Paul Blake believes the first ever North East play-off derby could be a defining moment for the Newcastle Eagles’ rivalry with improving Durham Wildcats.
Eagles face their regional rivals over two matches this weekend with Blake hopeful of a full house at Sport Central for the first of the two tussles tomorrow. Tickets are selling fast for the return leg in Newton Aycliffe on Sunday afternoon, where a sizeable presence of Eagles’ travelling support is expected to make it a raucous atmosphere.
With the Eagles returning to the top of British basketball and the Wildcats making big leaps forward this season, North East hoops has never been in such rude health, and Blake feels like a regional rivalry to match Newcastle’s clashes with Glasgow Rocks would only benefit the sport.
“It’s going to be a tough game. Durham are a very good side, as they have proved by beating Cheshire – which is not something that is easy for anyone to do,” the Eagles owner said.
“It’s great that it’s a derby for starters. It’s a really good building opportunity for both franchises as well because we’re hoping for a big crowd on Friday, but we’re also hoping to have big away followings at both games. This is a really competitive play-off and a fitting start to our play-off campaign because Durham are improving with every game. To make it into the play-offs is a great achievement, but we have to recognise that this is one of the toughest games we could have asked for at this stage. For it to be a local derby really adds something to the occasion.
“It really helps to build an atmosphere and to grow the game in this region, which is obviously something that we’ve been committed to for a long while.”
Eagles will be presented with the league trophy before tomorrow’s game after clinching their triumph a fortnight ago.
It is – quite incredibly – their 18th piece of silverware in a decade and one of the sweetest for Blake and head coach Fab Flournoy, who has revelled in proving the doubters wrong and emerging from the most competitive BBL in years at the top.
“We have found a dogged determination to win games no matter what position we’re in,” Blake said.
“We have won our last 11 games in a row so you would hope that we’ll be going into the play-offs absolutely full of confidence.
“This is not going to be a walk over by any stretch of the imagination because this is the strongest Durham Wildcats side yet, but we’ve got something about us as a team and we’ll be determined to go and win this game.”
Flournoy’s team might not necessarily be the most talented man-for-man in the Eagles history but there is a character and determination about them which makes them formidable foes in the play-offs.
Eagles have home advantage tomorrow. “Fab has been talking consistently about proving people wrong and he has got every right to say that after the season that we have just had,” Blake said.
“We have only lost five games all season and two or three of them you could argue that we really should not have lost. This time it was as much about coming together as a team and building our experiences of winning together. We’ve certainly gotstronger.
“They really are a smashing group of players. They are close on and off the court and I think that has been a major asset for the club this season. They have grown together and that is something that we have used to fire us when the odds have really been stacked against us at times.”
Tickets are available from newcastle-eagles.com