How London's Economic Dominance is Strangling Football in the North-East

London's status as the centre of finance, culture and politics affects every other part of Britain, but nowhere more than the north-east. This is reflected in the region's football clubs, which are struggling to compete with their southern rivals.

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24 April 2017, 10:45am

The north-east is going south. As two London clubs battle it out to be champions of England – and another four rub their hands in anticipation of next season's Premier League windfall – all three of the top flight's north-east clubs await or fear the drop. A historical hotbed of football, home to Clough, Paisley, Gascoigne and Shearer, the region has been left to wither, forgotten by a nation obsessed with its teeming, gleaming capital.

No part of the country – as cliché would have it – has a greater passion for football than the north-east. And in no part of the country will fans be more aware of what 'passion' really means: that the word's Latin origins do not refer to enjoyment and romance, but suffering and pain.

Most obvious, of course, is Sunderland, anchored forlornly to the foot of the table and waiting to be put out of their misery, half a decade of top-down neglect having finally come home to roost. 30 miles down the coast and one place up the league table are Middlesbrough, whose first top-flight campaign for eight years also looks set to end in relegation. And two places above that, on the fringes of the region, is Hull City, a yo-yo club of recent years who seemed set for the drop before Christmas, but whose inspired appointment of Marco Silva could yet keep them up. Should he fail, all three of this year's relegated clubs will come from the same small corner of the country.

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Up in Newcastle, the region's biggest club is ostensibly on the rise, sitting pretty in the Championship promotion spots and reinvigorated by the presence of Rafa Benitez in the dugout. But zoom out and the trajectory is far less rosy: two relegations in a decade for a club that, 20 years ago, were fighting for the right to be called the best in the country.

That was the same time that Juninho began his fling with Middlesbrough – one of English football's great recent tales – lighting up the Riverside along with Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson. Two years later, Kevin Phillips was firing Sunderland to the first of successive seventh-place finishes, his 31 league goals making him not just the top scorer in England – edging ahead of Newcastle's Alan Shearer – but the whole of Europe.

These days the overriding sense, from the fans at least, is of despondency and despair. Hull might be doing well enough on the pitch, but the dominant story at the club is the supporters' ire towards the owners, the Allams, who have introduced aggressive ticketing schemes, tried to rename the club, and let the squad sink into various states of disrepair. At Newcastle, any amity that ever existed between the fans and owner Mike Ashley dissipated when St James' Park was repurposed as advertising space for his retail chain and the shirt was emblazoned with the logo of a pay-day loan firm. At Sunderland, too, the turgid football only tells half the story: in recent seasons they've hired a fascist, protected a child abuser, and seen their manager threaten to slap a woman. All of this has been presided over by owner Ellis Short, who seemed to lose interest some time ago.

Even with the evergreen Jermain Defoe in the side, Sunderland look doomed to relegation this term // PA Images

The drip-down effects are glaring. Two weeks ago, one Sunderland blogger called out the hierarchy as "complicit in the downfall of something grand, the corruption of a pure thing". The Wearsider and former pro goalkeeper David Preece wrote recently in his Sunderland Echo column that "survival or relegation isn't the real issue in minds of the fans I speak to. Apathy is a threat that the club or the city can ill afford." Apathy was the go-to descriptive for the St James' Park faithful during the club's four-year sleepwalk towards last term's relegation, and on Humberside the A-word is similarly inescapable. "Thousands of die-hard City fans have fallen out of love with the club and have had enough of being treated like customers rather than the life and soul which has kept this club going through its darkest days," read a recent piece in the Hull Daily Mail. "There is simply a feeling of apathy."

In this sense Middlesbrough are the exception: their chairman, Steve Gibson, is generous, vigilant and a well-liked member of the Teesside community. But Boro are still on their way down, and football in the north-east is not in a good way.

"It's not just about the clubs' league positions," says George Caulkin, a journalist who has covered football in the region for The Times since 1998. "Plenty of people, me included, remember when these big clubs went up and down between divisions – that's hardly the be-all and end-all. But what's happening now is part of a wider issue about what the point of sport is. Clubs used to exist to attempt to win something. Decisions – and plenty of bad ones – used to be made in the hope that 'this year could be our year' or 'this fella could win us something'. That has become lost. There was that famous quote [from Newcastle director Lee Charnley] about 'being the best we can be, pound for pound' – that's a damning qualification. Sunderland are not competitive either, it's no fun. The north-east clubs are not unique in that by any stretch – but it's certainly felt pretty stark lately."

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Equally stark of late has been the region's economic state. Historically, of course, the north-east was an industrial heartland: coal mining fuelled the entire region, while Middlesbrough was built on iron and steel production, Sunderland on ship building and glass works, Hull on shipping and fishing.

Mechanisation and globalisation has seen to all that. They haven't built a ship on Wearside since 1989 and commercial glass making finished there in 2007; Hull's shipping industry has shrivelled in tandem with the rise in automation while the Cod War saw off its fishing trade in the seventies. 800 years of commercial coal mining in the region ended in 1994 with the closure of the last remaining colliery in the Durham coalfield. Built in its place was the Stadium of Light. And, after lengthy protests, the Teesside steelworks closed for good in 2015, resulting in 2,200 job losses ("Where was the government?" asked Steve Gibson, who had long rallied against the closure).

Twinned with this loss of industry in the north has been a surge in the economy of the south. England in recent years has become home to a very real sense of London-centrism, as graduates, entrepreneurs, immigrants and property investors alike make a beeline for the capital, leaving the provinces to fend for themselves. It's a process that only fuels more of the same: as people continue to gravitate to London, opportunities there multiply, and the gravity field grows apace.

The Sunderland experience has not been pleasant for David Moyes // PA Images

The status England has granted its capital is abnormally monolithic. As one Spectator writer put it: "Unusually, all our elites overlap in one place. London is the capital of finance, culture and politics – effectively New York, LA and Washington all rolled into one."

London's dominance comes at the expense of everywhere else, but nowhere more than the north-east. As London's population rose by 900,000 in the decade to 2011, Middlesbrough's fell by 3,000 and Sunderland's by 9,000. Since 2011, London's population has grown at twice the national average, the north-east's at under half. While one in four of the country's graduates are working in the capital within six months of finishing their degree, the same proportion of 16 to 64-year-olds are out of work in the north-east, home to the UK's highest unemployment rate. Last year, Hull was ranked at the very bottom of a 'prosperity index' of 390 places in the UK. Middlesbrough was third bottom, Sunderland and Newcastle 347th and 287th respectively.

While the north-east was represented by a third of Tony Blair's first cabinet, including the prime minister himself, it has suffered disproportionately from the austerity politics of post-recession governments. In 2013 Tory peer Lord Howell suggested the region as prime territory for fracking because it was "uninhabited and desolate". Five years before that, a Conservative think tank, Policy Exchange, concluded that "it is time to stop pretending that there is a bright future for Sunderland".

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The sense of abandonment is nothing new. "My heritage is the time of the miners' strikes and I don't think my generation will ever lose the feeling of being up against it," says Caulkin. "There is that feeling of being left to rot, to get on with it, without enough help from central government. That was a long time ago of course – although what happened on Teesside recently was a reminder of that."

It may seem tenuous to link all this to the sagging fortunes of a small handful of clubs who exist within football's bubble of mega-wealth. And it's true that in today's globalised and rampantly marketed sport, a club's affluence does not depend on that of its fans or its city. But even when they hit indirectly, these economic forces are strong. The fact that Ellis Short, for example, has had Sunderland unofficially up for sale for two years, yet – unlike Fulham, Brentford, Watford, Reading or QPR in recent times – has been unable to find a suitable taker, is surely more than mere bad luck.

Roy Keane's complaint when managing Sunderland that "there are players going to clubs in London simply because it is London" was a familiar one, and that was a decade ago. The problem has only worsened since: one columnist suggested last year that Newcastle move their training ground to the capital in order to attract a higher pedigree of player, one who'd only need to commute to Tyneside on a match day; the same idea has been touted semi-regularly at Sunderland for a while now.

Once Premier League title aspirants, Newcastle have become a yo-yo club in recent years // PA Images

The issue is borne out on today's teamsheets: Sunderland's players are largely Brits, hand-me-downs and has-beens from bigger clubs; Boro have Alvaro Negredo and Victor Valdes as beacons of pedigree in a squad of mid-range journeymen; Hull began the season with 13 fit senior players. Meanwhile, their direct rivals in or near London can call on high-end internationals like Christian Benteke, Andre Ayew and Jack Wilshere. Last summer, Watford signed a winger from Juventus, West Ham a full-back from Real Madrid. There are myriad factors in every club's pulling power, of which geography is only one, yet it's hard not to see a general trend at work.

"A north-south divide is developing in English football," wrote Gary Neville in 2013. He wasn't wrong, although like the north-south divide that's talked about in public life it's not quite as straightforward as that title suggests. In football as in the wider world, cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, with their affluent suburbs and their burgeoning media, finance and tourism sectors, are somewhat safeguarded. (And even then the effects are there: Alexis Sanchez joined Arsenal over Liverpool expressly to live in London, Eden Hazard rejected both Manchester clubs to do the same).

Attracting players is only the tip of the iceberg. Consider, for instance, the public money ploughed into the 2012 Olympics, and how a London club went on to acquire a new 80,000-seater stadium – and acquire it at scandalously low cost – simply by dint of being in the area. Consider the fact that by far England's most fertile footballing hotbed right now is a patch of land around the A23 in south London – a 10-square-mile area that has produced a staggering 14% of English players currently in the Premier League – and consider how it has happened at a time when public infrastructure spending in London works out to £5,426 per head, while in the north-east that figure stands at £223.

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Think about how the 1990 World Cup saw a north-east quartet of the highest calibre – Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle – in an England team managed by Bobby Robson, while at the Euros last summer the region's representation began and ended with Jordan Henderson and Fraser Forster. The correlations are neither simple nor perfect – Humberside's most prosperous years saw Hull City languishing in English football's fourth and fifth tiers, for instance – but they do exist.

It's not all bleak, however. Optimism may only ever be cautious on Tyneside but Newcastle are almost certainly coming up, and will do so as "a slightly different club," says Caulkin. Why? "Benitez has brought back a sense of purpose, of striving to compete with the best – that old-fashioned idea of being a big club." The city's forecasted economic growth over the next decade is second only to Manchester among northern cities.

In Sunderland, a £42m manufacturing park is being built on the town's outskirts, while a long-derelict city-centre site is being redeveloped after two decades. Both will bring jobs. Hull's City of Culture status has brought genuine change, companies having invested over £1bn in the city since the announcement and the town even named by a major travel guide as one of the world's top 10 cities to visit. Middlesbrough was recently found to have one of the fastest-growing digital sectors in the country, thanks in large part to Teesside University. These are relative baby steps, though. And, for the moment, any buoyancy is not reflected in the football clubs of any of those three towns.

Whether these schemes will develop into something more significant and sustainable, something that north-east football could reap the benefits of, remains to be seen. As it stands, mismanagement only half-explains the rot that has set in among the region's dominant clubs: there's been negligence, yes, but there's been neglect too.

When the crises do intermittently hit, it's the players who are labelled bottlers, the managers bunglers, the owners bloodsuckers. All true enough. But as far as north-east football as a whole is concerned, perhaps the biggest parasite is in fact an entire city, 300 miles to the south.

@AlexHess