I was there when the north arrived. Some believe it happened in 1963, when the Beatles’ first LP came out and sex arrived, according to Larkin. I prefer to date it to 1964. That was the year when, at long last, I was given control of the Atticus column in the Sunday Times. I had been the boy assistant for over three years, writing paragraphs about who would be the next master of Balliol or archbishop of Canterbury, as if I cared. What I really wanted to write about was gritty northern novelists, Merseyside pop singers and long-haired footballers. And it all came to pass. Almost overnight, they became the national flavour. That’s my memory. Which I intend to stick to. For ever.
Now I worry that the north has had it. Northerners’ lives are ten years shorter than for cosseted southerners. They have no money. Half their high street shops are empty and you can buy a terrace house for £1.
Is it a factor in explaining why so many northern football teams are rubbish? That’s what Gary Neville has observed and Sam Allardyce at Sunderland has acknowledged.
Big Sam remembers how when he was managing Bolton in the Eighties there were more top-division clubs around him in Lancashire than any other region. Now Bolton and Blackburn, along with Burnley, Preston, Oldham, Blackpool and Wigan, have all slithered down the slopes.
Even more shocking and surprising, the whole of Yorkshire has not got one team in the Prem. Yet Leeds, Huddersfield, Sheffields United and Wednesday and Bradford City were once among the football aristocracy.
As for the north-east, if Newcastle and Sunderland go down this season, which seems likely, and Middlesbrough don’t drag themselves up, that will be it, the north-east will be a football wilderness. All my childhood, I firmly believed, as all boys did, that the Geordies, along with the Scots, produced the best footballers in the world. The north-east could well go the way of Scotland and become a football disaster zone.
The exception is, of course, Manchester, with its two starry clubs, but you could argue they are no longer northern. They’re foreign-owned – Yanks and Arabs – foreign-managed and filled with foreign players.
The northern problem is not just economics, but social and cultural. Both Sunderland and Newcastle now find it harder to attract foreign stars. Their wives take one look at the map and go, ugh, not living up there, what about Bournemouth, look it’s almost in London, and Watford, that can’t be far from some decent shops, and Leicester, bound to have good trains to London. All of them, as we speak, are in the Prem, enjoying the perks plus the glow of the south.
Bournemouth gets small crowds, but it can pay Prem wages, as can be seen in the car park. They were in the bottom division of the Football League just five years ago, driving beat-up Fords. Yann Kermorgant, one of their strikers – whose name and goals have yet to register with me – has just bought a £120,000 Porsche 911. That’s according to the Sun, so it must be true.
Is it all part of a cycle, in which the north will rise again? Football began when old boys from Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow and Westminster came together, and in 1863 the FA was formed. Until the 1880s, football was mainly a southern, middle-class activity. Then in 1888 the Football League was formed. Professional football had arrived and the northern working classes flocked to it. The original 12 members were Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke City, West Brom, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Notice anything? Half were from Lancashire, the rest from around the Midlands. None from London or the south.
From then on, the north was a powerhouse of our football. And so it has remained. Until, well, who knows? In the Championship, Brighton look as if they will soon bounce back. In League One, Gillingham is leading. In League Two, Plymouth are well on top, followed by Oxford. Bloody southerners, eh?
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror