Hotbed: The (Lack of) Politics in North-East Football
Hotbed of Soccer
The North-East of England has many great things; beautiful coastlines, rolling hills, splendid architecture and football. Seen as a “hotbed of football”; the back-alleys of tight terraced housing was said to nurture the close control of many a England international in the 20th century, the closure of shipyards and mines provided the spark for the passion the clubs of the area invoke in their community, the people’s willingness to travel near and far for work following those closures is invariably hard-coded into the regional psyche so they think nothing of traveling to Bristol on a Tuesday night to follow their team.
For the most part this is all sycophantic nonsense the media peddle whenever there’s a deadline due for a starry eyed view of the hordes from the north, they do love football don’t they? Up there that is.
Sold Your Soul
On the 7th October 2021 Newcastle United Football Club were bought from zero-hour contract baron Mike Ashley and taken over by a consortium of property investors, private enquiry investors and Saudi Arabia’s ‘Public Investment Fund’, whose chairman is the crown prince and prime minister of the state of Saudi Arabia.
This was met with celebration, black and white clad revelers adorned in Saudi flags and traditional head scarves paraded outside St. James’ Park with smoke bombs and alcohol.
How Did We Get Here? Part I – Gulf Politics and Dead Slaves
The takeover didn’t happen overnight, it was over a year in the making. Despite constant warnings from groups like Amnesty International  and Human Rights Watch  the reason the takeover had hit troubled water was because of that constant in our lives, capitalism. Qatari media group beIN had an ongoing dispute with the Saudi state over a long Gulf feud between the 2 oil rich nations. beIN held influence with the Premier League though and sent a letter to CEO of the Premier League and also issuing a notice to 19 of the 20 Premier league clubs, Newcastle omitted. These letters weren’t against the takeover on human rights grounds but ‘lost revenue’ – Saudi owned broadcaster beoutQ (a play on beIN) had claimed to be “breaching beIN’s copyright” and they wanted solidarity from Premier League clubs in these trying COVID times.
Of course that worked, the sale of Newcastle United was blocked until the issue between Qatar and Saudi broadcasters had been resolved.
This wasn’t a surprise, Qatar doesn’t care about human rights. Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup for the first time in November 2022. A tournament and governing body not shy of controversy, happy to turn a blind eye to military juntas, fascist regimes, genocides and everything in between – FIFA preaching tolerance to our fellow man only to give the biggest sporting spectacle on Earth to murdering states is nothing new.
5,760 minutes of football will be played in Qatar in stadiums built on the bodies of 6,500  migrant workers. These migrant workers came from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, brought in under the Kafala system  a kind of sponsorship for workers in the Gulf States. The workers travel and housing is provided and they get to work for their family back home! Except of course Kafala is designed to be exploitative, many of the workers come from vulturistic recruitment agencies, the workers are housed in dorm-like apartments often with no heating or plumbing and the state gets away with this because Kafala falls under Interior Ministries and not Labour Ministries so the workers have no rights. Also because the travel visas and employment are linked to the private sponsors, complete control of these workers falls under the hands of private entities.
Workers need written permission from their employers to transfer jobs, leave their job and leave/enter the country. This is the face of modern slavery.
How Did We Get Here? Part II – English Football At Large
Football and Capitalism have always been hand-in-hand, it is what made the Premier League a global brand. It’s what drove the sanitisation of football in the early 90s, achieving what Margaret Thatcher couldn’t and “taming the football hooligan”. A more family friendly sport meant more sponsors willing to put their name to the product, more sponsors meant more money and the cycle continued.
As a result English football fans are generally less radical and conscious than their continental European counterparts.
This need for endless growth came to a head in April 2021, clubs formally put their name to a proposed breakaway league called the ‘European Super League’. The biggest clubs on the continent wanted to break from their domestic shackles and join with their ‘superclub’ brethren, only that will make the line of growth go up more.
6 of the initial 12 proposed clubs were English, not really a surprise in itself – the Premier League was a global brand, the largest brand in club football. The owners of these clubs have little connection to the game outside of a private toy, a “project” or a “vision” – they were disconnected to what their respective fanbases thought and the fanbases weren’t happy.
The following was a surprise, football fans took to the streets and exercised their right to yell at a stadium, they made witty placards, they wrote to sponsors, they chanted, they committed trespass, they threw things, they protested. Outside of smaller, localised protests this hadn’t really happened before in this country – the idea that football fans will get what they are given and they’ll like it had been shattered in that instant.
And it worked, the European Super League didn’t last a week. The idea is shelved until the owners think they can get away with it next. Football fans had found their voice, all this talk of “Against Modern Football” and ideas like “Twenty’s Plenty” and “Fan Ownership” was suddenly an option on the table.
Then What Happened?
Nothing. Football fans learned the power they could wield and did nothing with it. There’s something very English about working together to get what you wanted, making real change and then going back to the thing you complain about as if there’s nothing you can do to change it.
This brings us back neatly to Newcastle United, November 2021 and Newcastle’s own LGBT+ fan group, ‘United with Pride’, leaves ‘Pride in Football’ , a network of similar groups, amidst the controversy of the Saudi takeover. Their initial statement  left a sour taste, in Saudi Arabia it is not only illegal to be LGBT+ but in some cases punishable by death. United with Pride’s statement that they “look forward to working with the new board members” was truly the epitome of the state of high-level English football.
“‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’”
- Karl Marx
This hasn’t all happened without some internal uproar, a section of Newcastle fans have decided to take a stand against what their club is becoming – a mouthpiece for a deadly regime. ‘NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing’ have staged protests on matchdays to draw attention to what their fellow supporters are supporting.
Their protests may be somewhat performative but in an industry of bodacious graphics and multi-language broadcasting that is sometimes what is required to be talked about. At least it’s something.
The Rest of the Region
Newcastle United aren’t the only club in the North-East though, so let’s check in on how they’re doing.
Sunderland AFC, in 2022 have been under investigation by The FA (English Football’s governing body) over sectarian chanting about Derry born James McLean for the crime of not wearing a poppy on his shirt. McLean himself has given a detailed reason why he refuses to wear a symbol of British imperialism on his shirt  and the Royal British Legion themselves have defended his right to not wear one . The crux of this issue isn’t about ‘not wearing a poppy’, other players have not worn one either and got away without too much abuse, it wasn’t even strictly old fashioned Anti-Irish racism as on the day of the sectarian abuse Sunderland fans held up a display to another Irish Catholic, Niall Quinn, a man looked upon with great respect by many Sunderland fans.
It’s about British people having to come to terms that their nation wasn’t “the good guys” in the action movie they perceive history to be.
Moving on to the other of the Big 3 clubs in the region, Middlesbrough FC. Middlesbrough have had a dedicated fan group for a bit longer than Newcastle and Sunderland and the ‘Red Faction’ as they are known are a bit more vocal about local politics.
In 2015 a banner at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium read “Save Our Steel”, a rallying cry around the possible closure of the local steel mill in Redcar. This was following a banner earlier in 2015, after Channel 4 aired ‘Benefits Street’ a “poverty porn” look at how people in Stockton-on-Tees get by having to rely on the bare minimum societal safety nets put in place. The banner read “Being Poor Is Not Entertainment”.
Since those days the group have reverted back to the cookie cutter fan group routine the others in the region find themselves in. Peacocking about local pride, working class routes, dead industries and past glories.
Jumpers for Goalposts
Non-League football is often romanticized as “proper football”, “proper communities coming together” and “proper supporters”. Like many things in the language around the game, these are often condescending platitudes in lieu of actual discussion. The lower reaches of the football pyramid does have a bit more in the way of old-fashioned ‘community spirit’ behind it though. These are clubs run by volunteers for the most part, clubs with over 100 years of history whose worry is often keeping the lights on.
Here you get a wide array of clubs and people too multitudinal to really generalize but there’s no Clapton CFC, Dulwich Hamlet, West Didsbury & Chorlton in the North-East. Your Shildon AFC, Darlington Railway Athletic and Heaton Stannington are just clubs; with small fanbases who have either grown up with it, know somebody in the squad or become disillusioned with the game higher up the pyramid. There are little things though. At Mariners Park, home of South Shields FC there is often a flag donning the faces of James Connelly and Tony Benn with the words “Socialist Branch”.
These clubs will be affected most by the “Cost of Living Crisis” the government has bestowed upon us. Clubs have already canceled fixtures and discussed among themselves earlier kick off times to avoid having to use the floodlights. This is grassroots football and as such has grassroot worries about making it day to day.
Football clubs are still focal points in their communities. The larger clubs have functioning food bank drives and “in the community” groups who run anything from football camps to talks about how drugs are for mugs. Football is largely a release from the weekday drudgery, it’s singing songs to nursery rhymes for 90 minutes, it’s meeting your mates in the pub to talk about work, it’s a gambling addiction nurtured by wall-to-wall betting company ads. It’s an escape when we need to face the facts of where we are.
This isn’t a rally cry for wider change nor is it a defeatist surrender of how the grass is greener elsewhere. This is an observation of where we are now. As the North-East is trying to find its voice and break out of its shell it’s up to us to decide what we want to do. Real change comes from the bottom, and that’s true of all things from football clubs to society.
The seeds are still there, they have always been there. In this “hotbed of football” lies a flower bed of ideas and like all ideas they need care to germinate
 UK: Saudi-backed bid for Newcastle United must prompt football ownership rule changes- https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/uk-saudi-backed-bid-newcastle-united-must-prompt-football-ownership-rule-changes
 English Premier League: Urgently Adopt Human Rights Policy- https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/23/english-premier-league-urgently-adopt-human-rights-policy
 Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded- https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/23/revealed-migrant-worker-deaths-qatar-fifa-world-cup-2022
 Qatar 2022: What is Kafala?- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2koW6iiiNxc
 Newcastle’s LGBT+ fan group leaves wider Pride In Football network amid fallout from Saudi takeover – https://theathletic.com/news/newcastles-lgbt-fan-group-leaves-wider-pride-in-football-network-amid-fallout-from-saudi-takeover/Gs49xMzw1XVK/
 Our statement following the takeover of @NUFC – https://twitter.com/UtdwithPride/status/1446430202947674113
 James McClean issues open letter about his reasons for not wearing a poppy- https://www.sportsjoe.ie/football/james-mcclean-issues-open-letter-about-why-he-isnt-wearing-a-poppy-1033
 Royal British Legion stands by James McClean’s right not to wear poppy- https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/royal-british-legion-stands-by-james-mcclean-s-right-not-to-wear-poppy-1.4488902