Hopefully issue three will be along soon.
‘Freezing cold and sheep shit in the garden,’ thus did Stanley Bowles summarise life in Carlisle in the early 1970s.
Fortunately for the Great Border City, in Bowles’ day footballers could say whatever they liked about anything: nobody was listening. The game, its participants and adherents, were kept firmly in their back page ghetto; regarded by the mainstream media as uncouth dimwits. The BBC would never have solicited Stan Bowles’ opinion on the National Health Service, as they do those of current QPR player Joey Barton. The notion of Frank Worthington being invited onto television to discuss immigration would have been considered as outlandish as getting Barbara Castle on Sportsnight to discuss Don Revie’s tactics.
All that changed with the arrival of the Premier League. Football became ubiquitous, the players feted. Satellite TV money brought an influx of foreign stars. The foreign stars created glamour and excitement. Their arrival also brought to the fore England’s contradictory relationship with ‘abroad’, highlighting the way a professed admiration for continental modes quickly becomes a stick with which to beat our fellow countrymen.
Take for example Ruud Gullit. Signed by Chelsea from Sampdoria in 1995, Gullit was charismatic, attractive. He spoke foreign languages, wore moccasins without socks and drank wine. ‘So cool, so much more sophisticated than English footballers,’ people who had never been to a football match or met a footballer in their lives would tell me at dinner parties. In response, I quoted the writer Simon Kuper: ‘In England drinking cappuccino is a sign you are middle-class. In Italy it is a sign you are Italian.’
It made no difference, which wouldn’t have mattered much, but then something entirely unexpected happened: Middlesbrough signed the Brazilian Footballer of the Year. The news that Juninho Paulista was coming to the Boro provoked great excitement on Teesside. The reaction in the rest of the country was altogether less positive.
Over the next few weeks Middlesbrough got a right shoeing. The Mirror warmed Juninho that Teesside was the car crime capital of Britain, The Sun juxtaposed photos of Redcar beach and the Copacabana (Juninho comes from Sao Paolo – as far from the Copa as Wapping is from San Tropez). The Guardian poured scorn on Middlesbrough’s lack of cultural spaces – as if the average footballer would pine away from lack of fringe theatre or the occasional glimpse of something challenging by Jenny Holzer.
Sadly for the national press, Juninho was neither repelled nor shocked by what he found in the North-East. In fact, he loved Middlesbrough so much he played for the club three times and during the 2014 World Cup told BBC viewers (and a plainly startled Gary Lineker) that winning the Carling Cup with Boro meant more to him than winning the World Cup with Brazil.
For those eager to have prejudices re-enforced, help was soon at hand, however. Buoyed by the success of Juninho, Boro signed another Brazilian, Emerson, a shaggy-haired Rick James lookalike who stomped about the midfield like a yeti in diving boots. This particular Brazilian didn’t take to Middlesbrough. Or more accurately his Portuguese wife, Andrea didn’t. Mrs Emerson arrived in the North-East, stayed a few months and then went back to Rio uttering words that are possibly the most quoted ever by the partner of a professional footballer. Middlesbrough, Mrs Emerson told the world is ‘A strange and terrible place and I hope I have never to return.’
The description reverberated around the world. Literally. One morning my phone rang. It was a reporter from the Wall Street Journal asking: ‘How terrible is Middlesbrough, really?’ A few days later the New York Times called. Then Gazetto dello Sport. Then Suddeutsche Zeitung.
People across the globe who had never previously heard of Middlesbrough now had a very firm opinion on it. Andrea Emerson, wife of a 25-year-old millionaire, was portrayed as the hapless victim of some awful crime. When Boro finally gave up on her lumbering husband and somehow persuaded Barcelona to pay good money for his services, the Daily Mail – whose contempt for England’s industrial heartlands is even more bilious than its hatred of foreigners - quoted her as saying she was ‘Ecstatic’.
Paul Theroux noted that the English had a facile summary for every part of their small island – The Highlands were ‘breath-taking’, the Cotswolds ‘charming’ the Midlands ‘ghastly’ and so forth. The the strange and terrible place now found a place on that glib list.
And then there was Newcastle. Improbably handsome French hair care product model David Ginola and rubber-limbed Colombian Faustino Asprilla had come and gone without any negative headlines, but now the city was about to welcome Mr Sophisticated himself, Ruud Gullit. ‘How will he fit in up there,’ A Dutch journalist asked me on the phone, ‘He is used to London, Milan, Amsterdam. Newcastle is, well… It is not cultural.’ I asked him when he had last been in Newcastle. ‘Never. I have never been,’ he said without any indication that might somehow have compromised his judgement.
Newcastle was rated favourite UK destination city by the distinctly upmarket Conde Nast Traveller, but what impressed the stylish inhabitants of Vogue House, had little impact on Gullit’s girlfriend, Estelle. She told Hello! that she would not be joining Ruud on Tyneside because there were ‘no apartments nice enough’ in the city. In London heads nodded, of course there weren’t. Cue images of the Jarrow March and the theme from When the Boat Comes In. Ruud meanwhile was compelled to live in the squalor of Malmaison and jet back to Amsterdam to comfort her. It was Andrea Emerson all over again.
Gullit’s era of sexy football St James’ Park came to a quick and acrimonious end. After he left the Dutchman raised what would soon become another oft repeated notion: that to play for, or coach Newcastle United was to be subjected to such intense scrutiny it was more or less unbearable. Why would this be? Well, plainly because as Dame Edna Everage once said of Australia’s obsession with sport ‘There is nothing intellectual in our country to distract them from it.’
The notion was subsequently confirmed by Jermaine Jenas who described playing for Newcastle as ‘like living in a goldfish bowl’. The midfielder denied having said any such thing (‘I actually loved my time in Newcastle, really enjoyed it. The people up there were fantastic’), but his view - whether he expressed it or not - was quickly backed up by two former team mates. Kieron Dyer said, ‘It is like living in a fishbowl though, up there’ and former Man United player Nicky Butt explained, ‘[Newcastle] is not like Manchester or London where you can get lost. There are only four or five bars the lads go to so everyone knows where you are going to be.’
Oddly enough a similar criticism was soon to be levelled at Manchester by Carlos Tevez who said ‘There is nothing to do [In Manchester]. There’s two restaurant and everything is small….It rains all the time, you can’t go anywhere.’
Yet while the newspapers listened to Jenas and Andrea Emerson nobody seemed to care what Tevez said. And that brings us to the nub. Because ultimately none of this is actually the players or their wives’ fault. Their words are only taken seriously when they bolster some already existing prejudice. That the Spanish international Gaizka Mendieta turned down a move to Barcelona to carry on playing for Middlesbrough and continued living in Yarm for five years following his retirement saying, ‘I love the people, I love living in the area’ was barely commented upon, but when Gael Givet remarked of his time at Ewood Park ‘If left alone in Blackburn, I’d have hanged myself’ the Daily Mail (yes them again) gleefully splashed it all over the back page.
It is a belief commonly held that the media shapes national opinion. In reality – as Lord Northcliffe’s futile campaigns to destroy Lloyd George conclusively proved 100 years ago – it only panders to it. In the minds of many, most of the North is grim, dark, rainy and terrible and always will be, no matter what Juninho says.