The Northern Echo looks back on a season to forget for Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Darlington.


FOR the second year in succession, Sunderland avoided relegation by a whisker but it would be a huge mistake to regard it as ‘just another season’.

Ellis Short may not have severed his ties with the club had they been playing Championship football next season, but his expansive plans for Sunderland would have been scaled down significantly.

When Niall Quinn and Drumaville took charge three years ago, the chairman, in typically poetic fashion, told fans to prepare themselves for a “magic carpet ride.” It came perilously close to hitting terra firma last season.

While the softly-spoken Short seems less prone to matching the chairman’s verbosity his plans for the club are no less ambitious. Rather than a magic carpet, the Dallas-based billionaire seems more inclined to build a more solid structure and Premier League survival season provided the foundation.

The two defining images of the campaign were of Sunderland supporters celebrating victory over their Tyneside rivals. First after their 2-1 victory in October and when it was announced at the Stadium of Light that Newcastle suffered relegation.

But for next season, at least, there will be no Wear-Tyne derby in the Premier League. Sunderland supporters will miss that fixture perhaps more than they’d care to admit but the absence of their rivals offers the club an opportunity to focus on bigger prizes.

Too often, the North-East derby has distracted Sunderland from making real progress in the top flight. This season’s 2-1 victory at the Stadium of Light may have seen, in Quinn’s words, “people dancing in the street” but a subsequent run of seven straight defeats was the lingering hangover to the Black Cats street party.

Keane’s withering assessment of the team’s failure to build on the result was “typical Sunderland.” It was typical of Keane, who’d repeatedly told us he wasn’t a quitter, to walk out on the club after a humiliating 4-1 home defeat to Bolton.

Keane left a huge gap in the North-East football scene and his pronouncements on everything from WAGS to Sky TV offered sports reporters a stream of unforgettable copy. But as Sunderland’s performances on the pitch waned, his post match analysis had an increasingly hollow ring.

Who knows where Sunderland would have finished the season had Keane stayed? But with a dressing room increasingly losing faith with their volatile boss it’s unlikely he’d have turned around what had begun to look like an inexorable slide toward the drop.

Ricky Sbragia’s appointment, made at the behest of the players, was evidence of a dressing room happy to have anyone but Keane in charge of team affairs. But Quinn’s faith in the Scot almost backfired and Sbragia’s failure to handle big characters like Djibril Cisse and El Hadji Diouf exposed his shortcomings.

The relief on Sbragia’s face after he’d announced he was stepping down suggested he’d reached the end of his tether trying to control players who’d become more focused on the trappings of the game than proving their worth on the pitch.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON MARTON Fulop – starting the season playing second fiddle to Craig Gordon, the Hungary international emerged as first choice.

FLOP OF THE SEASON EL Hadji Diouf – rather than terrorize opposition defences, the feisty forward saved his most potent attacks for the home dressing room where one particularly heated post-match rant brought his Sunderland career to a premature end.

GAME OF THE SEASON SUNDERLAND 2 Newcastle 1 – Roy Keane’s love-in with the Sunderland fans reached its zenith after Kieran Richardson’s stunning free-kick sealed victory: thereafter it was all downhill.

GOAL OF THE SEASON: GRANT Leadbitter v Arsenal – his 20 yard strike and emotional celebration at the pitch side where his father’s ashes had been scattered was a reminder of the unique bond a local lad can have for his hometown club.

QUOTE OF THE SEASON ROY Keane: (on Jack Warner) “The man’s a clown, he’s the clown of clowns. If he is vice President of FIFA then God help us.”

■ Andy Richardson


IF THERE’S anything positive for Middlesbrough to take from the season it is, quite simply, this: At least it is now over.

It says something when the most impressive spell of a nine-month campaign was a period of seven matches between October and November that also included a 5-0 defeat and three draws.

While there might have been talk of a charge towards Europe after the excellent 2-1 win at Aston Villa in the penultimate match of that run, there were clear danger signs at that stage.

Brazilian striker Afonso Alves was missing chances, Tuncay Sanli buzzed around and Stewart Downing was delivering teasing crosses into the area without anyone getting on the end of them.

And by May things were exactly the same. Throughout the depressing campaign - one which has heralded 20 defeats from 38 games - Gareth Southgate has repeatedly paid tribute to the character shown by his players.

But, after a season when they have looked doomed for the Championship from the moment they lost 3-0 at West Brom on January 17, there was perhaps a need for him to be more ruthless.

The decision from Southgate and chairman Steve Gibson to retain the services of Downing and Gary O’Neil - when neither wanted to stay - at the turn of the year cost the club.

There remains a decent argument that Middlesbrough would have found it difficult to have found suitable replacements at that stage, having dropped into the bottom three.

But, given the division they now find themselves in, it is now easy to suggest they should have cashed into the tune of around £17m for both and gambled a little.

Now they are without Downing for around six months and have little other way of raising the funds so easily to bankroll a promotion push back to the Premier League.

But rather than look at January as the major reason, perhaps the seeds of a season of struggle were planted last summer, when Southgate failed to invest the money afforded to him wisely.

Marvin Emnes, Didier Digard and Justin Hoyte hardly improved the squad when you consider that George Boateng, Lee Cattermole, Mark Schwarzer and Luke Young were among those to depart.

And while the youthful look of the squad augurs well for the future, that means nothing if the wounds of relegation have left lasting scars on Southgate’s current crop ahead of a season in the Championship.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON TUNCAY Sanli – endless work, plenty of craft and always played with a smile.

FLOP OF THE SEASON AFONSO Alves – it’s difficult to look elsewhere when you consider the £12.7m buy mustered four Premier League goals.

GAME OF THE SEASON MIDDLESBROUGH 2 Liverpool 0 – an occasion that raised brief hopes of survival while put a dent in the Reds’ title hopes.

GOAL OF THE SEASON TUNCAY Sanli vs Aston Villa – with his back to goal, the Turkish forward cleverly volleyed into Brad Friedel’s far corner.

QUOTE OF THE SEASON “I will be fighting to win the Golden Boot this season. I almost won it when I played in Holland." – Alves after scoring against Stoke in August.

■ Paul Fraser


FOR a review of Newcastle’s season, you only need one word. Awful. Actually, make it two. Bloody awful. Actually, it might as well be three. Very bloody awful. Let’s just say you don’t need as many words as there were managers and leave it at that.

Off the field, Newcastle lurched from one crisis to the next. Nothing new about that you might think, but even for a club that has witnessed News of the World stings, players fighting each other on the pitch and a frightening accumulation of debt in recent years, this was self-mutilation on a staggering scale.

First there was Kevin. Kevin didn’t get on with Dennis, so he left after a row with Derek, who was employed by Mike. Chris stood in for a bit, making a bad situation worse, so the call went out to Joe.

I know this is tedious, but we’ll be there in a minute I promise.

Joe came in and swore a bit, but his heart wasn’t too good so he was forced to disappear. Chris stood in for a second time, again making a bad situation worse, so the call went out to Alan.

Alan came in and didn’t swear - or at least not to us press men - but by the time he arrived it was already too late.

Dennis departed with his tail between his legs, leaving Derek and Mike to sort through the mess. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be absolutely laughable.

Somewhere in the middle of all this there was also a Joey, who was sent to prison for one assault and sent to the Anfield stands for something that approximated another, and a Michael, who is listed as a player but who should really appear in the off-the-field section of this wrap up. After all, that was where he spent almost all of his time this season.

Still, with all that lot as a backdrop, at least things could not get any worse once Newcastle actually got on to the field of play. Right?


Displaying a level of ineptitude that was impressive even for them, Newcastle somehow managed to get themselves relegated ahead of a Hull side that won one of their last 22 matches. You have to hand it to them, that’s quite some feat.

December’s 5-1 hiding at Liverpool was a low point, but it was like the top of Everest compared to Sunday’s secondhalf performance at Aston Villa. Needing one goal to stay in the Premier League, Newcastle failed to record a single shot on target. Again, that’s mightily impressive.

Massive changes are in the offing, but Newcastle supporters are rightly asking ‘Where does our club go from here?’ The answer is simple.

Peterborough, Scunthorpe and Plymouth, although not necessarily in that order.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON Sebastien Bassong – started the season as a trialist, ended it as one of the few Newcastle players other clubs want. A testament to Kevin Keegan’s scouting network - not Dennis Wise’s.

FLOP OF THE SEASON JOEY Barton – the £5.7m spent on Xisco was money down the drain, but at least the Spaniard was imperfect rather than imprisoned.

GAME OF THE SEASON PORTSMOUTH 0 Newcastle 3 – It proved the falsest of dawns, but Newcastle actually resembled a Premier League football team at Fratton Park in December.

GOAL OF THE SEASON DAMIEN Duff v Tottenham – a lastminute winner that was set up by an inch-perfect backheel from Mark Viduka.

QUOTE OF THE SEASON “IF, like me, you like a gamble now and again then what price a flutter on us reaching that top six?” –Mike Ashley, December 28. What top six is that Mike? Next season’s Championship?

■ Scott Wilson


GO back 12 months and there’s not much difference in reviewing Hartlepool United in season 2007/8 and 2008/9.

A steady start, some good performances, a terrible away record, regular bouts of slack and sloppy defending and a flirtation with relegation.

Now it’s going to be Chris Turner’s task to arrest the slide and get Pools back to the standards they achieved not so long ago.

He’s already been given the solid backing of owners IOR Ltd to reshape the squad, which has vastly under-achieved in the last two campaigns.

Turner took over in December, albeit on a temporary basis, after Danny Wilson’s exit.

His removal may have surprised some outsiders, but the truth is that Pools were on the slide.

While Turner couldn’t arrest the fall down the League One table, he did enough to keep Pools out of the bottom four. Just.

But he knows exactly what problems he has to overcome and the firefighting role of the season is over. Now he’s busy rebuilding.

An opening day 4-1 win over Colchester indicated a sound and solid season ahead.

Instead, the goals scored – and they were plenty of them – simply masked over the cracks.

When Pools scored four, they conceded three, when they scored three they conceded three.

The defence had little or no confidence in their goalkeepers, midfielders were played at full-back, as a defensive unit there was little cohesion.

Losing James Brown to another cruciate ligament injury was a huge blow. He had eight goals by the time his season was ended in November – the extra ten or 12 goals he could have nabbed would have kept Pools away from the very nervous season end.

The season ended with a shambolic 4-1 loss at Bristol Rovers. When the pressure was increasing, Pools simply couldn’t handle it and folded.

They need more steel for next season because League One has some new high-profile members, with Charlton, Norwich and Southampton the latest to fall from the top flight.

Bigger crowds, bigger budgets and a bigger distance to travel all add up to make the season in waiting a tough one.

In a far more competitive division Pools have to become a very competitive outfit.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON JOEL Porter – where would Pools have been without his goals? Heads back home to Australia this summer with everyone’s best wishes.

FLOP OF THE SEASON KEIGAN Parker – brought in on loan to score the goals to keep Pools up, and it’s hard to recall him having a worthwhile shot, never mind anything else.

GAME OF THE SEASON: HARTLEPOOL 5 Huddersfield 3, Pools may have beat both WBA and Stoke in cup competitions, but for sheer quality and drama, this had it all.

GOAL OF THE SEASON DAVID Foley (v Stoke, FA Cup) - Antony Sweeney’s 30-yard volley against Millwall ultimately counted for nothing, so Foley’s screamer to see off Stoke in the FA Cup, right, takes the honours.

QUOTE OF THE SEASON “ABSOLUTE rubbish, that’s what I saw out there. In training Thursday, Friday – fantastic. I thought ‘Leyton Orient? Two or three nil’. Looking at the players Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, I’m a fool.’’ – Turner after a pitiful 1-0 home loss to Orient.

■ Nick Loughlin


TWELVE months ago, Darlington’s promotion hopes died in devastating fashion – penalty shoot-outs tend to be nothing less for the beaten side.

Defeat at Rochdale in the semi-final of the play-offs was the most dramatic way to see hopes of reaching League One dashed, but equally devastating was the manner in which this season ended.

This time, however, there was no swift end as in the penalty drama, instead the campaign died a slow, agonising death, strangled at the hands of George Houghton.

As chairman, he made the decision to put the club into administration on February 25 and thereafter Quakers limped towards the end of the season, dragging a ten-point deduction like a dead-weight.

With promotion well within grasp, Houghton’s decision stunned not only players and supporters. Ignoring usual protocol, he had not even informed the Football League or the Professional Footballers Association of his intention.

At that point manager Dave Penney, despite publicly claiming otherwise, knew the death knell had sounded on Darlington’s hopes of a first promotion since 1991.

His and the players’ hard work would go unrewarded and it felt like a huge waste as it had all been going so well.

Quakers were seventh with games in hand and had momentum in their favour, having put together a run of one loss in ten.

Then came a home defeat to an in-form Rochdale on February 24 and at 3pm the next day Houghton’s defining moment.

Soon the loan players – Dean Gerken, Carl Tremarco, Danny Carlton and Liam Hatch – went back to their parent clubs and Penney was prevented from bringing in reinforcements.

This proved crucial when injuries occurred, partly due to playing two games a week, having had matches postponed, so youth team prospects got premature call-ups.

Penney did incredibly well to keep players focused but they were not being paid and, almost inevitably, the team dropped down the table.

Only four wins in the 15 games after February 25 saw Quakers finish 12th. It would have been play-offs if not for the ten-point deduction, but without the impact of administration Darlington would arguably have finished in the top three.

Teesside businessman Raj Singh saw his initial approach for the club turned down but is now back in the frame to buy out Houghton.

But due to the cost-cutting, supporters are witnessing the slow destruction of the squad Penney built. Ricky Ravenhill, Jason Kennedy and Rob Purdie have left already, and there will be others too, while Penney is long gone.

He has joined Oldham, taking with him assistant Martin Gray and goalkeeping coach Andy Collett, and Colin Todd is now at the Darlington helm.

His unenviable brief is to try to rebuild a club still coming to terms with events of the past few months.

No matter how he fares, nobody will ever be able to forget that season 2008/09 promised so much but proved to be a criminally wasted opportunity.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON ROB Purdie – asked to play in a number of positions and performed to a consistently high level.

FLOP OF THE SEASON ADAM Proudlock – arrived last summer with a goalscoring reputation but his shot for Grimsby in February’s match at the Arena was one more than he managed during 11 out-of-sorts games for Quakers at the start of the season.

GAME OF THE SEASON Macclesfield 0 Darlington 6 – The club’s biggest ever away win, but April’s hugely satisfying 2-0 win at last season’s play-off conquerors Rochdale also deserves a mention.

GOAL OF THE SEASON BILLY Clarke – a blasted 30-yard effort in off the post at Macclesfield in August that proved to be the second of his four-goal haul that day.

QUOTE OF THE SEASON “I DON’T know the exact reasons why we’ve gone into administration, but I do know I’ve got a team travelling down to Exeter that’s not getting paid. I’ve got to get them motivated and focused and in the back of their minds they’ll be asking ‘who’s going to pay my mortgage?’ – Dave Penney on February 26, the day after Darlington went into administration.

■ Craig Stoddart