Whisper it quietly on Wearside, but Sunderland could learn a thing or two from Newcastle United, according to Martin O’Neill. Stuart Rayner reports.
IN this of all weeks, it is probably sacrilegious to admit, but Martin O’Neill went ahead and said it anyway: Newcastle United are a model for Sunderland to follow.
Big, strong and with plenty of goal threats, Alan Pardew’s is a team to be envied by those on Wearside, even if few are as brave as manager O’Neill has been to actually say so in public.
The brutal truth is that for the last couple of years, when the Magpies and the Black Cats have met, it has been to battle over the Premier League’s middle ground.
Now the team from Tyneside have raised their sights. With Europa League football secured, O’Neill’s derby-day sparring partner (almost literally when the teams last met) Pardew talks regularly of the Champions League as his target for this.
For the team they left behind, this will be another campaign of simply striving to be on page one when the end-of-season league table goes up at the end of its final Match of the Day.
When Sunderland, giddy on the feelgood factor O’Neill’s appointment initially brought, talked of a first European campaign since 1973, it seemed like a pipe dream. Newcastle have shown what is possible.
“We should take our lead from them in that sense – it was an exceptional season,” O’Neill reflects.
“This time last year I wasn’t working, I was looking at it from afar and when the results were coming in on a Saturday and Newcastle were going strong. I probably felt like a lot of people that they will do well to keep it going. But they kept it going, they had a few hiccups along the way but managed to fight back again in big games when they weren’t playing well. That is a sign of a half-decent side. So they deserve all the accolades they have got.
“It’s not to diffuse any situation – that’s how I view it. Alan Pardew won manager of the year and he deserved that, so it was a terrific effort.”
The moment at which the North East’s Big Two followed different paths is easy to pinpoint. It was 20 August, 2011.
Beyond these parts, it is easy to talk down Wear-Tyne derbies. They are not the sort of clashes which get even those over-excitable types at Sky Sports headquarters whipping themselves into a frenzy.
When it comes to the big picture of who lifts the Premier League trophy in May and suchlike, they are not season-defining games. For those involved, that is exactly what they have become.
When Sunderland travelled to St James’ Park on Halloween 2010, it was as the established top-flight side against newly-promoted interlopers.
No one on either side of the divide needs reminding how that went. If it did not quite kick-start the Magpies – Chris Hughton was sacked five weeks later – it sowed the seeds of Steve Bruce’s demise.
A 1-1 draw in the return protected Pardew against an FA Cup defeat at Stevenage the previous week being the beginning of his own sticky end. Thanks to it, few remember that embarrassment now.
If Asamoah Gyan’s undeserved 90th-minute equaliser was a shot in Sunderland’s collective arm, it quickly wore off. The win at Blackpool in their next outing was the only one they enjoyed in the next ten matches.
By the time the teams faced each other next, unseasonably early, Newcastle had clawed their way onto a level footing. One Ryan Taylor free-kick later they disappeared over the horizon, never to look back. Sunderland took months – and a change of manager – to recover.
O’Neill’s hope must be that three points tomorrow will have a similarly galvanising effect on his Black Cats. “It should give us the type of lift we are looking for here,” he argues. “Our aim at some stage or other is to at least be the best side in this part of the world and if you are a better side than Newcastle and they have continued to make progress it must mean you are doing okay.
“I’m unable to give you an assurance that we wouldn’t be second best on the day against Newcastle.
“They’re a very fine side, they’re strong, they’re physical and they can mix it with the very best. They can go long if they want, they have ability in the middle of the field and they have a young dribbler (Hatem Ben Arfa) who can go past players at will. So they’ve got a mixture of it all.
“I thought Manchester City were a physically strong team – particularly when you see them in the tunnel versus some of our lads – and Newcastle are every bit as physically strong as them. They have proved they are one of the best strikeforces in the league. They are strong, they can score goals.
“They might not feel as if they’ve been as prolific this season but the season is really still in its infancy.
“As for us, we have (Steven) Fletcher and Fletcher and Fletcher! He’s the only one scoring goals for us at the minute.”