NEWCASTLE United’s second coming as a Premier League team will begin with a baptism of fire after they were paired with two of the division’s strongest sides in the season’s first fortnight.
A trip to Manchester United on the opening weekend, likely to be shifted to a Sunday for television purposes, is no one’s idea of a gentle introduction to life back in the top flight and it doesn’t get much easier for Chris Hughton’s men when they kick off their home campaign with the visit of Aston Villa.
United’s support were split into two schools of thought after the fixtures were released yesterday morning – one reckoning it would be a decent time to face a Manchester United side likely to be fatigued after the World Cup and another that would have wished for a more winnable opening game.
Immediately, Hughton will be targeting a trip to Wolves on August 28 and a home game with Blackpool on September 11 as matches where United must pick up points to avoid a long struggle.
But he will not write off the trip to Old Trafford either – hoping that history (United drew there on the opening day of the 2008/9 season), Manchester United’s traditional slow start and his own side’s momentum will collide to produce a competitive game.
“It is a tough opening game, but we will not be going anywhere next season with an inferiority complex – you just can’t afford to,” he said yesterday.
“We will believe we can go anywhere and get points next season, and Old Trafford will be no different. We have to take confidence from the fact we went there two seasons ago and got a good point in that game.
“Manchester United’s recent record doesn’t lie and, of course, they are a very good side, so we will have to be at our best. But the lads will be well-prepared and we’ll look forward to it.”
As well as the opening fixtures, United fans were anxiously checking the fixture list for the dates of the Tyne-Wear derby.
October 30 is the first collision of the North East’s big two at St James’ Park before a January 15 reverse that is sure to warm the cockles.
United will hope to be comfortably mid-table before the final six games of the season. Although they bring the curtain down by hosting West Brom, they must also negotiate a reverse fixture with Manchester United (April 16), a trip to Liverpool (April 30) and the visit of Chelsea (May 14).
Across the river Tyne, Sunderland boss Steve Bruce will reflect on the fixture gods smiling kindly on his side again.
They begin at home with the visit of ambitious, big-spending Birmingham City before travelling to West Bromwich Albion – who will give them the perfect opportunity to banish those away day demons that undermined them last season. Manchester City are the visitors on the last weekend of August before a trip to Wigan Athletic in a four-game sequence that Sunderland will expect to yield a minimum of two victories.
If that is a gentle start, it is nothing compared to a final six games that gives Bruce’s side every opportunity to finish on the front foot.
Birmingham, Wigan, Fulham, Bolton, Wolves and West Ham present their own challenges, but if Sunderland are serious about a crack at the top eight there are points to be gained from that run-in.
“We had two competitive games against Birmingham last season and I’m sure the first day of the new season will be no different,” the Black Cats said. “I’m sure everyone will be looking to get off to a decent start, but we will have to work hard. It will be nice to begin the season at home after being away last year.
“But I’m sure the two derby matches are the first games the supporters will have looked for. We welcome Newcastle back into the Premier League and look forward to locking horns with them. Being from the North East, I know how much is at stake in these games.”