Choosing another foreign manager over the bulldog spirit of Kevin Ball was supposed to herald the start of a new era of enlightenment at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light.
In the long-term Gustavo Poyet can be expected to bring a more refined, sophisticated and continental style to Wearside but yesterday pragmatism came first, with principles a distant second. The Black Cats are in desperate need of points, and in the Premier League you do not get any for artistic impression.
True, Sunday’s winner was lashed home by an Italian but the hosts’ performance in the Wear-Tyne derby was certainly made in Britain.
While Newcastle United’s English manager named a very cosmopolitan team his Uruguayan counterpart picked one with a very home-grown feel. Only two of Roberto De Fanti’s 14 summer signings (all bar one from overseas) made his starting XI. Even more surprisingly, the two most creative of them – Ki Sung-Yueng and Emanuele Giaccherini – were left on the bench, the latter never leaving it.
Six of the other nine played in Sunderland’s last derby win, six months earlier, and while not all were British those that were not – John O’Shea, Sebastian Larsson and Carlos Cuellar – had long since been assimilated in the idiosyncratic ways of football in this country.
Even the two Tyne-Wear debutants – Jozy Altidore and Andrea Dossena, making his first appearance of any kind for Sunderland – had played Premier League football for other clubs.
While Alan Pardew’s Magpies went 4-2-1-3 with Hatem Ben Arfa a false number nine, Sunderland’s line-up was nothing fancy, just a very British 4-4-2. Not only that, everyone played in their proper positions. Imagine that?
Occasionally there were outbreaks of the football Poyet approves of. Late in the first half both defensive units coolly played the ball around the attackers as though the players thought they were at El Clasico, not the El Forleather of Wear versus Tyne. At one point Lee Cattermole, deep in his own half, sprayed a pass out to Adam Johnson with the outside of his boot.
The heartily-roared response to Cattermole’s first thundering tackle showed what the supporters had paid to watch.
They were exceptions which proved the rule. Cheick Tiote went all WWE in the 27th minute, angrily shoving Sebastian Larsson as the Swede tried to tackle him. He was fortunate not to get booked, and perhaps that encouraged Larsson to do likewise with Ben Arfa at his back. In between time Lee Probert broke up a full-blown scrum as the players waited for Yohan Cabaye’s corner.
By then Pardew had been forced to accept which way the wind was blowing. The game was less than a quarter old when Newcastle’s formation switched to good old 4-4-2. The Ameobi brothers both came on in the second half, for the French pair of Loic Remy and Yoan Gouffran.
It would be wrong, racist even, to say Sunderland won because they had more true blue Brits, less foreign fancy-dans. When Fabio Borini swung his boot at the ball, arrowing into the net like David Vaughan’s shot at St James’ Park in April, it was a winner against the run of play. Keiren Westwood was no more overworked than Tim Krul, but the Magpies certainly had the better of the 90 minutes.
What was most encouraging for Sunderland was when Mathieu Debuchy canceled out Steven Fletcher’s opener, Sunderland held their nerve. It was very different to the capitulations which followed Adnan Januzaj’s strike and Phil Bardsley’s own goals in the previous two matches.
When Sunderland were walloped in their 2010 Hallowe’en horror show, the pussy cats looked positively petrified by the occasion. This time they knew what they were up against and were unbowed by it.
Not that it was the full-on derby experience. English football’s cultural ambassador Joey Barton tried his best to stir things up with a tweet not worth repeating, but as the players lined up in the tunnel beforehand the atmosphere was surprisingly subdued.
It was hardly helped by the empty seats. Some were filled in the first ten minutes but plenty were not. Perhaps these derbies have become too poisonous for some to stomach.
When the players walked onto the pitch, though, they were greeted by the customary wall of noise.
Ben Arfa picked up the ball near the touchline, and three red-and-white shirts swarmed around him.
As Krul went to collect it for a second-half goal-kick, the supporter who picked it up threw it as far from him as possible – not to waste time, just intimidate.
It was a day for strong characters. Newcastle’s centre-backs were defiantly side by side, but in the stands rather than on the pitch. Fletcher was able to climb all over full debutant Paul Dummett when Johnson dinked to the far post. The result was inevitable.
Within ten minutes or so Newcastle found their feet, Cabaye shooting wide from 25 yards. They were certainly not bullied out of the game.
Pardew was very careful who he answered post-match questions from and with the honourable exception of captain Tiote his ashen-faced players proceeded as one through the mixed zone, heads down, but questions will be asked more and more loudly, as they always are after a derby defeat.
Sunderland eloquently answered an important question about their heart for the battle but plenty more about their ability remain.
Poyet’s response to them will probably be more elegant but Wear-Tyne derbies have nothing to do with that, and the North East novice knew that.