Michael Walker first arrived in the north-east as a student in 1984. Ten years later he returned as a football reporter for The Guardian. He has been there ever since working also for The Observer, The Independent and Daily Mail. In 2006 he was commissioned by The Irish Times to write a season-long series on Sunderland, then Irish-owned and with Roy Keane as manager. Those articles formed the germ of the idea of this book.
2 MARCH 2014. Down and down, grey concrete step after grey concrete step until the bowels of Wembley stadium are reached. The descent is all but silent and there will be no joy at the end of it. We have come to hear the losers speak.
In the steepling press room the Sunderland manager Gus Poyet answers questions in English and Spanish, speaking of his pride as well as his disappointment. It is brief. Sunderland have failed better, but they have failed again. Poyet can say only so much.
Manchester City 3 Sunderland 1 in the League Cup final meant another year is added. It will now be at least 42 years since Sunderland visited Wembley and took home the silverware. The veterans of the 1973 FA Cup win over Leeds United will be another year older, their memories will need dusting down again.
But the nature of Sunderland's performance, strong and coherent, also meant the 35,000-odd fans climbing on buses and trains, meeting at petrol stations and platforms, could take a sense of spirited defeat with them back to Wearside. The night before the game had seen a friendly red and white striped invasion of Covent Garden. Sunderland had enjoyed themselves, fans spoke of a renewal of belief in their club. There was something to cling to.
Yet they were returning up the M1 and east coast main line without the cup. Middlesbrough's victory in the same competition on the same weekend ten years earlier remained the last time the north-east was the home of a major trophy, meaning the north-east had still won one trophy in more than four decades.
This book is called Up There for a reason and it is not football's standard usage of up there, when a player or manager employs it to describe success: so-and-so is 'up there' with the best.
The reason is geographic. It reflects the sense of apartness and difference that the north-east feels internally, and to the rest of England, certainly historically. Part of that is distance, part of it was industry and part of it is political. Part of it is football.
The north-east's deep feeling for football is part of the region's character. It is riveted to the game. The same can be said of Merseyside, Manchester, areas of London and elsewhere in England, but if there is a difference, it is that the north-east's attachment has not been maintained by success.
In other places the month of May has frequently brought silverware and celebration; in the north-east May has often confirmed emptiness and a long wait until the next season. In that sense, it's not up there.
Middlesbrough did win that League Cup in 2004 and reached the Uefa Cup final two years later, while Newcastle United were Champions League group-stage participants three times between 1997 and 2004.
But Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sunderland have each been relegated since Boro's League Cup and over a prolonged period of time stretching back to the 1950s and even before the Second World War, the three 'big' north-east clubs have been down as often as they have been middling, never mind up there.
Middlesbrough have never been champions of England or won the FA Cup. Sunderland have not been league winners since 1936, Newcastle since 1927, before the Tyne Bridge was completed. The year 2015 will mark the 60th anniversary of Newcastle's last domestic trophy, the 1955 FA Cup. Sixty years.
This could be a geographic quirk. An area of such supportive desire would be expected to have achieved more, much more. In recent times, as Premier League salaries have mushroomed and foreign players have spoken of wanting to go 'to London' as opposed to any particular club there, the north-east trio have had to work harder to get players up there. Working harder usually translates as higher wages and this has knock-on effects.
Historically this was no