Newcastle and Sunderland…where to begin? They may not be the most recognisable teams in the world and I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people in the world that have never even heard of these two places. They sound quite simple settlements, yet the history in the North East England is spectacular and you’ll hear any pundit coin phrases such as “football is life up there”. Being a proud Northumbrian (and a Newcastle fan – but I am trying my hardest to remain unbiased here!), I never know how to take such statements; I don’t like for my home to be boiled down into such simplicity, yet I cannot deny the fact that life revolves around football in the North East and the pure passion for our football teams is something else. To put into context how much hate exists between these two cities, you only need to look at the fact that even in the English Civil War Sunderland and Newcastle took opposing sides. It is time to take a look at one of England’s biggest games – The Geordies V The Mackems.
Now in most years this is quite a big deal, but this year it has a bit of an extra edge to it. In the 2008/09 season, both Newcastle and Sunderland had a bit of a struggle on their hands and both ended up in a last day relegation battle which eventually saw Newcastle fall into the Championship. Sunderland fans rejoiced, as their club which had suffered so many relegations in previous seasons, finally got a chance to gloat at Newcastle fans that their club was the top representative in the North East and it appeared that things could only get worse for the Toon. A 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Leyton Orient caused players to stand up and tell those who didn’t want to be there that they should just leave, which in turn united the club as a tightly knit unit lead by then interim manager Chris Hughton. Hughton was given the manager’s job on a full time basis and became a hero to the fans by stopping a sinking ship and bringing some pride back to the Magpies. Newcastle were back in the Premier League and all the fans could think of was getting revenge on Sunderland fans for all their tormenting.
Meanwhile, Sunderland had a productive season under new manager Steve Bruce – a born and bred Geordie. The fans didn’t take too well to their club being run by ‘one of the enemy’, but the signing of Darren Bent proved to be a master stroke by the club, who had a fantastic goal scoring season and became an instant hit with the Black Cat fans. New owners, a new manager and a top goal scorer seemed to suggest that Sunderland were finally stabilising their Premier League status and they had a comfortable season in the end and the fans felt that they were really building towards something good. Put on top of that the emergence of Jordan Henderson and Sunderland fans finally felt like their club was the centre of attention in the North East.
So the Mackems and the Geordies have had well over a year now to continue the old argument without any way of momentarily solving it. There has been no match for over a year and although this has happened before, this time it feels like we are on another level. Not to say that tension hasn’t been felt for a while, you only need to be in the city of Newcastle or Sunderland to know how passionate this derby is, as a victory for your team means bragging rights until the next game. What we have this year though is two clubs with a point to prove to each other. Newcastle were relegated and want to reaffirm that they are back in this league to stay, lead by a group of players with a certain togetherness that hasn’t been seen at the club for quite some time. The Geordies faithful are also looking for revenge for the gloating from Sunderland fans following their relegation. Sunderland on the other hand want to prove that they are now the dominate force in the North East, they have a poor record against Newcastle in previous years and fans feel that after finally getting an overdue home win over Newcastle in 08/09, they can build and dominate their opposites. Basically, we have been at boiling point for some time right now and it is ready to explode.
The game itself is one that only the bravest could call. Newcastle have been amazing away from home this season, yet they haven’t felt home comforts since their 6-0 drubbing of Aston Villa (which I’m sure a repeat performance would be welcome by the fans on Sunday). At St. James’ they seem to lack a real cutting edge and seem quite reluctant at times to attempt to take the game to their opponents. You can’t really take anything from the midweek cup game against Arsenal (which wasn’t a full force Newcastle side), but in their last home league game the side were lucky to get a point against Wigan in some respects. Something unwanted by the club is the media built pressure on Chris Hughton, which has left Toon fans confused as to who exactly is echoing these statements as the crowd continue to chant his name at every game. In any case, a good way to address this “pressure” would be for Hughton to pick up a derby victory at his first attempt; making him even more of a hero to the Geordie following.
Sunderland on the other hand have gone on what would seem an impressive unbeaten run, yet they have only scored 8 goals this season and didn’t exactly dominate Aston Villa in their previous game. They played well, but much like Newcastle at home some times, there wasn’t exactly a real cutting edge from the side that screamed out goals. They have had a good start to the season built upon a solid defence, but many of their games have ended as draws and more of an attacking threat may have seen them be even higher than they are now. But that shouldn’t take anything away from their great defence this season; they will be hopeful that it can shut off the likes of Carroll and Nolan from causing havoc in the box. Asamoah Gyan has fizzled into obscurity since his arrival at the Stadium Of Light, but a derby goal could really kick start his Sunderland career.
The obvious key man for Sunderland here is Darren Bent. Out of those previously mentioned 8 goals, Bent has scored five of them and Sunderland rely upon him to fire them to victory. Everyone knows he is the danger man and I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris Hughton tells in form defender Fabricio Coloccini to stay on Bent from the moment he gets off the team bus and that could prove an interesting battle. As for Newcastle, I may surprise a lot of you by saying that Shola Ameobi is the key man for Newcastle. You can say what you like about the long serving Nigerian-Geordie, when it comes to the derby it is his time. No one is quite sure why, but Shola just loves scoring against Sunderland and providing he starts (which he should considering Newcastle’s previous performance against West Ham) then he may well find himself on the score sheet once again.
If you have never seen these two go at it before then you are in for a real treat. Two sets of fans that never agree on anything and make beating each other their number one priority. You can feel the tension from anywhere when watching them play, the atmosphere, passion and build up to the game is something quite unique and they very rarely fail to create a talking point. It is all to play for this weekend; will you be black and white or red and white come 1.30pm (BST) this Sunday?
Follow on Twitter: @Clusks (I will be updating my thoughts from the game this Sunday and it may provide good entertainment to see me completely lose my cool!)