North-East clubs must turn ambition into achievement
ANOTHER season, another opportunity for the North-East to reclaim its former position as one of the powerhouses of the English game. The last few years have not been particularly kind to a region that has fallen behind London, Manchester, Liverpool and the wider North-West in the battle for footballing supremacy, but while the 2010-11 campaign was hardly an unqualified success for any of the North-East's five professional clubs, there were glimpses of progress at them all. The challenge for the forthcoming campaign is to build on that progress and turn ambition into achievement. It will not be an easy task - and after the events of the summer, it looks like being easier for some to achieve than others - but all of the region's clubs will kick-off the new season with cause for at least a modicum of hope. Sunderland finished last term as the North-East's 'Top Dogs', and after a hectic summer in the transfer market, Steve Bruce's side look well placed to hold on to their tag. Bruce signed early and extensively, bringing in nine new faces before most other managers had even had time for their tan to fade. All nine should add something, and having lost six players since the end of May, there was a need for the Black Cats boss to significantly strengthen a squad that went nine games without a win last season before rallying to claim a coveted top-ten finish. Wes Brown and John O'Shea will bring some valuable ability and experience to the back four, while Seb Larsson should provide some of the natural width that was lacking last season. Craig Gardner offers a goalscoring threat from midfield, something that has not existed for a number of years now, while Sunderland fought off considerable competition to land coveted teenager Connor Wickham for £8m. Jordan Henderson left for Liverpool, although the £20m fee cushioned the blow significantly, and if Bruce's signings gel effectively there is no reason why the Black Cats should not be challenging for Europe in the next nine months. Newcastle boss Alan Pardew has spoken of reestablishing his side amongst the continental elite, but a chaotic summer means European qualification is not really at the forefront of most supporters' minds. At the moment, merely avoiding the drop will be some sort of achievement. From explosive rantings on Twitter to the unexpected departure of last season's captain, this has not been the close season that most people on Tyneside expected or desired. Kevin Nolan has gone, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique look certain to follow, and the spirit that was so integral to both promotion from the Championship and last season's top-flight stabilisation looks to have evaporated. Pardew is just about holding things together, but tensions between players, management, board and supporters threaten to rip the club apart completely in the next few months. Perhaps the capture of a top-class centre-forward will settle the nerves. Middlesbrough could also do with a proven striker, having waved goodbye to both Leroy Lita and Kris Boyd this summer. The last three months have been all about slashing the wage bill at the Riverside, and while the surgery was essential given the absence of a full Premier League parachute payment, it has surely had a negative impact on Boro's prospects of promotion. Free signings Malaury Martin, Curtis Main and Luke Dobbie are the only players to have arrived on Teesside, with Andrew Taylor, Didier Digard and Julio Arca having severed their ties. Boro's starting XI remains reasonably strong, and the successful finish to last season suggested that Tony Mowbray's philosophy is the right one. However, the Championship looks like being a particularly strong league this season, and securing a play-off place would be a notable feat. Hartlepool flirted with the League One play-offs briefly last season, only to fall away and eventually finish in 16th position. Their summer has been dominated by a hugely successful season-ticket campaign that should guarantee crowds of more than 6,000 at Victoria Park. That can only help Mick Wadsworth's side achieve their first ambition of avoiding relegation, and provide further assistance to their longer-term goal of promotion. Former Newcastle favourite Nolberto Solano will supply some South American flair on the right-hand side, while Pools have held on to all of their most talented players from last season. The bookmakers don't rate them, but they could prove one of the Football League's surprise packages. Darlington want to get back into the league, and while last season's FA Trophy success at Wembley was unforgettable, promotion from the Blue Square Bet Premier has to be the club's only goal this season. It is achievable, with the arrival of Graeme Lee, Adam Rundle and James Walshaw having more than atoned for the exit of Dan Burn, Aman Verma and Chris Senior. Fleetwood could prove to be the new Crawley after a summer of splashing the cash, but even if they are, Darlington are more than capable of claiming the remaining automatic promotion place. As ever, though, off-field issues could intervene at any point, and after last season's threat to walk away from the club, Quakers continue to be hugely dependent on chairman Raj Singh. Below the Blue Square Bet Premier, the North-East's non-league scene continues to punch above its weight. Whitley Bay's third FA Vase win was a fantastic achievement for the Northern League club, but also reflected the strength of non-league football within the region. Spennymoor retained their Northern League crown last term, but Jason Ainsley's side will have to be at the top of their game to make it a hat-trick despite the arrival of former Darlington centre-half Steve Foster. Consett, Newcastle Benfield and Shildon should all be strong competitors, with Northallerton and Hebburn starting as favourites in the Second Division. Whatever your level, whoever your team, the wait is almost over. North-East football is back.
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