This could be a classic year for North East sport

WHAT better time than Easter to complete the North East and Cumbria’s remarkable sporting resurrection?

WHAT better time than Easter to complete the North East and Cumbria’s remarkable sporting resurrection?

Just three years ago we provided the Premier League with three of the main players in the grim spectacle dubbed Survival Sunday.

In case anyone’s memory requires a jump start, Newcastle United and Middlesbrough slithered into the abyss, while Sunderland retained their top-flight status almost by default.

Further down the leagues, Hartlepool and Carlisle United battled to avoid the relegation trap door while Newcastle Falcons showed few signs of life at the wrong end of the Premiership.

Today, our complaints are all relative. Martin O’Neill employs the hairdryer treatment for the first time because his Sunderland side slipped up at Blackburn but they are within touching distance of Wembley. Alan Pardew’s attention, meanwhile, is focused on finding a formula to unlock a potentially lethal partnership of Papiss Demba Cissé and Demba Ba.

Incredibly, they are within touching distance of Chelsea in fifth place with just nine games remaining.

As the region finally wriggles free of winter’s icy embrace, minds across the region are being re-focused towards the business end of the season.

With so many on the cusp of achieving great things, 2012 could be a vintage year for the North East. It could begin at the top level of English football, where Newcastle and Sunderland both find relevance once more.

At St James’ Park, Pardew is at pains to point out in public that progress has been made, even if they fall short of their European aim.

But behind closed doors the message is a different one. There has been much talk about grasping an opportunity that has arrived a couple of years earlier than expected – and much credit has to go to Mike Ashley for seizing the initiative by signing Cissé in January. The Senegal striker might not have quite reached premium levels of performance yet but his three goals so far have been crucial. There are hints of Andy Cole about the leggy forward with the lethal predatory touch, and he holds the key to Newcastle’s hopes of finishing in either sixth place or above.

They are somewhat spluttering if recent performances are anything to go by, but United are doing enough.

An Easter clash with Liverpool at St James’ Park promises to be the biggest game in the city since promotion was achieved – win there and Continental competition, and all the possibilities that brings, is suddenly within view again.

With their best season for a decade unfolding, Sunderland can rightly dream of Wembley. They were tepid at Ewood Park but the season will reach boiling point at a febrile Stadium of Light on Tuesday. And an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley’s hallowed ground would be the beginning of a new chapter in Black Cats history. Martin O’Neill has been a revelation. He has turned a season of dire drift into one with direction, and Sunderland must now be regarded as dark horses to lift the FA Cup. Certainly there is no one left in the competition to strike fear in Black Cat hearts.

In English football’s second tier, the Tony Mowbray-led revival at the Riverside faces a crucial few weeks.

An encouraging point at Upton Park illustrated that they will not be short on fighting spirit as they home in on an npower Championship play-off place.

Drop down a division, and Carlisle – helmed so superbly by Greg Abbott – are beating the odds in their own play-off push.

Sixth in League One at the moment, they will be dangerous opponents for anyone as the final straight appears in view.

But it is not just our football clubs that are enjoying a sporting renaissance. Since the dawning of the Fab Flournoy era, the normally reliable Newcastle Eagles measure their achievements by a different standard. Last year’s barren campaign raised eyebrows and with the assembling of a stellar cast of homegrown players on Merseyside, there were fears that Newcastle’s dominance of the British game was at an end.

But with the North West-based Tigers neutered by crippling financial worries, the Eagles are currently plotting a tried and tested route to success.

Veteran players have been recruited, the core of Flournoy’s side re-signed and the Eagles are enjoying their most consistent season ever.

If they can marry that phenomenal ability to grind out results with stepping up their game at a crucial time, it may yet be their best.

A clean sweep is within sight but last weekend’s Trophy final defeat in Plymouth poses them a huge challenge.

They are nine points down ahead of tomorrow’s second leg at Sport Central and it would be a marvellous achievement if they could overturn that advantage.

With the shooting ability of Joe Chapman and the magic of Charles Smith, they could yet do it. Even at Kingston Park, a place where disappointment has become the default setting over the past decade, there are finally shards of light. Semore Kurdi secured the biggest coup of his fledgling Falcons ownership so far by recruiting Dean Richards as next season’s director of rugby.

It has provided a much-needed shot in the arm for a club that has drifted towards mediocrity for too long.

Richards can have no impact on this season’s relegation fight, but his imminent arrival gives the psychological lift that many supporters have been waiting for since John Fletcher’s contentious sacking in 2008.

Crowds should rise and even rugby’s mission impossible – overturning an eight-point gap to ninth-placed London Wasps – suddenly seems slightly more plausible.

Gary Gold will return to South Africa as a Falcons legend if he manages it, although the feeling persists that Newcastle can finally break the cycle of failure, whatever this season’s outcome.

A reborn Falcons would be welcome guests at 2012’s sporting success party.

Page 3 - Glory hunting >>

Glory hunting

WHY 2012 is shaping up to be a vintage year – and why the next few weeks are crucial to our high hopes ...

FOOTBALL

Sixth-placed Newcastle United are on the verge of returning to Europe for the first time since 2003. Alan Pardew says they need four wins out of nine to book their place in the Europa League, starting with West Brom on Sunday.

Rejuvenated Sunderland are 90 minutes from Wembley – and two games from the FA Cup final. They take on Everton in the quarter-final replay at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday.

Middlesbrough remain in the hunt for a return to the Premier League. They are in the play-offs and a run of four games in a fortnight starts on Saturday when they host Bristol City.

Carlisle are in a three-way battle for sixth place in League One. They are currently in the final play-off place but have a crucial trio of games against promotion rivals that starts on Saturday against Colchester. Huddersfield and MK Dons are the next two up.

In the FA Vase, Wembley beckons for West Auckland and Dunston. Both are in semi-final action this weekend.

BASKETBALL

Eagles can clinch the BBL title in the next two weeks.

NEWCASTLE FALCONS

At last, after

nearly a decade of decline, there are signs of life at Kingston Park. The Falcons have an eight-point gap to make up in the league, but the appointment of Dean Richards has renewed optimism and Semore Kurdi's commitment hints at a brighter future.

OLYMPICS:

Two North East boxers are looking to qualify for the Olympics before the April 22nd deadline. Sunderland's Warren Baister and Simon Vallily, of Middlesbrough, are both in contention.

Swimmers Aimee Willmott, Jo Jackson and Jemma Lowe are all London-bound after last week's trials.

Alyson Dixon is hoping for qualification at April's London Marathon.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer