North East football united for the Sir Bobby Robson Celebrity Golf Day at Rockliffe Hall Hotel, to raise funds for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation – on the day the Foundation announced it has now passed the £9million fundraising mark (previously £8.3 million).
The event sponsored by Pin Point Recruitment, is a popular fixture on the region’s golf calendar and brings together current and former representatives of Middlesbrough, Newcastle United and Sunderland football clubs to raise money for local people facing cancer.
Organised by Sir Bobby’s family, the event sold out well in advance and the venue was, once again, beautiful Rockliffe Hall Hotel, near Darlington.
Charity patron and Times northern sports correspondent, George Caulkin spoke with me about the work of the Foundation before running the rule over the current plight of north east football.
Fly: How many years have the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation golf days been held at Rockliffe Hall?
GC: This is four out of the last five years.
Fly: The charity seems to have gone from strength to strength?
GC: It has been absolutely extraordinary. Very humbling. A real success story when you think that originally Bobby had the idea of raising £500 000 and that was what drove him to do it and he assembled his last great team as he called it. For it to be over £8 million now and going strong and people still coming up with new and inventive ways of raising money for such an important issue is absolutely incredible.
Fly: I guess the golf day shows once again how the issue and the charity is a uniting force across all the north east football rivalries.
GC: Yes, having it here at Rockcliffe which is a real flagship for the region in terms of the golf facilities and obviously we are right next to Middlesbrough’s training ground and that feels like a powerful message too. We have representatives from Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland here today too and there are cricketers and far more besides too. There is a simple message to that, firstly cancer takes absolutely no account of where you are from and who you are and what colours you wear on your shirt. And also Sir Bobby Robson Foundation is a pan north east charity. We have got very strong Teesside representation, Steve Gibson is of course a patron of the charity and it works within the NHS but it is a region wide charity and that is a very important message for us.
Fly: It is fantastic for people in the north east to know that through their own generosity they have some of the best treatments and cutting edge drugs in this country and beyond.
GC: As a journalist you shouldn’t be asking me about facts but some of the research that’s going on is not just treatment trials it is also world class research and that stacks up against anywhere in the world and for that to be in the north east is incredibly positive. Today is a big day with lots of football and other celebrities here but really the meat and drink of our charity is normal people raising funds, whether it is the Great North Run or evenings at the village hall, whatever. And that is what drives the charity and keeps us going.
Fly: So, anyone can think up an idea and it does not preclude anyone?
GC: No and that is it. We are a charity that has no running costs. We don’t have any permanent members of staff. We are fully based within the NHS. That is also important. We are very proud of that connection. We are open to all. Again I think that is very important because the disease is something that will have touched everybody at some point or other, whether it is to them, family or friends.
Fly: Can I ask you about north east football?
GC: We are standing in an oasis of positivity here. It is brilliant to see Middlesbrough doing so well, fingers crossed this will be their year. Very encouraging. Obviously we have got sad news in the region in terms of steel but the football club yet again is being a beacon for the town and the area and that is great, long may that continue. In terms of Sunderland and Newcastle it’s pretty much more of the same and it is pretty depressing, it has to be said.
Fly: The troubles in Newcastle and Sunderland seem far deeper than just a manager.
GC: Yes there are fundamental… at Sunderland it is a groundhog day existence. They are in their cycle of changing managers once a season, it feels like. The incredible miracles that they are having and then not being able to build on it; it means they are resetting each time. It shows the Premier League isn’t everything and is not the be all and end all and being there isn’t the only thing that matters it is about having an identity, it is about standing for something. Sunderland has been there for 9 years and if they went down I don’t think they would leave a footprint apart from how brilliant their fans are, particularly away from home. And that is very sad.
Newcastle, there are all sorts of questions about the structure of the club, the system that they have, whether it can thrive. Last season felt like a nadir but it certainly shows that that is not going to be solved by splurging a bit of money over the summer and a new head coach.
Fly: Gary Neville recently wrote about the decline of football in the north and a power shift away to the south.
GC: I read that and he said at the end that he was asking a question as opposed to making a theory and a lot of that resonated. For me, the issue is more about identity and is that identity being lost and for me it comes down to money and that is absolutely the biggest thing.
Fly: The stakes are so high.
GC: Yes, the stakes are so high. If you take Newcastle as an example. Twenty years ago they were challenging for the title and what happened after that in terms of the new managers they brought in, you never questioned for a moment what the desire, what the aim was. It was this, almost heartbreaking, or maybe amusing if you are a Boro fan, ache for a trophy. It was about winning something. Now, suddenly that has gone. There has been this real question of identity and purpose. It is only this summer, that Ashley said they want to win something again. So, what is the point of being a football fan?
And Sunderland have had the annual push to survive but to what end? So, that they can play Stoke again next season? It is not universal. You look at other teams and how they do have an identity and way of playing and can build on that. Swansea and Southampton are the examples often used. But certainly for Tyne and Wear, the identity and point of the football clubs has been lost.
Fly: Only going back 3 or 4 years there were a lot of teams from the north west in the top flight and maybe Hull as an outpost in Yorkshire.
GC: Yorkshire as a patch has disappeared. Certainly in terms of journalism.
Fly: There is a lot of mismanagement.
GC: There is a lot. I don’t know how much is cyclical. Again Gary Neville talked about that and again there is a case to make that point. Then, the longer you don’t have the Premier money, the longer you don’t have the tv money, the more difficult it is to get back.
Fly: Did you notice in the Capital One Cup a load of Championship sides put out weaker teams, even in the case of Ipswich they played a far weaker side at Old Trafford than Man U?
GC: Yes and I find that so sad. Newcastle contrived to lose to a Sheffield Wednesday team that had made ten changes. It didn’t matter, they won. But it is bizarre. Again it shows how the whole ethos of football has changed. Certainly in the Premier League, the guiding emotion seems to be fear. Particularly now it is about fear of going down. That is what is guiding a football club. I know a lot of people who have drifted away from Newcastle, in terms of fans, the crowds have more or less held up but a lot of people of my generation and older have drifted away because of that sense of what a club is about and what it should be for them has gone.
Fly: The only excitement is experienced in surviving.
GC: Yes. But to what end? To do it again the next year?
Fly: We are standing here at Rockcliffe next to the HQ for Middlesbrough and we are riding high second in the league. We were able to crush Wolves recently in the Capital One Cup when we both had made multiple changes but our second eleven looked a league above. So, we have real strength in depth.
GC: Yes. I have not seen Middlesbrough so far this season and I must rectify that as quickly as I can. From the outside, the pleasing thing is what happened at the end of last season there hasn’t been a reaction to that, in terms of hangover, in terms of disappointment. That can happen; it is quite easy for that mood to infiltrate a club and for that disappointment to linger. I know that Aitor Karanka wouldn’t stand for that but there is this feeling of relentlessness. That they have gone again and they have set their stall out very early which is very encouraging. Yes, it does feel like Middlesbrough is a beacon of hope here at the minute.
There is a big online auction at present being previewed at the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation site and lots more details about the amazing charity.