NEWCASTLE United’s derby supremacy last season was built on a firm foundation of experience.
Man-for-man you could barely separate the fierce Tyne-Wear rivals all season, something borne out by the fact they were virtually level pegging until the final minutes of an incredible rollercoaster campaign.
But over 180 minutes battling for regional supremacy it was a completely different story – Newcastle’s seasoned campaigners rising to the fore and stamping their authority on one-sided contests at both St James’ Park and the Stadium of Light.
Time and again in the Halloween showdown in particular they punished a young Sunderland side’s inexperience, with Kevin Nolan, Shola Ameobi and Joey Barton stamping their authority on a contest that became, much to everyone’s surprise, embarrassingly straightforward for the hosts.
It was a memory clearly stuck in Steve Bruce’s head if his summer recruitment drive is anything to go by.
Six of his ten new recruits have Premier League experience and the two Manchester United newcomers have both won top-flight titles and numerous Manchester derbies in decorated careers, something which shifts the balance of power significantly as Saturday’s high noon showdown hurtles towards us.
For while United still edge things in the experience stakes – the presence of Steven Taylor and Shola Ameobi could be critical – there is a narrowing of the gap between the two sides after summers of change in both Tyneside and Wearside.
What impact, for example, will the loss of Nolan have on Newcastle?
Alan Pardew admitted before the season started that United will miss certain “traits” that his former skipper provided, including the influencing of referees and opposition players.
One Newcastle insider recalls a time before a big game last season when Nolan turned to his opposite number in the tunnel and asked whether he was all right. “You look as white as a sheet,” he chirped – before Newcastle went on to win the game by five goals.
Newcastle won’t be expecting that from new captain Fabricio Coloccini and much more will rest on the shoulders of Pardew without a dressing room lieutenant to speak of. And having lost hat-trick hero Nolan, there is plenty of pressure on new Magpies recruit Yohan Cabaye (pictured right) as he approaches his first British derby.
The former Lille man was a shade off the Premier League pace in his opening fixture and there will be little chance of respite for him in a blood and thunder game that rarely lends its participants time to put their foot on the ball.
European football expert Ben Lyttleton admits that French football is scant preparation for a game of the intensity of the Wear-Tyne tussle, but asserts that Cabaye’s pedigree in big games is pretty flawless.
“The derby that the North East has is unique, pretty much in European football,” he told The Journal.
“France doesn’t really have a game that is in any way equivalent apart from Marseille’s games against Paris Saint Germain so I’m not sure that you can say Cabaye has any reference point for the game on Saturday.
“The local games have their importance but a derby like the one in the North East doesn’t really exist. Anyone coming over to England will have to get used to it pretty quickly. Lille’s biggest game is against Lens, that is the derby in that region, and things always tend to happen to him in that match. He doesn’t have much of a goalscoring record but he scored in a 2-1 win in May 2008 and he was sent off in September 2009 in a 1-1 draw.”
From a Black Cat perspective there is a genuine optimism that a new-look dressing room can handle the expectation and atmosphere of a white hot Wear-Tyne clash.
Wes Brown’s supremely confident debut was a major plus and the seamless way that Seb Larsson slotted into the midfield raised hopes that Sunderland will be the more settled side at this early stage in the season.
Phil Bardsley certain thinks so. He said: “The new players have come in and done really well.
“It’s hard for new players to come in and do well straight away but they’ve adapted really well. They’re all seasoned pros, they’re professional and they’ve done well – I don’t think the derby game will scare them.
As someone with four derby games under his belt – and a healthy appreciation of the Manchester rivalry to compare it to – Bardsley believes the match is beyond comparisons. And his message to the newcomers? Don’t let it pass you by.
“It’s incredible up here – it’s unique. As soon as you sign you have to get your head round it,” he said.
“I was out having some food in Durham mid-way through the pre-season and people weren’t even talking about Liverpool, they were saying ‘Good luck on the 20th, I hope you do it’.
“I had to think and then it was like, oh the Newcastle game. It’s incredible and fair play to the people – they are both right behind their teams on derby day. It’s one to make history in.”