It used to be about the players. Trawl through the history of the Tyne-Wear derby and the names that fans remember fondly are all men who did their talking with their boots.
Greats like Gary Rowell, proud purveyor of a 1979 hat-trick which prompted a legion of new-bound Wearside babies to take his name, and Peter Beardsley – who notched a 1985 treble to send Tyneside home happy. Think derbies of yore and you think of Jackie Milburn or David Kelly.
No longer. Tomorrow’s showdown, just like last season’s St James’ Park instalment of this fixture, is all about two men: Alan Pardew and Gus Poyet. This has become the showdown of the suits: a test of managerial mettle more than anything.
It probably all changed when Ruud Gullit benched Alan Shearer and Duncan Ferguson all those years ago. By using the derby to re-assert his authority over the dressing room, Gullit was attempting to give himself unassailable power over players who had grown tired of his complete lack of man-management.
But in suitably apocalyptic conditions his Newcastle team were sunk and within three days, Gullit was clearing his desk. The message ever since has been to respect the derby because it can cost you your job.
It just isn’t the same for players. As Paolo Di Canio found out to his cost, they are significantly more difficult to shift – even if you have the willpower and determination to get them out the door. With a strong union, watertight contracts and the full weight of the football authorities behind them, they won’t pay the ultimate price for a derby-day disaster – even if they singularly fail to turn up tomorrow.
Neither will Poyet, given that he has only just taken on the imposing job of turning around a red-and-white tanker that has been heading for the rocks the moment Ellis Short handed the keys to Roberto De Fanti and told him to get on with it.
Poyet can’t be fatally damaged by defeat tomorrow but, having made some miscalculations last weekend, he could do with getting a few big calls right.
There are a few to choose from. First up, how will he choose to shore up a back four that has been leaking goals with alarming regularity since the first day of the season? Valentin Roberge looks like an accident waiting to happen and it may be Wes Brown who returns after nearly two years out of competitive football.
In an ideal world, Poyet would have liked to ease him back in, but the depth of Sunderland’s problems make it difficult for him to do anything in moderation. As we saw last weekend with the recall of Phil Bardsley, the Sunderland manager is not afraid to gamble.
It would be just as much of a risk if he brought Jozy Altidore back into the attack to play in a three-pronged forward-line that might also feature Steven Fletcher and Emanuele Giaccherini, but that does not mean he shouldn’t do it.
Sunderland fans have been clamouring for a variation of 4-3-3 and, against a Newcastle team that play a similar way, this might be the time for Poyet to deploy it. The return of Ki, whose absence last weekend was sorely felt, should give him the personnel to do it.
Whatever he does, we will learn a lot about Poyet by both the team he sends out tomorrow and the way he commands them to play. If the mistakes in South Wales were rapidly forgotten, they won’t be if it ends up costing the Black Cats tomorrow.
In the opposite dug-out, it has been possible to note a return of some of Pardew’s swagger of late. Faced with a do-or-die game against Cardiff, Pardew twisted and won by dropping Hatem Ben Arfa and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
It was an impressive call and the boldness of his team selection – and their subsequent performance – against Liverpool seemed to suggest that it isn’t just among his players where belief is back.
Now the question is whether Pardew continues that trend by picking Ben Arfa to play in a ‘false nine’ again on Wearside. With Loic Remy and United’s elegant workhorse Yoan Gouffran supporting him from either flank, it must be a temptation but it has risks too. The last time Ben Arfa was asked to play away from home Newcastle were three down at half-time and performing wretchedly.
In defence, the possible return of Fabricio Coloccini might mitigate the need to throw Paul Dummett into the derby cauldron. But if needs be, Pardew will probably be bold enough to try that too.
The stakes are high but so are the rewards, and if Pardew makes the big calls and they pay off Newcastle will have positioned themselves very nicely for the difficult games on the horizon.
Then there is the pressure. Pardew understands how much this game can harm him, but he also understands that it can harnessed into a force for positivity too.
“There is a pressure on us to win it. But I think there is just as much pressure on them to win because they need to start picking up points. Gus will know that.
“It is a home game for them. I have seen them a couple of times at home and they are not far away – againstUnited they were good, against Fulham they were good, so we have to respect them. It is not a foregoneconclusion.
“Any positive results there would be a good result in my opinion, a draw or a win, but after the way we came off in the last game we want to win ifwe can.”