A cruel summer for North East football

This year’s summer has been highly enjoyable for most football fans: it kicked off with Liverpool representing the Premier League in the Champions League final and peaked with the first World Cup semi-final appearance from England in 28 years. These adventures were underpinned by the joint hottest summer on record, allowing supporters to enjoy barbecues and beer gardens for once.

Though the long, hot days of 2018 will be remembered fondly by many, the North East was waking up to the grim reality that its status as a “hotbed of football” was well and truly on the wane. The tail end of the 2017–18 season was a bad one on and off the pitch for the region: there were failed takeovers, relegations, and a healthy dose of play-off heartache. We even lost a few vital grassroots clubs who had to resign from their respective leagues. All in all, it wasn’t pretty.

Trouble at the top

At the start of the 2008–09 season, just a decade ago, we were gearing up for a Premier League season featuring Newcastle United, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough, with a grand total of six local derbies to look forward to.

Now, we’re just getting used to the reality that all three of these clubs won’t play each other at all this season, leaving an empty space in the fixtures, a hole in many local businesses’ revenue, and a hollow feeling in the chest of the region’s passionate supporters.

We’ll start with the worst offenders: Sunderland followed up their dismal relegation from the Premier League by plummeting headfirst through the trapdoor of the Championship, weighed down by European football’s thirteenth highest debt (UEFA) and an owner who didn’t want to be there.

To his credit, Ellis Short did agree to sell the club quickly once the season was over, taking a cut-price £40m and writing off the club’s debt. The new owner, Stewart Donald, oversaw the appointment of Jack Ross as manager and a total overhaul of the squad ready for a season in League One.

For Newcastle, the summer started with the realisation it was going to be another transfer window with Mike Ashley guarding the purse strings. Manager Rafa Benitez performed a miracle in 2017 to guide an underinvested squad to tenth place in the Premier League and was hoping that it might convince Ashley to start spending once again.

However, the club actually ran up an estimated net profit of around £30m in the transfer market, achieved by receiving more from player sales than on fees paid for new recruits. With no investment in the squad, the club is relying on another miracle from Benitez.

On Teesside, any optimism for Middlesbrough fans ended early with a heart-breaking play-off semi-final loss, where they were cruelly edged out by Aston Villa. The biggest talking point of the summer was the loss of two big players in Adama Traoré and Ben Gibson to Wolves and Burnley respectively. But, Middlesbrough remain a well-run club, and if they can kick on without two of their better players, most fans expect them to be challenging at the top end of the league again.

National League uncertainty

The turbulence in the region didn’t end with the top clubs, either. Further down in the National League, the North East’s premier non-league clubs, Hartlepool United and Gateshead, faced uncertain futures, with both clubs’ owners looking to sell up and move on after financial struggles.

For Hartlepool, things got hairy when the club needed to raise £200,000 in January 2018 to avoid administration. After suffering relegation from League Two in 2017, the club wrestled with budget cuts in an effort to steady the ship, but soon became insolvent. With the collapse of local rivals Darlington in 2012 haunting the minds of many supporters, fundraising efforts were put together to keep the club going until a suitable owner could be found.

Hartlepool chief executive Pam Duxbury had previously told the North East Times that finding new investors was a paramount concern and, thankfully, by April 2018, someone stepped in. With the encouragement of the club’s most famous supporter Jeff Stelling, Teesside businessman Raj Singh bought Hartlepool. Many fans are now hoping this escape from oblivion can reinvigorate the club and help them challenge for promotion back to the league.

Early in the summer, another takeover drama unfolded at Gateshead, as the owners decided to move on. In a 2017 profile with the North East Times, former co-owner Richard Bennett spoke about the challenge of reaching out to the club’s fan base. This was also one of the issues he identified for any incoming party, highlighting the fact attendances and income streams needed to improve.

Despite the club carrying no debt, the takeover still managed to disrupt the team’s preparations for the new season. A promising approach from one party fell through at the eleventh hour, leaving both Richard and his partner Julie Bennett in limbo. The club was even forced to briefly revert to a part-time set-up as a cost-cutting measure. In late July, a new owner was found in Hong Kong businessman Dr Ranjan Varghese, and the club was finally able to plan for the future.

Parched grassroots

Further down the pyramid, a few clubs in the region’s Northern League experienced the harsh economic realities of football. Jarrow Roofing, Norton & Stockton Ancients, and Blyth Town were forced to resign from their respective divisions and close their doors permanently, leaving small but dedicated armies of supporters with no local clubs.

Though the collapses didn’t make headlines, each closure was a major loss to the region. Not only did these clubs play an important role in the community, but they provided an option for those local footballers who fall through the cracks of the professional game and need somewhere else to ply their trade. The mass closure of these grassroots teams in just one summer really does ask questions about how funding and prize money at this level is allocated by the FA.

Brighter horizons

With plenty of turmoil to be found, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was no success at all around the region. Thankfully, that’s not the case.

Non-league club South Shields achieved a third consecutive promotion to the Evostik Premier League and have started strongly again. Above them in the National League North, both Blyth Spartans and Spennymoor Town survived their inaugural season and are looking to consolidate this year. A special mention should also be made of Hebburn Town who, after flirting with closure, are now pushing for promotion from the Northern League.

Even at Sunderland, where things looked the darkest, the green shoots of recovery are starting to show. The real difference seems to be in the approach the new owners are taking. With a focus on more communication with the fans to repair relations, season ticket sales have surpassed 29,000 as many stayaway supporters return to the fold.

And, if the clouds can part above somewhere as gloomy as the Stadium of Light, then surely the rest of the North East’s teams have a chance of some positivity over the coming season.