THE Tyne-Wear derby has mutated into a monster. Tame it – like Paolo Di Canio did on Sunday afternoon – and it will be your friend forever. Allow it to consume you and its capacity to savage reputations is limitless.
With his Newcastle team ripped to shreds on a history-making afternoon at sombre St James’ Park, Alan Pardew is about to feel its full force.
It was not always like this, of course. In days of yore the derby record was more balanced and the rivalry a sub-plot to two clubs pushing for greater success than just reigning over a patch of 100 or so miles in the North East of England.
But 50 years without a trophy and the increasing tribalism of Premier League football has added edge and urgency to these derby-day clashes. They matter, and humiliation will visit a unique kind of pressure on the losing manager.
Pardew knows the rhythms of this area well enough by now and will be expecting an onslaught. His team carried the bigger reputation into Sunday’s derby but were routed by Di Canio’s passion play. The most damning criticism of his team was the one expressed in bars up and down wounded Tyneside – Sunderland looked as if they wanted it more.
The fatigue mitigation was probably medically correct. The outspoken Raymond Verheijen, number two to Gary Speed in his Wales days, is a passionate advocate of proper recovery time and pointed out yesterday that both Chelsea and Newcastle had been underwhelming after their Thursday exertions.
As far as excuses go, however, it was never likely to warrant sympathy from Newcastle supporters. Had it been a one-off it would have been bad enough – the fact is United have consistently underachieved this season.
In truth, beating the Black Cats would have been papering over the cracks that have emerged this season. In the Premier League at least, this has been a bitterly disappointing campaign – and those at the top know it.
The indications from the boardroom are that there will be frank discussions in the summer. There need to be.
For while the first meeting of the club’s transfer committee has already taken place, recruitment will be rendered pointless unless issues that have festered all season are salved by Pardew and his coaching staff.
Derek Llambias remains steadfast in his support of the manager. He insists the appetite for chopping and changing does not exist, but Pardew has been wounded by this. His reputation will be put back together piece by piece in the coming weeks and even surviving in the Premier League – the barest minimum expected – will do little to consign memories of a season of struggle.
For while United have been dreadfully unfortunate with injuries, some of their problems strike closer to home. Dead balls, for example. No team in the Premier League has scored fewer from corners (just one) and they have rarely looked dangerous from free-kicks either, unless Yohan Cabaye has artfully chipped them over the wall. He is capable of that kind of alchemy yet they rarely apply pressure in the opposition box. No amount of tinkering with routines or takers seems to have changed that.
Key men seem to have treaded water this year – or even gone backwards. Cheick Tioté is a case in point. The only redeeming feature of his derby-day experience was that he wasn’t booked, although there was little else to celebrate.
That, unfortunately, has been a trend this year yet when the Ivorian has been fit and available, he has always started. It has left Vurnon Anita kicking his heels in frustration.
Papiss Cissé is another. His 13-goal contribution this season is an illustration of his enduring goal-scoring class but he has been utilised in one system after another that has failed to recapture the menace he exhibited last season.
Indulging Demba Ba despite his lingering desire to move on was a mistake in spite of the contribution he made. Ba collected goals and bolstered his reputation but the team laboured and moving Cissé to the right wing felt like an unhappy compromise.
Now he is asked to plough a lone furrow and while the goals have returned to his game, Newcastle don’t look as dangerous as an attacking unit with Cissé spearheading and Sissoko playing as a forraging number ten.
We had assumed the January spending spree had injected enough momentum into the club to guide them clear of relegation but the anxiety remains. Sissoko, perhaps yearning for a return to a more familiar midfield role, has tailed off while Yoan Gouffran has offered little since he suffered an injury at Tottenham in February.
This is not a time for rash judgements, of course. Plenty of things will be said and done over the next few days but the spike of post-derby emotion must be allowed to subside before rational and sober judgements are made. It is also worth remembering that Newcastle’s squad is stacked with more talent than at any point since Sir Bobby Robson’s heyday and the man in charge won the manager of the year award last year.
The picture off the field remains rosy and the revolution will continue to roll this summer, with planning already under way.
But it has become obvious over the last three months that Newcastle United cannot continue to follow the same path and hope to recapture last season’s fifth-placed finish.
There is a pressing need for Pardew to show he is the man to affect that change, or the derby monster will claim another victim.