Breeding for export

The north-east produces the players, but it is a cause for wild celebration when one of their own clubs signs them. Harry Pearson looks back on the history of the hotbed

Hackneyed ideas surround north-east football as midgies do a busy picnic site. If you find them too irritating it’s best not to go out. On August 6, 1996, two of the more bloated cliches collided with a resounding splat in the Leazes car park at St James’ Park, where 15,000 fans awaited a glimpse of their new signing, Alan Shearer.

The first was the mystic aura that surrounds the United No 9 shirt. As the former Magpies’ captain Glenn Roeder once memorably observed, “Centre forwards are the players that the Newcastle public hang their hats on.” The second concerns the status of the north east as a breeding ground of footballing talent. This is a notion so enshrined in local lore that ace Tyneside sports scribe John Gibson once wrote a book on it, Soccer’s Golden Nursery. And Gibbo is not the sort of bloke to touch an idea unless its durability has been tested by decades of heavy use, believe me.

However, just because something is a cliche doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The north east’s status as (here we go) a “hotbed of soccer” is at least as merited as that of any other comparable area of the British Isles. (A hotbed, incidentally, is described by a gardening book I happen to have handy as “a glass-covered bed heated by a layer of fermented manure”. Hardly the sort of slogan the Northumbrian Tourist Board is likely to find useful.)

The hotbed’s heyday was between the wars. In 1933, for example, there were 341 players from County Durham alone registered with Football League clubs. Herbert Chapman’s all-conquering Huddersfield team of the 1920s rarely fielded less than eight. After that the sheer numbers tailed off somewhat, yet the presence of the north-east players continued to be felt. In 1967 there were only four clubs in the First Division that didn’t have a footballer from the region in their first team squad. Burnley had 12.

To many, Shearer’s signing might have seemed to mark a reversal in this tendency, not just for Tyneside but for the north east in general. The region had traditionally been seen as an exporter of players. Now New­castle were bringing one home. Shearer was not the first, of course. Kevin Keegan had already given Paul Kitson, for example, the chance to play for one of his local clubs, but at £15 million Shearer was easily the most expensive and therefore the most significant.

Since then there has been a minor drift back to the area, notably at Middlesbrough. A returnee himself, Bryan Robson’s re-recruitment of old favourites Gary Pallister and Colin Cooper looks to be part of the same Eighties revival that has seen Culture Club and Duran Duran playing to packed houses. Add to that Bobby Robson, Paul Gascoigne and the projected move to Sunderland of the Gateshead Scot Don Hutchison and analysts might point to a trend.

Well, maybe. Mindful of the ill-will created when earlier administrations off-loaded players like Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Gascoigne, Sir John Hall stated early in his reign at St James’ Park that under him Newcastle would sell talented young north-eastern players “over my dead body”. Furthermore, he dreamed (“I am the vision man”) of an all-Geordie team, a black-and-white answer to Athletic Bilbao.

In Hall’s first few years at the club Newcastle had put their faith in just such an idea, albeit largely as a consequence of their financial troubles. Ossie Ardiles’s team contained many bright local hope­fuls – Lee Clark, Steve Watson, Lee Makel, Robbie Elliott, Alan Thompson, Matty Apple­by and Steve Howey among them. A decade later, only the injury-prone Howey remains at St James’ and Sir John is still very much alive. Until the return of Howey from injury, the Newcastle side this season has regularly contained just two north-easterners, Shearer and Steve Harper.

In truth, this situation is more usual than it might at first appear, because the north-east clubs have always brought in the majority of their players from elsewhere – in Newcastle’s case traditionally from Scotland. The problem has never really been the fact that the clubs have sold their top players, but that they have failed to spot so many of them when they were available free of charge. For every high profile transfer, there have been dozens of other stars who have simply slipped out of the region unnoticed.

The Turf Moor dozen were spirited across the Pennines by the famous scout Jack Hixon. Hixon, a once-passionate Newcastle fan who had become disillusioned with the club’s internal machinations in the 1950s, was Burnley’s chief scout in the region for 17 years. During that time he spotted 27 players who went on to play first-team football for the Lancashire club. One of the most famous of them, Ralph Coates, was officially signed in the house of Kevin Keegan’s grandfather.

Hixon left Burnley and ended up working for Lawrie McMenemy at Southampton, which is why Alan Shearer never played at Turf Moor. Burnley’s connection with the north east continued for a while, however, thanks to Peter Kirkley, the man responsible for taking Trevor Steven there in the early Eighties.

How players such as Bobby Charlton, Colin Bell or, more recently, Steve Stone, should grow up unnoticed by the north east’s clubs is probably best explained by Shearer’s experience. A prolific goalscorer at Wallsend Boys Club and Cramlington Juniors, he attended a trial at St James’ and spent most of it playing in goal. Two other players who were at the same trial, Celtic’s Tommy Johnson and Paul Kitson, were also rejected. Little wonder that descriptions of Newcastle’s youth system at the time tend to run from “non-existent” to “shambolic”.

You might think that with the establishment of the schools of excellence and the implementation of the FA’s much vaunted Blueprint, such a situation would now have been rectified. Not so. In 1967 the number of League footballers from the north east actually playing in the region represented just 34 per cent of the total number. Now, five years into the new, structured and ultra-professional system, that figure has risen by just 1.5 per cent.

The problem is that looking for footballers in an area where there are so many is like panning for gold – there is a high luck-to-skill ratio. Even experts get it wrong. When Hixon took Shearer to Southampton, many at The Dell felt the better prospect was the other boy he had with him, Neil Maddison (whose return to the north east merited less attention than that of his erstwhile team-mate). Michael Bridges attended New­castle’s School of Excellence, but injury prevented him making much of an impression. Luckily for the young striker, Hixon, now working for Sunderland, was waiting to whisk him away to Roker Park.

As a consequence, in a decade’s time it is entirely possible that another large crowd will gather outside St James’ to welcome home Wallsend-born wonder kid Michael Carrick in a £50 million deal with West Ham. Or maybe it will be Middlesbrough fans cele­brating the return of Jonathan Woodgate from Leeds. As Arthur Appleton observed of “the Bank of England club”, Sunderland, in his book Hotbed of Soccer: “What a paradox – the nation’s biggest buyers in the midst of the nation’s best-known nursery.” That was in 1959. It hasn’t yet become a cliche, but there’s still time.

The highs and the lows

Glory years
This season could conceivably be only the second since the war in which all three big clubs have finished in the top half of the top division. The only previous one was 1949-50, when Sunderland were a point away from the title. Before that you have to go back to 1926-27 for a real banner year, with Newcastle winning the league (the last time a north east team did so), Sunderland third and Boro top of a Second Division that also included South Shields and Darlington.

Grim years

Crisis came in the late Eighties as Boro and Sunderland spent a season each in the Third Division and Newcastle almost followed in 1991-92. That season and 1989-90 (when Darlington were in the Conference) were two of only five since 1892 when there has been no north-east club in the top division. The others were in the early Sixties, when Gateshead added to the gloom by being expelled from the League (1960) and Hartlepool had to apply for re-election five years in a row.

Crowd pullers

Middlesbrough’s outstanding season in 1974-75, when they finished seventh in the First Division, saw all three big clubs among the country’s top ten best supported for the first and only time – until the construction of Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. With Boro’s average crowds now nudging an all-time high(as recently as 1994 their average of 10,400 left them in 35th spot) this should be the third season in a row that all three clubs are in the top ten. Newcastle and Sunderland have frequently figured among the best supported clubs, with United last topping the national averages in 1949 (53,839) and Sunderland reaching fourth spot even as a Second Division side in 1963.

Local favourites

Boro have never been top dogs in the region, though their average of 24,260 in 1938 put them less than 1,000 behind Sunderland and well ahead of Newcastle. Those two have had almost an equal number of seasons as the most popular team in the region. Needless to say, neither Darlington nor Hartlepool has ever threatened the big three (in 1983 they were 91st and 92nd in the crowd table), though at Boro’s low point in 1984-85 (5,135) promotion for Darlington saw a mini-boom which brought them alarmingly close (3,738).

From WSC 159 May 2000. What was happening this month