SUNDERLAND go into the earliest-ever Tyne-Wear derby buoyed by a positive pre-season, Newcastle United on the back of a warm-up which has lurched from one crisis to the next.
But the worst experience of Steve Bruce’s footballing career tells him it will have no bearing on events at the Stadium of Light tomorrow.
Although both began their Premier League campaigns with creditable draws against big-name opposition, the Black Cats ought to go into the noon kick-off in better shape and heart than their nearest rivals.
While Sunderland have bedded in ten new players, including experienced campaigners such as Wes Brown and John O’Shea, the Magpies have recruited five, only one of whom has (limited) Premier League experience.
Newcastle’s pre-season has been far from ideal, trekking across the United States without the barred Joey Barton, Nile Ranger and Yohan Cabaye. There have been pitch invasions, the controversial sale of the captain and at times open civil war across the Twittersphere.
If Sunderland think that makes them favourites, Bruce need only point to last Halloween’s horror show.
“We had a great preparation in Germany, with no long-haul flights thrown in unlike others,” he reflected.
“But we went into the derby last year with a fantastic defensive record and look what happened to us (a 5-1 defeat at St James’ Park). Form goes out the window.”
Bruce has had to live with his disastrous derby debut, and his summer transfer business has addressed some of the weaknesses it laid bare. Newcastle, meanwhile, have sold hat-trick hero Kevin Nolan and talismanic striker Andy Carroll.
“A lot of (Sunderland) players last year had not experienced a derby before and, if I am honest, we did not handle it. But I am pretty confident we will now,” said Bruce. “There was a lot of hype around the second game (a 1-1 draw) but my keeper did not have a shot to save and I don’t think either side played at all.
“It’s all about handling the atmosphere and the occasion. We certainly did that last week in a cauldron atmosphere (at Liverpool).
“Wes and John will handle the occasion. They have the big-game experience which will hopefully keep us in good stead. They have handled cup finals and European finals.”
Whether former Manchester United player O’Shea makes his Sunderland debut is a moot point. The Irishman has not played since straining his hamstring in his first pre-season match.
“O’Shea is 50-50,” said Bruce. “He has trained the last couple of days but he has been out for a long time so I have got to make a decision on him.”
If Bruce has added leaders to his dressing room, opposite number Alan Pardew has lost them. The Magpies hope others will grow into the roles left by the influential Nolan, Carroll, José Enrique and the sidelined Steve Harper, but it will take time. Bruce realises, though, one of the key figures of last season’s derbies remains.
“I am happy Nolan and Carroll are not there but they will have players who will take their place,” he reflected. “It is 11 versus 11 and nobody will give a stuff about Nolan or Carroll not being there. They will be as ready as we are.
“Barton is a good player and he played well in the two games against us last season. You have to be honest and say the kid is a good player.
“Certainly in the derby games he played very well, but so did two or three others who are not there and that should help us.”
Even if O’Shea is not chosen, there are likely to be alterations to the team which drew at Anfield, with Bruce confirming: “I am possibly going to bring in one or two.”
Meanwhile, Bruce has revealed Championship interest in defenders Nyron Nosworthy and Matt Kilgallon, but does not expect further departures.