This is why we follow football, for games like this. Derby games are huge matches, in an area of the world that is football-mad, and we all have great memories from our favourite Wear-Tyne battles. My best are from those two Quinn/Phillips-inspired 2-1 wins at St. James in 1999 and 2000 - see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-_NOH2X05w and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lgvunhc-My4&feature=related - stunning goals as well as great times for the Red and White Army! Since the two cities are separated by less than 16 miles, and with towns and residential areas in between where supporters are mixed, bragging rights are so very important. The scum, aka the deluded barcodes, as the opposition are known to Sunderland fans, come into the game on the back of a decent win at West Ham.
What is so hard to understand, though and something Steve Bruce has commented on in the media – why is Chris Hughton under pressure? OK, they have lost two home games this season, and their only win a St. James' came in the 6-0 hammering of a disorganised, managerless Aston Villa, but his efforts in getting the club promoted last season should be recognised. The away performances have been solid and Hughton has given opportunities to younger players who have responded to him.
Last week the club felt it necessary to release a statement on the back of speculation surrounding Hughton's future, reading: "Chris is our manager and will remain our manager. It's our intention to renegotiate his contract at the end of the year." Not exactly effusive in its praise of the guy who has turned them around and brought back some respect and continuity. Why not just give him a 12-month rolling contract? Or is there a delusion that the club should be in the top four, with Keegan waiting in the wings? For Keegan to ever consider returning, the club would have to be under new ownership. Makes great soap-opera, though.
To the outside observer, Newcastle seem to have a self-destructive streak that comes from the top. You get the feeling that the owner, Mike Ashley is of dubious character and is just not welcome at his own club. Newcastle may call themselves United, but do not seem so from the outside, especially given the disarray seen during their relegation season. In contrast, Sunderland are moving ahead with a long-term plan to be challenging at the very top, by developing home-grown talent and signing quality young players. The owner is committed to the club and its long-term development, Niall Quinn is a legend as chairman with great knowledge of the game and Steve Bruce is a respected manager and a great communicator. There is an clear in-house unity at the club, which is so important for progress of any business.
I see the game itself being tight with a fantastic atmosphere and could easily be settled by a single goal. Given the miserly nature of the Sunderland defence, I could easily see this match going the Black Cats’ way, but Derby games, with so much at stake, are notoriously hard to predict.
©Lars J.S. Knutsen