Gary Neville: A North/South divide is developing in English football; Manchester is an island in a sea of decline
Published 26/09/2015 | 02:30
A North-South divide is developing in English football that reflects the drift in economic power towards London. I worry that the North of England will end up with only a token presence in the Premier League - with Manchester an island in a sea of decline.
Those two events are hardly proof of a crisis. But there is a much bigger trend across Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North East.
London has always been the economic and political centre of England, but Merseyside, Manchester and the North East were the footballing hothouses.
Manchester is the one that has held its own. Elsewhere, there are clear signs of distress.
During rehearsals for 'Monday Night Football' two weeks ago, before West Ham v Newcastle, I was looking at the away team, thinking: that is not a Newcastle United side.
I then started to think about what is happening to them, then Sunderland, then the North of England as a whole.
We have seen the demise of Premier League clubs in Yorkshire, with Hull going down last season, and Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday becoming marginalised.
When I was growing up, trips to Elland Road and Hillsborough were among the biggest. They were FA Cup semi-final venues. They had a big-club feel - as did Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sunderland.
Newcastle are synonymous with passionate fans and small boys in No 9 shirts.
I can remember our 5-0 defeat in an age when Newcastle could call on the likes of Alan Shearer, David Ginola and Philippe Albert. It was a team of wonder goals and top foreign players.
Sunderland had the Roker Roar. Where is that now? Their supporters will hate the loss of that reputation.
I remember us losing a game at Sunderland and Adrian Heath and Peter Reid refusing to give me the ball back on the touchline - and the slanging match that ensued.
It was a horrible place to play because of the passion bursting out of the ground. Now, I get the feeling the squad is riddled with people who cannot wait to get the first train out after the match.
I can go to Crystal Palace now and hear far more passion than at Sunderland. They still turn up in their droves but there is no longer the same bond.
The atmosphere of a Turf Moor and Burnden Park has also slipped away.
I wonder what huge event could possibly restore what's been lost at these clubs. I cannot see one - and that is what concerns me most.
When was the last time a really top player played at Newcastle, or Sunderland, or signed for one of those clubs?
Does any top player now want to go and live in Newcastle or Sunderland or Middlesbrough?
That is not being disrespectful. I still see them as great football cities, with fantastic people, who are having the life sucked out of them.
What is becoming most important to today's player is not the culture or history of a club, but the location, for the family, and the distance back to where they want to live (the pay packet is also a huge factor, of course).
On a macro level, the world's top four or five players prefer to be in Spain.
So, the question is whether northern football is on the brink of a demise.
Obviously, Manchester is the exception. Even Merseyside, which was the epicentre of football in the 1980s, is now on the fringe.
Is it cyclical or, with what has happened in Yorkshire and Lancashire (with Wigan, Blackburn, Blackpool, Bolton, Burnley - the great clubs of yesteryear), are we seeing the North of England eased off the map of footballing success?
Children today would not think of Leeds United as a great club. Or Sheffield Wednesday. Current trends suggest Newcastle and Sunderland may be heading in that direction. In 10 years, their great histories may seem irrelevant.
The interest might have switched to Brighton or Bournemouth, or, around London, Watford, Fulham, QPR and Crystal Palace.
Clubs in the South East of England within an hour of London seem to be developing a massive advantage. They will certainly be more attractive to players.
If you had said to me 20 years ago that Alan Pardew would leave Newcastle to go to Crystal Palace, I would not have believed you.
I know there were other reasons. But Watford and Crystal Palace would now stand a good chance of taking a player off Newcastle or Sunderland, where some players feel they are doing the club a favour by being there.
If you were to count the players in the North East clubs' squads who will stay there when their careers are over, you would be unlikely to find more than two or three.
So, you lack large numbers who represent that badge, that club, that city. Too many will be there just for a job.
But it is more than a job, playing for a football club. You have to connect with the hearts and minds of fans.
Newcastle, Sunderland, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday are among those who face a mountainous climb to return to their old prominence.
I ask, why has there been no big buyer for Everton, Leeds or Wednesday?
It could just be because people are investing in cities strategically rather than on the basis of vanished traditions.
Even further north, Rangers and Celtic are in the same boat. I can remember Paul Gascoigne, Terry Butcher, Trevor Steven, Henrik Larsson and Brian Laudrup playing in Glasgow.
Will they ever have that type again? I'm not sure.
Equally, I look for, and fail to see, the next Shearer, Beardsley, Waddle or Gascoigne. The Geordie stars who seemed to step off a production line in the 'hotbed of football' have disappeared.
At both Sunderland and Newcastle, I see a disconnect between the teams and the fans. I do not see the links between owners, supporters, managers and fans.
I want to see boys from the heart of Newcastle running out in that black-and-white shirt and charging through a brick wall for their club. But the war to stay in the Premier League takes precedence over everything and no thought is given to constructing a team that reflects the community.
If Sunderland and Newcastle were to go down and Hull and Middlesbrough stay in the Championship, the North East would be exiled from the Premier League.
How will this end? Where is football in the North of England going? There are warning signs. Is it cyclical or is something deeper going on?