Why Sheikh Mansour has bought the wrong club

If football in the North East was a Marlon Brando character it would be Terry (“I could have been a contender”) Malloy in On The Waterfront.

In the last 30 years, only Kevin Keegan - the Geordie Bonnie Prince Charlie - has looked capable of delivering some long overdue glory.

It wasn’t always like this, as the 1908/09 league table shows. That season Newcastle were convincing champions, Sunderland finished third and Middlesbrough ninth.

Maybe the rot started with Alf Common.

Middlesbrough paid a world record fee of £1,000 to lure the striker from Sunderland in February 1905. Terrorising defences with skill and a walrus-like moustache, he scored for fun. But in 1910, he headed south to Woolwich Arsenal, a move that marked the end of a golden decade for North East football.

Common: Catalyst for North Eastern decline?

After World War I, the North East was never as great a football power.

Newcastle won their fourth and final title in 1926/27, dominated the FA Cup in the early 1950s, won the Fairs Cup in 1969 and lit up in the Premiership in the 1990s.

Sunderland enjoyed a glorious mid-1930s (winning the league in 1936 and FA Cup in 1937) but have not had masses to cheer since apart from the Bob Stokoe/Ian Porterfield/Jim Montgomery FA Cup final triumph over Leeds.

Middlesbrough, third in the league in 1913/14, have won the League Cup and have never broken a transfer record since Commons’ departure – though under Bryan Robson they set a record for the highest fee ever paid for an immobile, overweight Brazilian left-back when they acquired Branco.

The North East’s loss has, largely, been the North West’s gain, as this table shows:

Eight of the North East’s 10 league titles were won before 1915 – five by Sunderland and three by Newcastle. Sunderland’s galactical “team of all the talents” won the league three times between 1891and 1895. In 1892/93, they were 11 points ahead of Preston – an 18 point margin in today’s money.

After buying some gifted players (mainly from Scotland) Newcastle won three titles in the 1900s and reached five FA Cup finals in seven years with a rousing style of possession play that defined the expectations of generations of Toon fans.

Until the late 1950s, the Tyne and Wear teams had a decent run winning a proper trophy every so often and nurturing stars like Jackie Milburn and Len Shackleton. Then Sunderland, wounded by a scandal over payments to players, slipped out of the top flight in 1958; Newcastle followed suit in 1961.

The gap between North West and North East was cruelly exposed in the 1974 Liverpool vs Newcastle FA Cup final, a bleak counterpoint to Sunderland’s heroism in 1973, and one of the most boring, uncompetitive finals I have ever seen – with the possible exception of the 1998/99 Newcastle vs Manchester United showpiece.

1999 FA Cup final: One for the purist

Economics is partly to blame.

The North East’s dominance on the pitch in the late 1890s and 1900s was, in part, fuelled by a boom in coal, iron, steel, ships and engineering. Rich captains of industry happily funded Sunderland’s “team of all the talents.” But even in 1895/96, with results worsening, such funding was harder to find. Such crises have periodically rocked club boardrooms on the Tyne, Tees and Wear ever since.

Once, one in every three ships in the world was made on the Tyne, Tees and Wear. By the 1920s and 1930s, demand for coal, ships and steel had slumped.

The North East’s economy – like its football industry – has never really recovered. Even in the 1950s, when Toon legend Milburn was asked by cousin Cissy Charlton which club her son Bobby should join, he recommended Matt Busby’s Manchester United because they had a far better youth system.

Bobby wasn’t the last star the Toon missed: Jack Charlton, Peter Beardsley, Michael Carrick and Alan Shearer all had to make their mark elsewhere.

Economic troubles encourage prudence but Newcastle’s history is shot through with pure meanness. In 1951, directors were so delighted to win the FA Cup they bought a job lot of handbags for £17, stuffed them with newspaper clippings and gave them to the players’ wives.

In 1956, Stan Seymour rewarded defender Frank Brennan for his loyal service by slashing his wage from £15 to £8. And in 1977, when Newcastle were reasonably successful, six players nearly quit the club after contract talks stalled.

The decline is partly about quality of management over a long period. In the dugout, there has been no Shankly or Busby to lay the foundations for a great club.

In the boardroom, the directors have scored more own goals than Dennis Wise’s old teammate Frank Sinclair and have, since the 1950s, largely failed to nurture and retain a nucleus of quality players that could make a great team.

From Supermac to Gazza, they have sold stars and, too often, invested the money in the likes of Stephane G’uivarch. Newcastle’s remarkable genius for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has, rather unfairly, made the Toon Army’s passion seem comically grotesque.

The tragic-comic result of Newcastle’s unerring instinct for self-destruction is that Abu Dhabi United Investment And Development Limited bought the wrong club. If any Premier League club stood to be transformed by halfway decent management and the infusion of a few hundred million quid it was Newcastle United.

The average gate at St James’s Park last season was 51,231, higher than for Serie A winners Inter, and nearly 9,000 more than the average at the City of Manchester Stadium.

The Toon Army deserve something to shout about

And Newcastle, unlike Manchester City, own their stadium. That’s partly why, last year, American business magazine Forbes estimated that Newcastle United was worth £220m, almost £80m more than Manchester City.

If Newcastle fans ever feel inspired to repeat the paper plane throwing feats that illuminated a dull 0-0 with Crystal Place in May 2005, they may want to make them out of dirhams, the Abu Dhabi currency, just to remind Mike Ashley what he has lost.

Sunderland and Middlesbrough do, at least, have stable ownership now. In a story littered with missed opportunities, Newcastle’s failure to find the right owner from the Middle East may just be the biggest missed opportunity of all.


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