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Roker Ramble: The North-South Divide - Why the widening gap is a good thing for Sunderland

It's looking increasingly unlikely that the North-East clubs are able compete with the cream of London - and that might not be a bad thing.

Tottenham Hotspur v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

This week, Hammersmith & Fulham council unanimously approved plans for a new Chelsea stadium, based on the current site that would cost at least £500 million and could be ready for the 2021-22 season. It’ll mean demolishing a chunk of West London in the process but the decision-making Councillors described the planned stadium as...

"... a gorgeous building, absolutely gorgeous."

I know you were worried. Apparently it’s inspired by Westminster Abbey (crucial for the Princess Di connection - obviously), the exterior defined by vast arches, a pitch below ground level, underground entrances for home and away fans and seating for 60,000 people. It’s estimated that with the new building Chelsea could match Arsenal’s current matchday turnover of £100m a year from the Emirates Stadium.

It’s generally felt that if Chelsea want to be seen as a dominant club in Europe, then they have to upgrade Stamford Bridge. For as HassleFloyd JimmyBank said when he was at the club:

Only small things need to be done to make this a top, top, top European club. It is a top club, but not a top, top, top club.

Unfortunately this system of measuring club success by endlessly repeating the preceding adjective hasn’t caught on as much as footballers had hoped. This would have had massive, massive implications for those interviews when the supply of cliché’s dry up long before the interviewers questions, but we digress.

Because for all their fine plans, Chelsea are only playing catch-up on the teams around them. West Ham moved into the Olympic Stadium five months ago, Arsenal have now long forgotten the housing estate that once was Highbury, and Spurs have only eight league games left at the old White Hart Lane before the lights are turned off for good.

The new White Hart Lane matches Chelsea’s ambitions in that it has seating for 61000, but due to the proximity of its completion, more details of it’s design are available. For instance for a £30,000 joining fee (that’s for two, but still before you’ve actually bought a match ticket), you can have half time access to a special lounge where they’ll serve the cheese of your choice. For £15,000 I’d want half-time access to the dressing room and the option of coming on for the last ten minutes, but lets not quibble.

For £339 per match you can watch the game from just behind the managers technical area, presumably whilst throwing peanuts at him (or ‘her’….see what I did there?) and telling him to stand still and stop blocking the view for which you've just paid £339. Or if that’s not to your liking, there’s a glass-walled ‘Tunnel Club’ allowing 104 supporters to dine whilst enjoying a view into the tunnel via one-way glass panels. Essential.

The ground will have an in-house bakery, a microbrewery, the longest bar in the country, measuring 86.8 metres and heated seats with USB ports in case anyone wants to catch up on their laptop during the game. It’s aimed at what Keane basically called ‘the prawn-sandwich brigade’ in the nineties, except if you offered them a prawn sandwich now they’d probably throw their artisan quinoa and rustic polenta gluten-free hoisin wrap at you.

In fact out of all of the main London Clubs only Fulham and Crystal Palace are planning to grow by expanding their current grounds - all the rest, including Brentford, QPR and AFC Wimbledon are planning to move to new premises.

But what does this mean for North East football - are we seeing an ever widening gap between the southern clubs and those closer to home? Anyone who’s seen the mens toilets at York City won’t have the slightest doubt, but what does it mean, and what impact will it have in the future?

There can be no doubt that the gap is widening. The London clubs have a massive (massive) catchment area of relatively well-paid punters with a high disposable income. A warmed seat with a plug for your laptop can be appealing for people who spend half their life sitting on a train working on their laptop, and it gives them the opportunity to look up the names of the players in front of them, and to watch action replays of what’s just happened so that they can boo the man in black who’s called a referee.

The truth is that the football club is a reflection of it’s supporters and it responds by offering them what they in turn expect from it. The north east population is still by and large traditional when it comes to footballing pleasures and the grounds reflect that. The Stadium of Light, St James and the Riverside have tried in their development to carry on the history and traditions of their previous incarnations because it’s the history of the clubs as much as current form that’s important to the supporters.

And the further truth of the matter is that we may never be able to compete with the top London clubs again because the odds are stacked against us. If a clubs income was solely dictated by attendances, we’re already on a hiding to nothing. Firstly, the London clubs can charge ticket prices two or three times what we can because incomes are so much higher in London and the south-east. In addition, the sheer number of people, whether locals or visitors with access to the grounds, creates it’s own demand, forcing up the price of tickets.

In Sunderland, we have a major competitor ten miles up the road and another ten miles to the south. Inexplicably, they’re both well supported which dilutes the further potential support for each club. There are no more centres of population in the region that can attract significant new numbers, and the area as a whole is more likely to depopulate than grow in the near future.

In London, as well as the population advantage, clubs can offer potential players a comfortable life in the capital with all it’s attendant attractions. Increased income means they can offer higher salaries thereby increasing the differential still further. And all this means a more attractive investment to the sort of foreign people with lots of money that want to buy their way into football clubs and so the spiral goes on.

So we’re screwed and anyone expecting a warmed seat at the SOL with a laptop adapter may as well jump on a train south, because I can’t see it happening here any time soon. And that’s a good thing, because football is all about history and tradition. It’s about supporting your local club - chances are, the one your Dad supported and possibly his Dad before him, not the one that’s currently top of the league, or the one your boss likes or one that you think will win you the most attention. It’s about letting off some steam, having a laugh and a drink and something to talk about afterwards. It’s about belonging to something, and if that’s what you’re in it for, then the absence of an in-house bakery isn’t going to spoil it for you.

Last week we discovered that Alexi Sanchez has the names of his dogs embroidered onto his boots. This week Arsenal supporters pulled together £600 from a crowd-funding scheme to have a banner of the dogs draped over the upper tier of the Emirates. Seriously? They may be able to fork out £120 for a ticket but if that’s the face of the new football supporters down south, then they’re welcome to it. That’s not my game.

This week it was announced that Steven Gerrard has been appointed as a youth team coach at Liverpool, to a slightly understated response I felt. Here was a man, arguably one of the best players in the world in his day, who turned down offers from the worlds best clubs to play for his home team. He served his country diligently, retired pretty much at the top of his game, played a token season in the MLS but presumably turned down lucrative offers from the Far East to return home and once again, serve his local club.

In an age when club loyalty is as rare as rocking horse poo and players are drawn inexorably by a higher pay cheque elsewhere, why is it that Gerrard isn’t lauded as a beacon of light in the wider game?

And then I remembered - he was a cheating b****d.

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