Chris Young column - No boycott, but is it any worse at Newcastle than Sunderland?

A light aircraft pulling a banner as it flies over the ground with a message regarding Newcastle United's recent record in matches against Sunderland during the Barclays Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle.
A light aircraft pulling a banner as it flies over the ground with a message regarding Newcastle United's recent record in matches against Sunderland during the Barclays Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle.
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WHO CARES about empty seats when there’s wall-to-wall coverage of Sports Direct signage at the venue formerly known as the Sports Direct Arena?

You suspect last weekend’s boycott up the road won’t have caused Mike Ashley much consternation.

There’s been little apparent progress from last May’s nailbiter and Sunderland are facing yet another summer where quality is desperately needed in the transfer market

TV money banked? Yep.

Season ticket money banked? Yep.

Vehicle to globally advertise retail business still in place? Yep.

The argument about whether the St James’s stayaways were successful or not is a redundant one. Ashley has made his strategy for Newcastle abundantly clear and, as with the previous protests over Kevin Keegan, Alan Pardew, cockney mafia etc, nothing will change.

However, what the boycott did achieve was to prompt a fresh round of discussion – or, more accurately, criticism – of Ashley in the national spotlight.

That media narrative was intriguing.

While those disgusted supporters who flocked out of the Stadium of Light after Sunderland’s collapse against Crystal Palace a week earlier received some flak, those who made their feelings known on Tyneside were praised for taking a stand.

Now, an antiquated picture (stemming from the Keegan days) still exists outside Wearside of Newcastle fans demanding a team capable of winning 4-3 every week, while Ashley is a far more well-known pantomime villain to deride than Ellis Short.

But are things any better at Sunderland than at Newcastle? No. Both are in a mess.

The average attendance at the Stadium of Light this season has been at its highest since the Peter Reid era, yet those 40-odd thousand have witnessed a third successive relegation scrap and a fourth year on the spin when the manager has been replaced mid-campaign.

There’s been little apparent progress from last May’s nailbiter and Sunderland are facing yet another summer where quality is desperately needed in the transfer market.

But there isn’t the money for that investment.

Despite the injection of capital from the last bumper TV deal, Sunderland still posted a hefty loss in their annual accounts, while their wage bill is in the Premier League’s top 10. Financially, relegation doesn’t bear thinking about.

Ashley has plenty of critics, but he has balanced the books, made a profit and (probably) kept the Tynesiders in the Premier League again.

Ultimately, every Premier League club is looking to emulate that self-sufficiency.

What Newcastle supporters don’t like is that Ashley runs the club purely as a business and makes no pretence about that; giving scant regard to the cup competitions or European qualification and focusing purely on mid-table safety.

When football clubs are an intrinsic part of the community, that’s a cynical, heartless position to take and undermines the reasons behind supporting a team in the first place.

That’s the big difference between the regimes at Newcastle and Sunderland at present.

Sunderland do indeed realise that they are not simply another cog in the Premier League’s global brand.

There is a sense of social responsibility at Sunderland and there is a routine consideration for supporters – something Short is particularly conscious of.

Short doesn’t like being referred to as Sunderland’s owner.

He sees himself as a custodian, with the fans ultimately the ones who own the heart and soul of the place.

On the community side of things, Sunderland do things superbly – working effectively with the other stakeholders in the city, liaising with fan panels and producing a host of positive initiatives through the Foundation of Light.

But while Sunderland’s intentions are good, far too many mistakes have been made on the playing side over recent years.

There have been more bad than good moves, and that has prompted results to be continually awful.

Other than a one-month spell in the Autumn which is likely to save Newcastle, it has been the same at both clubs and disenchantment is growing in tandem.

It was telling that the majority of Sunderland supporters reacted to the plane fly-by over St James’s on Sunday with a shake of the head, rather than those responsible receiving pats on the back.

With Sunderland so thickly in the relegation dogfight, there is a dread that the neighbours may have the last laugh.

On the flip side of the coin, many Newcastle fans hardly seemed bothered by the stunt, in the midst of their primary concern over the club’s direction.

They seem to have been beaten down into submission when it comes to the derby.

That’s a sad state of affairs though, when even the banter is affected.

Habitually, the baton of crisis is passed between Newcastle and Sunderland, yet when both are in the doldrums, things really are grim in the North East.