In a season that has been dominated by headlines pertaining mostly to the Big Four (along with Manchester City and Tottenham), one region of England’s rich footballing world that has often been overlooked is the northeast.
This season brought a lot of excitement to Tyneside and Wearside. The Toon faithful have to be enjoying life after just two seasons ago they regained promotion from the then Coca-Cola Championship league. Now the Magpies sit comfortably in seventh, just behind Liverpool, after an incredible performance against Manchester United where Demba Ba’s magnificent winner sparked a 3-0 upset.
On Wearside, spirits are just as high. Sunderland is a team on the rise. Despite Steve Bruce’s best efforts he was unable to unlock Sunderland’s potential. With the late and unexpected departure of Asamoah Gyan accompanied with Danny Welbeck’s return to Manchester United after last season’s loan spell the Black Cats found it very difficult to be offensively potent under Bruce. Enter Martin O’Neill, The former Aston Villa boss who does seem to have found the keys to success at Sunderland.
O’Neill owes a lot of credit to the likes of Stephane Sessegnon and David Vaughan who have recently been in tremendous form. Vaughan and Sessegnon have provided fans with a lot to cheer about, both have been creative in the final third and both have been the creators of some fantastic recent goals. Along with young James McClean and Conor Wickham there is a bright future for the Stadium of Light.
However, this season has been even more memorable for fans on the other side of the Tyne-Wear derby. Alan Pardew has been magnificent since replacing Chris Hughton over a year ago. Bringing in Demba Ba from relegated West Ham was a necessary move after seeing Andy Carroll leave to replace Fernando Torres in a flurry of deadline day moves last January. Along with the arrival of Yohan Cabaye, from French champions Lille, and the return of Hatem Ben-Arfa, who suffered a devastating leg-break courtesy of Nigel De Jong early last season, Pardew should have a lot of faith in his squad. Fabricio Colocini and Danny Simpson have been studs in the back and Tim Krul has been very impressive between the posts. This squad held onto the second longest unbeaten streak in the league and sat as high as third early in the season. Now they are comfortably perched in seventh and shouldn’t soon be moving down.
In modern football the mid-table teams are too often overlooked. In northeast England, though, these clubs mean a great deal to their fans. The Tyne-Wear rivalry pre-dates the days of Football and can be traced back to political rows caused in the English Civil War. In 1883 the rivalry hit the pitch for the first time and in 1888 Sunderland won the first competitive fixture of the derby 2-0 in an F.A. Cup match. Since then Newcastle have had the better record with 53 wins, 45 losses, and 45 draws. However, the past is in the past and the future of this fixture is a very enticing prospect. Although it is still a couple of months away (March 3) this is a fixture that’s been circled on many calendars for quite a while.
The first meeting of the two sides this season saw Newcastle grab a 1-0 second half winner courtesy of a brilliant Ryan Taylor free-kick in the 62nd minute. However, the next fixture should be even more thrilling. The first meeting took place on August 20th, meaning that the likes of Gyan, Anton Ferdinand and Joey Barton were all involved. All three have since moved on, but both teams seem to be stronger now than they were then. Not to mention that now that January is upon us both O’Neill and Pardew will be looking to strengthen their squads even more.
In the weeks leading up to this derby it is hard to imagine that Newcastle will slip below seventh with QPR, Fulham, Blackburn, Aston Villa, Tottenham, and Wolves all on the fixture list. With the exception of Tottenham these are all matches that the Magpies should expect to get points out of. However the recent performance against United should have even Harry Redknapp on his toes when the Toon faithful venture south to WHL.
Sunderland, on the other hand, may find it difficult to maintain their recent run of form and their top-half position in the table. Chelsea, Arsenal, and United are all on the schedule along with Swansea City, Norwich, and Stoke City. These are six difficult opponents, the three big names should provide obvious problems for Sunderland, but Swans, Norwich, and Stoke can be equally as difficult to play against in their own ways. Paul Lambert’s Canaries are proving they have what it takes to stay up, Brendan Rodgers’ Swans have provided us with some beautiful football all season, and Tony Pulis’ Potters are a gritty team that can cause anyone problems. But with the run of form that O’Neill has this squad in the dressing room morale should be through the roof. It also helps to know that you are one of only two teams to beat league-leaders Manchester City this season.
So with the transfer window open and both northeast England top division sides giving their fans plenty to smile about this game should already be in the back of your minds. O’Neill and Pardew have both brought joy to clubs with very rich histories and extremely passionate fans. Depending on the moves they make in January the football should only bring more joy to Wearside and Tyneside. It is definitely too early to predict a winner but after a 5-1 thrashing on Halloween of 2010, a 1-1 draw in return fixture (courtesy of some late Gyan heroics), and the 1-0 loss in August Sunderland may finally be able to swing the tide back to Wearside.