Welcome to the North-east... Football's land of plenty

Simon Turnbull discusses a region's return to prominence
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The Independent Online
Arthur Appleton chose the title "Hotbed of Soccer" when he wrote the story of North-east football in 1960. After three decades in cold storage, the epithet is rolling hot off the nation's presses once again. "I don't think there's any doubt that the region is a hotbed again," Appleton, now an octogenarian, said recently. "It's difficult to think back to a time when there was so much interest in North-east football."

It is not merely the fact that Newcastle United, Middlesbrough and Sunderland will kick off as fellow top-flighters for only the second season since 1954. Neither is it because some 78,000 North-easterners have invested in Premiership season tickets.

Rather it is the fact that a global spotlight will be trained upon Tyneside, where the world's most expensive footballer will be in the Newcastle team, and upon Teesside, where Middlesbrough will parade a Brazilian who scored from the penalty spot in the most recent World Cup final and an Italian who was on the mark in the European Cup final three months ago.

For a region which became synonymous with the description "sleeping giant", it is an astonishing transformation.

It is only five years since Joe Allon of Hartlepool was voted the North- east's best player by the region's football writers; only four since Newcastle stood on the brink of financial collapse and the old Third Division; and little more than two seasons since Middlesbrough were attracting gates of 6,000.

Two weeks ago 2,000 fans queued down by the Riverside to pay pounds 40 each for the privilege of wearing Middlesbrough's new strip. Bernie Slaven laughed when he recalled how the Boro players of 1986 collected wages paid by the PFA at the Town Hall because the club was under liquidation and the gates to Ayresome Park padlocked. "It's a different world up here now," he said. The retired Republic of Ireland striker cost pounds 25,000 when he joined Middlesbrough from Albion Rovers in 1984. "It's staggering," he said, "when you think some players are getting that much each week."

In Middlesbrough's case, Fabrizio Ravanelli and the boys from Brazil - Branco, Juninho and Emerson - are being paid their weekly fortunes to earn the club the kind of tradition their neighbours can boast. They have yet to win one of the game's major domestic trophies, the Anglo-Scottish Cup won in 1976 by the team that Jack Charlton built not quite qualifying for the first class honours category.

Newcastle and Sunderland have won 10 championships and eight FA Cups between them. Yet since Arthur Appleton paid printed homage to the hotbed, 36 years ago now, only twice has top-quality silverware been brought north of Scotch Corner: in 1969, when Newcastle won the Inter Cities Fairs Cup, and in 1973, when Bob Stokoe's Sunderdogs slayed Don Revie's giants in the FA Cup final.

You have to delve way back to find the last time a North-east club was crowned champions of England. The historical perspective is brought into sharp focus by the fact that only one member of that great attacking Sunderland side, which featured the sublimely talented Raich Carter, remains alive, but then again their magic moment did come in 1936.

Even then, Johnny Mapson does not have a medal as tangible evidence that the North-east once had kings of the English game. He played only the last seven games of the season as the pounds 8-a-week goalkeeping successor to Jimmy Thorpe, who died from a diabetic coma precipitated in a goalmouth scramble against Chelsea at Roker Park.

"The medal went to Jimmy Thorpe's widow instead," Mapson recalled. Now 79 and living in Wiltshire, he added: "At least I played in a championship side. I would never have imagined then that 60 years later the North-east would still be waiting for another one."

So unaccustomed are they to success in what the Northern Echo suggested in 1990 should be re-named "Soccer's Slumbering Backwater" even the cushion of a 12-point lead did not make Mark Jensen feel sufficiently secure to say his beloved black and whites would win the title when he was interviewed on Sky television in February.

It was not that he was still haunted by those days when Newcastle's form was appropriately black or white, like February 1972, when they lost at Hereford in the FA Cup and seven days later achieved what remains the club's most recent victory at Old Trafford.

As Jensen explained: "I just think that to be one of the big clubs now you have to be up there for five or six years, like Liverpool, Manchester United or Arsenal. And if you do that you'll have a good chance of winning the title within that period. I said I thought we would be champions at some point in the next 10 years, and I stick by that."

Jensen edits the popular fanzine, the Mag. It was launched at the same time Sir John formed his Magpie Group in 1988 to press for boardroom change at St James' Park. "It was after the sale of Gazza," Jensen recalled. "All of the local talent was being cut from the club.

"It's a different ball game now, though. The club thinks long term. That's what baffles me about Sunderland. They don't even seem to be thinking short term, about surviving this season."

The talk of the Toon these days is that Peter Reid has guaranteed Sunderland three seasons in the Premiership: autumn, winter and spring. The buoyant mood on the banks of the Tyne and the Tees is conspicuously absent from Wearside, where Reid has spent only pounds 3m on Alex Rae, Tony Coton and Niall Quinn, spreading a resigned sense of deja vu.

Rokerites have painful memories of six years ago, when Sunderland gained back-door entry to the top-flight after Swindon, who outclassed them in the play-off final at Wembley, were barred because of financial misdemeanours. Denis Smith was allowed to buy only Peter Davenport and Kevin Ball and the relegation which followed was the inevitable outcome Sunderland fans fear once again.

Billy Simmons has followed Sunderland home and away for all but the first six of his 79 years. "Peter Reid has done a great job with no money," he said, "but we're going to be up against the cream of the world's players and I've got to say it doesn't look very hopeful. Bob Murray, the chairman, has done a good job fighting for the new ground we'll move into next August. But it's no good having a new suit if you've got nowt to put on with it."

Sunderland were exposed in emperor's new clothes the last time they stepped up to join their neighbours in the top flight. "I just hope the same thing doesn't happen," Bob Stokoe said. "It's great for the North-east to have the big three up there again. The place is alive. But my feelings are with Peter Reid."

Stokoe resigned 10 games into the 1976-77 season when it became clear that his Second Division champions were not going to be strong enough to survive. Retired for nine years now and recently returned to his native Northumberland, Stokoe was the last manager to bring one of English football's prized pots to the North-east - and a player in the last Newcastle side to claim one, the FA Cup winners of 1955.

"My mind boggles at the thought of Newcastle spending pounds 15m on a player," he said. "It's like playing Monopoly as kids with paper money. It's a different era to when I was a manager but I suppose it's one of the demands of success these days and I do think Newcastle will dominate this season.

"It's incredible to think that they haven't won a domestic trophy since I played in that 1955 team and that the North-east has won nothing since the Sunderland team I managed in 1973. It's about time those things were put to bed."

The hotbed's rising temperature suggests the wait may soon be over.

NORTHERN LIGHTS: The Big Three's journey from second-class citizens to Premiership contenders

MAY 1990: The decade starts with North-east's "big three" in the Second Division but Sunderland beat Newcastle in the play-off semi-finals and, courtesy of the FA's punishment of Swindon, secure promotion despite losing the Wembley final.

DECEMBER 1990: The share issue championed by John Hall and his Magpie Group is a lamentable failure. Hall and his son, Douglas, resign from Newcastle's board but retain their majority shareholding.

MAY 1991: Sunderland are relegated.

NOVEMBER 1991: Kevin Keegan watches Ossie Ardiles's struggling Newcastle side, containing five teenagers, on a return trip to St James' Park. "I thought I was watching a youth team," he says.

DECEMBER 1991: Don Goodman joins Sunderland for pounds 900,000 from West Brom, the North-east's record signing. With a relegation fight looming, however, Denis Smith is sacked as manager.

DECEMBER 1991: Sir John Hall (newly knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours) returns to Newcastle as chairman. "Our debts are approaching pounds 5m and we need to go back to the bank to see us through this season," he says. "The haemorrhaging has got to stop."

FEBRUARY 1991: Newcastle drop to second bottom of the Second Division after a 5-1 defeat at Oxford and Keegan replaces Ardiles as manager, pledging: "This club's as low as it's ever going to be. If we get the momentum going, it'll be like a snowball rolling down a mountain. No one will stop us."

MARCH 1992: Keegan walks out after a home game against Swindon. "It's not like it said in the brochure," he says. Sir John persuades him to return with a guarantee of the money for transfers he was promised.

MAY 1992: Middlesbrough, under Lennie Lawrence, secure promotion to become the North-east's only members of the inaugural Premier League. Sunderland, with Malcolm Crosby as caretaker, avoid relegation and reach the FA Cup final, losing 2-0 to Liverpool.

MAY 1992: Newcastle stay up after a victory at Leicester on the final day of the season. The Halls complete their takeover of the club, increasing their shareholding to a controlling 51 per cent. They launch a pounds 13m rescue package and Keegan signs a three-year contract.

MAY 1993: Middlesbrough's Premier League season ends in relegation. Malclom Crosby having lost his job after a Pools Panel "defeat" at Tranmere, Sunderland, now managed by Terry Butcher, escape relegation thanks to results elsewhere despite losing their last match 3-1. Newcastle, after starting their season with 13 successive wins, storm to the First Division title with a team which now includes Andy Cole, Barry Venison and Robert Lee.

SEPTEMBER 1993: Steve Gibson, a millionaire from his bulk haulage business, takes over as Middlesbrough chairman at the age of 36. "The people of Teesside have suffered 120 years of mediocrity but I always felt the club had real potential," he says.

MAY 1994: Newcastle finish third in the Premiership, behind Manchester United and Blackburn and qualify for the Uefa Cup. Keegan signs a 10-year contract. "We're going to take this club on a real decade of adventure," he says. Bryan Robson, the former England and Manchester United captain, joins Middlesbrough as manager.

NOVEMBER 1994: Butcher gets the chop at Sunderland. He spent pounds 2.3m but had the worst managerial record in the club's 114-year history.

JANUARY 1995: Keegan sells Andy Cole to Manchester United for pounds 6m. "I understand what the implications are if my judgement is wrong," he says. "We've achieved a lot in the past three years but if that's enough then we're all wasting our time. I see this as a chance to take us forward."

MARCH 1995: Peter Reid succeeds Mick Buxton as Sunderland manager and steers them clear of relegation.

MAY 1995: Middlesbrough secure the First Division title.

AUGUST 1995: Newcastle start the season with pounds 14m-worth of new players: Les Ferdinand; David Ginola; Shaka Hislop; and Warren Barton.

OCTOBER 1995: Middlesbrough, having already signed Nick Barmby, lure the Brazilian Juninho to their new pounds 16m Riverside Stadium for pounds 4.75m from Sao Paulo.

FEBRUARY 1996: Newcastle, 12 points clear of Manchester United, sign Faustino Asprilla for pounds 7.5m from Parma.

MAY 1996: Newcastle finish four points behind Manchester United. Sunderland graduate to the Premiership as champions. Middlesbrough avoid relegation by five points.

JUNE 1996: Middlesbrough pay pounds 7m to the European Cup winners, Juventus, for Fabrizio Ravanelli.

JULY 1996: Newcastle pay a world record pounds 15m to sign Alan Shearer from Blackburn.