EVEN by its own shoddy standards, this is shaping up to be a thoroughly miserable month for North-East football.

Middlesbrough are just about excused from this excoriation, although Tony Mowbray's side continue to suffer from their now-traditional January slump ahead of this evening's trip to Leicester, having suffered back-to-back league defeats since the turn of the year.

At least they remain in the heart of the Championship promotion race, though, and have an FA Cup fourth-round tie to look forward to a week tomorrow.

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Newcastle and Sunderland, the North-East's self-styled 'Big Two', have no such solace as they edge towards the end of a month that has done much to confirm their diminished status in the English game.

A hotbed of football? More like a sickbed. And year on year, the affliction appears to be getting worse.

Let's start with Sunderland, simply because Tuesday's spineless FA Cup surrender to Bolton remains fresh in the memory.

It followed hot on the heels of Newcastle's exit to another Championship side, Brighton, and means neither club has made it beyond the third round. When was the last time that happened without either side having to face another team in the Premier League? Oh yes, that's right, two seasons ago when the mighty Notts County and Stevenage heaped on the humiliation.

In the 40 years since Sunderland last lifted the FA Cup at Wembley, the two clubs' record in the competition is an embarrassment. Newcastle have made it to two finals, Sunderland one, but the vast majority of campaigns have ended like this one, with timid exits in the early rounds.

For all that its status has been diminished in recent years, the FA Cup remains a key competition for a club like Sunderland. At the start of every season, it is one of only two trophies the Black Cats can realistically hope to win.

In fairness to Martin O'Neill, he has always acknowledged as much and selected his sides accordingly, so either the players aren't getting the message or they're simply not good enough to carry it out.

On Tuesday's evidence, it's probably a bit of both. There was a lethargy about Sunderland's display that was also apparent in October's Capital One Cup defeat to Middlesbrough, another chastening evening against Championship opposition.

A lack of fight, particularly in the second half, was a damning indictment of the squad's fragile character, but it was the accompanying lack of quality that really set the alarm bells ringing.

O'Neill's reign has been characterised by lengthy periods of underachievement, broken sporadically by brief spells where it has looked as though Sunderland have turned the corner. They've had one of those spells in the last three weeks, with wins over Southampton, Manchester City and West Ham hinting at a profound transformation.

Tuesday killed off that transformation in an instant. Sunderland remain a long way off where O'Neill, Ellis Short and the club's supporters want them to be and unfortunately, a little bit of January tinkering is not going to change that. O'Neill has shied away from root-and-branch reform during his 14 months at the club. Now, however, he must surely accept it is required.

If he needs evidence of what can go wrong if improvements are put on hold, he need only cast his eyes a few miles north to Newcastle.

Given the scale of the crisis that is engulfing St James' Park, it is easy to forget just how well-placed the Magpies were last summer.

Boasting a top-five finish and a transfer and recruitment policy that was being lauded by the rest of the country, Newcastle were dreaming of a return to the Champions League elite.

Had they signed Mathieu Debuchy, Douglas and Luuk de Jong last summer, all players who would have moved to St James' had Mike Ashley not been as intransigent when it came to transfer fees and agent payments, goodness know where they might have been positioned now.

As it is, having failed to recruit from a position of strength, they find themselves in an unseemly scramble for the reinforcements that are required to safeguard their Premier League status.

Ashley and Derek Llambias' refusal to pay Loic Remy £80,000-a-week is perfectly understandable, indeed in the context of the sums Newcastle have lavished on some of their previous overseas signings, it is thoroughly desirable.

But the club would not have been frantically chasing the Frenchman in the first place had they not erred on the side of parsimony so disastrously last summer.

By sticking so inflexibly to their much-loved template, the Newcastle hierarchy have been the architects of their own downfall. When the injuries began to mount earlier this season, Alan Pardew simply did not have the squad to cope.

That almost feels like the least of the Magpies' problems at the moment, with Demba Ba's departure and Fabricio Coloccini's desire to return to Argentina having ripped apart the narrative of the 'closely-bonded squad' that was regularly espoused last season.

With results having nose-dived and events off the pitch evoking memories of Newcastle's chaotic pantomime past, comparisons with the relegation season of 2008-09 are becoming increasingly impossible to avoid.

Beat Reading tomorrow, and the ship will at least temporarily be steadied. Even so, all the progress achieved under Pardew has been eradicated.

That is where we find ourselves 18 days into 2013. A new year for North-East football characterised by the same old mess.




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