. The North-east's big three clubs draw in 120,000 fans between them at home games – that's why they are "big" – and football matters in a way that it does not elsewhere. The clubs have let the fans down – and the region – not vice versa.
A season in hell
4 Sept 2008: Kevin Keegan resigns after three League games and Chris Hughton was appointed caretaker manager.
26 Sept 2008: Joe Kinnear is appointed interim manager as owner Mike Ashley attempts to sell the club.
2 Oct 2008: Kinnear launches a foul-mouthed rant at the press after criticism.
28 Dec 2008: Liverpool thrash Newcastle 5-1 in a humiliating defeat at St James' Park.
1 Feb 2009: Charles N'Zogbia and Shay Given both leave the club while Kevin Nolan, Ryan Taylor and Peter Lovenkrands join.
21 Feb 2009: Kinnear leaves hospital after triple heart bypass.
1 April 2009: Alan Shearer is appointed manager until the end of the season.
3 May 2009: Joey Barton returns from injury against Liverpool but is sent off at Anfield.
1 Nov 2008: Nicolas Anelka's hat-trick gives Chelsea a 5-0 win with Roy Keane sent to the stands.
29 Nov 2008: Sunderland fall into the relegation zone following a 4-1 defeat at home to Bolton.
4 Dec 2008: Keane resigns as manager, Ricky Sbragia takes over. His appointment is made permanent by the end of December.
30 Jan 2009: El-Hadji Diouf is sold to Blackburn and Pascal Chimbonda leaves for Tottenham.
18 May 2009: A 3-1 defeat at Portsmouth lands Sunderland in the relegation battle.
20 May 2009: Kenwyne Jones warns that he could look for a move if Sunderland go down.
23 Aug 2008: Middlesbrough lead Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield but lose after two late goals.
18 Oct 2008: Chelsea thrash Middlesbrough 5-0 at the Riverside.
6 Dec 2008: Marlon King scores in a 2-1 win for Hull at the KC Stadium.
17 Jan 2009: West Bromwich complete the double over Boro with a 3-0 win at the Hawthorns.
22 Jan 2009: Gareth Southgate signs King on loan from Wigan as Mido goes the other way.
28 Feb 2009: A shock 2-0 win over Liverpool at the Riverside gives the fans hope.
11 April 2009: King's late goal gives Boro a 3-1 home win against Hull.
11 May 2009: After leading Boro lose 3-1 at relegation rivals Newcastle.
17 May 2009: Injury ends Stewart Downing's season in a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa.Reuse content