The North East seems to be living up to a rather harsh reputation as a cold and depressing place at the moment. Certainly when it comes to the region’s Premier League football clubs there is little to shout about, as both languish in a mire of mediocrity, dragging their considerable fan-base further and further into anguish. So why is it that in this, one of the most depressing of seasons in recent history, have managers of both clubs decided to use their own supporters understandably strong feeling towards their beloved clubs, as a reason to criticise and treat them with nothing but contempt?
Managers and owners at both Newcastle United and Sunderland have to learn to embrace supporter loyalty and ambition, not to use it as a stick to beat them with when times are tough. What I have witnessed over the past seven days shows that the desire for success on both Tyneside and Wearside, any success at all, is very much alive from two sets of supporters who are feeling increasingly disconnected from the clubs who have the ability to mould their day-to-day lives.
Whether you look at black and white or red and white, displays of loyalty are plain to see. Take the staggering 11,667 hearty souls who braved a bitterly cold February evening to attend the FA Youth Cup Quarter Final between Newcastle United and Chelsea at St James’ Park. Or the near-40,000 who witnessed Sunderland’s weak surrender against QPR last Tuesday, as the mist and gloom landed at the Stadium of Light metaphorically and meteorologically. Both remarkable shows of passion towards two clubs who have played lead roles in football in this country.
Both clubs have given English football some of its iconic imagery. Whether that be Bob Stokoe delightfully dancing across the Wembley turf after seeing his Sunderland side produce arguably the greatest FA Cup Final shock of all time as they put Don Revie’s all-conquering Leeds United side to the sword in 1973. Or on Tyneside, where there are romantic, misty eyed memories of the Magpies’ side of the 1950s, who secured three FA Cup wins in the space of five years, led by the big and brash Joe Harvey, but inspired by the mercurial ‘Wor’ Jackie Milburn.
Whilst opinions on Tyneside and Wearside may well differ, the clubs share a lot of similarities. Their loyal support is made up of a largely working class background. Men and women who go about their jobs, waiting for the weekend for a release from the melancholic hum-drum of working life (although it could be argued that weekday work and match-day evoke similar feelings at this point in time).
The football clubs offer a light; a way of escaping from the darkness and a chance to feel a belonging to something that has been part of many families in the region for generation after generation. Football is woven into the fabric of a region well-known for its passion and pride. The supporters have been asked questions by their managers over the past few years and on every occasion have answered them. Where loyalty and backing has been demanded – not that they needed to be asked – they have answered in their droves. Now is the time when the clubs have to start answering the questions.
Why should loyal and unwavering support be rewarded with ambitions that are best described as aiming for mediocrity? Why shouldn’t supporters expect just a little bit more for their money? Money that, in these times of austerity, is becoming ever harder to legislate for.
Both clubs are in serious danger of losing not only their floating supporters, but also their hardcore and are doing nothing to re-engage with them. These are the lads and lasses who were there to witness the embarrassing relegations, poor managerial appointments or the ridiculous actions of board members. Those who stood on the terraces of St James’ Park and Roker Park on the coldest of winter nights to witness abject displays from players who they know deep down are not good enough, but did try at very least.
Patience is wearing thin and most worryingly it is wearing thin with supporters who suffered the Whitehursts, Pingels and Hausers of this world, as well as revelling in the exploits of Shearer, MacDonald, Phillips and Montgomery. This should be the clearest warning sign to those in charge at both clubs that the time for serious action is coming; the consequences of losing two of the most loyal fan-bases in the country could be as sad as they would be catastrophic.