Next Saturday I'm appearing at the Ryedale Book Festival in Malton. You can find out more at:
Beforehand I'll be celebrating National Non-League Day with The Accidental Groundhopper at Old Malton St Mary's. Kick off is at 2pm please feel free to join us, though you're not getting any of my KitKat.
Easington Colliery v Ashington today in a game that Gary Oliver has dubbed 'El Classicoal'.
At the Lit&Phil a few weeks back Michael Walker and I discussed the shambolic state of North-East player recruitment over the years. Here's something I wrote on the subject for When Saturday Comes what seems like several decades ago, probably because it was...
Oh, before we get to that can I just say that if one more football commentator or pundit says, 'Right here... right now' in a growly voice I will spew.
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 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.
After Kitson there had 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 looked to be part of the same Eighties revival that has seen Culture Club and Duran Duran playing to packed houses. Add to that returns for Bobby Robson and Paul Gascoigne and analysts might have pointed 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 remained at St James’ and Sir John was still very much alive. Until the return of Howey from injury, the Newcastle side at that point regularly contained just two north-easterners, Shearer and Steve Harper.
In truth, this situation was 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, Michael Carrick, should grow up unnoticed or unwanted 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 allegedly 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.
Nowadays footballers flood into the north east from all over the world. 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.