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Football’s Last Taboos: Part #6 - Roots; would Sunderland be better off relocating to London?

Location, Location, Location. Will Sunderland along with other struggling Northern teams move from the community of their creation to create a HQ in London? And should they?

Academy of Light

The first reference anywhere in the chronicles of British history that refers to a ball being kicked as part of a game was recorded in the North Eastern village of Ulgham, a few miles short of Morpeth.

In 1280, an ingenious and surprisingly reactive local scribe - likely to be the parish Priest, as the Priesthood held a monopoly on literacy in those days, inked a rudimentary description of a lad named Henry, the eldest son of William of Ellington.

The quill skilled chronicler noted that Henry was:

…playing at ball with a large number of friends whilst filled by mirth (and accidentally) ran into another man’s dagger.

Alf-Inge Håland must certainly be breathing a sigh of relief that Roy Keane was not facing him in the field during the middle ages. Bizarrely and I’m assuming quite horribly, young Henry died as a consequence of this medieval kick about.

Yet his obscure and ignominious death, by calamitous irony perhaps led to the birth of, or at least an embryonic adaptation of what we now refer to as our ‘beautiful game.’

To sum up, and I may be biased: Football was likely invented in the North East.

Ulgham - the home of football?

Northern football has historically been the bedrock and financial powerhouse that has driven football forward from its humble beginnings in a dagger wielding Northumberland village (with a scandalous disregard for health and safety), to the formation of the football league in 1888 - and beyond.

Remember when Sunderland – long before Manchester City - were called ‘The Bank of England club?’ Indeed, after the Football League was formed in the late 1880’s, it wouldn’t be until 33 years later when a team south of the midlands won the league outright. That was Arsenal in 1931. In the next 60 years the First Division was won by southern teams only 15 times.

The aim of my Northern driven rhetoric is to highlight just how much football’s roots are embedded into the culture Northernness and to question if our forefathers who stand as innovators of this now ever so contemporary global and financial behemoth, are looking down from the pantheon of sporting pioneers wondering if it’s even the same sport at all?

Blackburn Rovers v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Ten years ago, as then Sunderland manager, Roy Keane famously critiqued the Luis Vutton wash bag culture of modern day footballers when he described his frustration at his inability to attract elite, top level footballers to Sunderland.

If a player doesn't want to come to Sunderland then all well and good. But if he decides he doesn't want to come because his wife wants to go shopping in London, then it's a sad state of affairs. It's not a football move, it's a lifestyle move. It tells me the player is weak and his wife runs his life.

On the face of it, at the time, in many ways Sunderland seemed like an attractive move.

We had a global sporting icon as a manager, the heartbeat of Manchester United’s greatest spell in its history. We had a popular, international footballing Irish hero as Chairman - a man who could defrost the chilliest of hearts with his charm and wit. We had Premier League cash, a large and modern stadium, full with faithful disciples who would worship at the feet of their most revered goal scoring brethren. We also had an annual wage bill that was healthily in the top 10 in the Premier League. Of course, I have not even broken into my subtle, could be accused of being sponsored by the Visit Northeast tourist board diatribe, about the natural beauty of the region - from its rolling hills to its unbridled coastline.

Roker Beach... beautiful.

NONE of that mattered or made a difference when it came to attracting players, as Keane explained while describing his grievance:

It's different with Chelsea and Arsenal… but if players are starting to go to clubs just because they're in (or around) London and they're not even that big a club, it's clearly down to the shops. We had a player who didn't even ring us back about a contract offer this summer because his wife wanted to move to London - and, yes, shopping was mentioned. To me it's wrong to sign for a club with half the crowds and less attention than Sunderland.

Things have not improved in the North East since, with none of the three big clubs being near to attracting the very top players and all clubs suffering declines in quality and subsequent relegations.

Roy Keane wrote in his autobiography about how hard it was to attract players to Sunderland when he was manager, citing that players “thought Sunderland was pretty bleak,” and that some players “wanted compensation for the cold and dark nights.”

One of my wife’s favourite television shows is the property based Channel 4 classic, Location, Location, Location. We all know suburban areas in our very own towns and cities that are more desirable places to live and therefore more expensive as a result. The same pattern is repeated when we analyse the trends on a national scale.

Marcel Desailly
Marcel Desailly of Chelsea
Getty Images

Over-seas players are often very clear from an opening negotiating starting point that London is one of the most attractive footballing destinations in the world and this goes back beyond the current millennial trend. When Chelsea and Liverpool went in for Marcel Desailly in the summer of 1998, it wasn’t even a debate.

I needed to have a French school nearby for my children. So I opted for London; for Chelsea, for family reasons and for the quality of life.

The outstanding, almost impossible to emulate history of Liverpool football club - the boot room, the trophies, the legends - didn’t even register a flicker of consternation.

The perception of London lifestyle and culture, over and above any appreciation of football culture and historical lineage has become the standard practice for foreign players preparing to come to England.

I exclude the two Manchester clubs from this, who are an independent financial and marketable island of their own, but even they have lost players to the southern promise of a land paved with gold and a city so Utopian, even the crack dealers help old ladies across the street.

Like buying our own houses, location is the key to foreign players who are eager to taste the riches of the premier league. Both Chelsea and Arsenal have capitalised on being London clubs when dealing in the transfer market, with Eden Hazard rejecting both Manchester City and Manchester United in 2012 to move to Stamford Bridge.

When Liverpool missed out on the signing of Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona in the summer of 2014, one of the central factors in the Chilean’s decision to join Arsenal was a desire to live in London rather than Merseyside.

Watford v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

The seductive call of London, and the appeal of living in one of the world’s economic and cultural capitals, is why Watford have perhaps stepped over their history to market themselves as a London club, rather than a family club from leafy Hertfordshire.

Other smaller southern clubs, where a perception exists that the weather is kinder, the natural beauty more stunning and the people more economically gifted, such as Southampton and Bournemouth are also beneficiaries to this slow and steady bias to all things south of the Watford gap.

Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough are struggling to convince any players of great reputation and ability to play their football in what was once described by a broad section of footballing commentators as the hotbed of football.

No offence intended to any potential Middlesbrough supporters who may come across this article, but when it comes to the history of the game itself, it’s a sad indictment that two classically historical clubs like Sunderland and Newcastle are being strangled out of their sporting positions on the podium, not by shifts in football as a sport, but by cultural developments associated with the modern game such as location and economics.

Jose Mourinho attends Tax Fraud Hearing Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

This year, full time Portuguese satirist and part time Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho joked that it would be easier if Manchester United’s Carrington training complex were in London, as his home is there and it’s where his family have remained throughout his time at United.

Sure, it was a joke, a throwaway line born from a frustrating commute, but he rarely makes rash comments without a small understanding of the consequence.

In truth it would be easier for him and probably quite a few of his players in Carrington was in London.

This leads me to the meat of the article and undoubtedly a very sore point for Sunderland supporters or indeed any team from the North of England who once considered themselves footballing bulldozers, such as Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, among others.

Remember when malevolent Uncle who always ruins family parties - or as you may know him - Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley, was satanic enough in his demonic devil worshipping to mention the cultish and Beelzebub-like subject of transferring Newcastle’s training base to London?

He was met with howls of derision. Football traditionalists up and down the country accused him of treachery, foolishness and heresy.

I simply recall the feeling of surprise.

Sports Direct Boss Mike Ashley Attends High Court Over Alleged £15m Banker Deal Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

I had never, in my considerable life even pondered for one second the possibility of such a competitive development. What I mean is, I didn’t hear about it and then dismiss it - I genuinely had never considered it as a concept. Up until Ashley’s remarks on the matter, such a possible ideology had not transcended my mindset at all.

In the immediate aftermath I did write it off as a flight of fancy. A dark fantasy from the billionaire Godfather of a cockney mafia eager to shift a crucial part of his empire closer to his home - another London-based tornado hoping to suck a northern slice of industry into its vacuum.

Later, as I became ever more depressed about the slow and painful demise of my own footballing institution I began, perhaps in desperation, to consider the concept of such a bold move. Perhaps I’m as sinful as Mike Ashley. Perish the thought. I even felt guilty that the thought of such a soul selling move had entered my demoralised sporting mind. Sunderland AFC can do that to a person. It can take the optimism and happiness you once associated with the game and taint it with its own unique brand of polarising misery.

Only 6 months ago, after Brighton had secured it place in the sunshine of the Premier League, top pundit Gary Neville spoke concisely about the subject:

The investment is into the south and then the Premier League is attracting investment. The players want to live in the south. I heard a few weeks ago… talk of northern teams, north east teams and Yorkshire teams having London training grounds. That would be the most incredible thing but you can actually see it. The players would live in London in the week and then travel to games. It can’t happen can it?

He also added:

What I will say is well done to Brighton, but it is a shift to the south like you would not believe. You think about Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull potentially going down, that’s three more northern clubs. Then the Yorkshire clubs, the Sheffield clubs, Leeds and you think Newcastle (aren’t what they were). It’s a worry for the north of England.

Despite his foreshadowing, it seems Neville either can’t quite see it happening, or doesn’t see it developing…yet. Ashley’s premonition and subsequent outcry is an accurate indicator of where most ardent fans are on the topic.

UEFA Champions League Final 2011 Design Launch Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Then only a matter of two months ago, keen footballing eye, with connections in the game more entwined than his matted chest hair, Richard Keys dropped a bombshell that for me hit close to the bone.

I saw a line in The Telegraph that a PL club in the north of England was exploring the possibility of moving their training HQ south. It was something we discussed on beINSPORTS the following weekend. I made a few enquiries, and sure enough it was true. It wasn’t easy putting a name to the club and I don’t want to compromise good sources by naming it. I never tweet or write something I haven’t checked… this club - (no longer in the PL, that’s all I can say!) want to move their HQ south.

Sources in national newspapers indicate that it’s most likely Keys is referring to Sunderland.

He added:

How does it adversely affect the everyday life of the supporter? As long as they (the players) turn up at the weekend where they’re supposed to be so what? Most of them live way outside the towns or cities they represent anyway. And if the quality of player improves as a result isn’t that a good thing?

He finally prophesies:

I’ve got a feeling that it won’t be too long before we’re hearing more on this subject.

So it’s no longer a bombastic and crass desire from a London based businessman tired of what he perceived to be ungrateful northern supporters. This is a concept with legs. Not quite spoken of in terms of opposition with such crazed fervour as Mike Ashley received back in the day.

In a time where all clubs are seeking the elusive ‘competitive edge’ and indeed the immense riches attached to success in the elite world of the Premier League, is it any wonder that owners and shareholders - or, in growing numbers, genuine supporters - are beginning to think outside the box... like far outside the box?

So far they’d need a train or plane to see it?

Owners want money. Fans want to win. If the likelihood of both is perceived to be increased by moving a training base that most local fans never see as it stands, then ultimately this idea will be revisited sooner rather than later.

If the NFL can seriously think about crossing the Atlantic to maintain a full time team in London to enhance the American league’s global market presence and increase the popularity of the sport and brand, then is it beyond the realms of possibility a football team from 5 hours down the road might do the same?

And would it make a difference to fans if it did? Sadly I’m still a romantic who likes his players to retain roots to the area and fans. But it appears those days are gone. Times are a changing and perhaps I will eventually change with them. Maybe we all will.

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