Mark Douglas: The sands have shifted in North East rivalry

It feels like Sunderland are on the crest of a wave while Newcastle's momentum has curdled

Yohan Cabaye : Press Conference In Paris
Yohan Cabaye : Press Conference In Paris

The sands have shifted in the North East since the last Wear-Tyne derby in October.

As euphoric as their reaction was to the 2-1 victory chiselled out in Gus Poyet’s first home game, even the most die-hard red-and-white would admit that it was a curious clash.

Winless at that point, Sunderland were perilously low on confidence and their victory was a remarkable one.

It would be wrong to say they didn’t deserve it, but on the balance of play, Newcastle boss Alan Pardew had a point when he argued that his team warranted more than they got at the Stadium of Light.

A collective failure to take their chances and hold their nerve when Sunderland made one last push cost them so very dearly.

The diverging paths of the two teams since have been fascinating. Sunderland proceeded to struggle desperately to build on that win while Newcastle, by contrast, roared on to their best run since marching into the top five two years ago.

That appeared to confirm suspicions that a stable Newcastle, despite that defeat, were a superior side than the one Paolo Di Canio and the discredited Roberto De Fanti cobbled together during a crazy summer.

Since Christmas, the pendulum has swung firmly towards the red-and-white end of the spectrum. Now sixth in the form table – as opposed to Newcastle lying in 12th – Sunderland have captured the imagination by reaching Wembley and Poyet has started to lay the foundations for something a lot more substantial.

Having made a transition to a more possession-based style, he has re-educated players who had lost confidence, concentration and in some cases their interest. Although still prone to their odd off days they are a much more substantial challenge for Newcastle than the rabble that Poyet inherited.

And Poyet has brought unity to a fractured club. Results tend to hide a lot of other issues but his early success has allowed him to flex his muscles in other ways: eliminating the presence of De Fanti, picking hand-selected targets and persuading Ellis Short to invest. Sunderland arrive on Tyneside on the crest of a wave.

On the face of it, momentum has curdled for Newcastle. Three things have happened since the turn of the year that have really damaged the fragile consensus: Yohan Cabaye has left, their transfer efforts have been laborious and – most crucially – they were knocked out of the FA Cup in lamentable fashion. As disappointing as the first two have been, it is the third that I think turned the mood on Tyneside.

Cabaye was expected to go and Newcastle got a decent whack of money for him, while the scepticism that has greeted United’s attempts to recruit confirms that this is not the first time they have been in this position.

It is that Cup defeat that really rankles.

It illustrates loud and clear what the inaction and lack of ambition means for the club and it is not good. And yet for all that the wind seems to be blowing in Sunderland’s favour we should not forget one thing: Newcastle are a bloody good team. On Tuesday they proved that by dominating a Norwich team that simply couldn’t handle United’s incisive play.

Cabaye might have gone but the delightfully composed Vurnon Anita remains to pull the strings in midfield. Hatem Ben Arfa and Moussa Sissoko are still there too, while Luuk de Jong is a better player than the critics might have you believe. He can make an immediate impact.

To me it looks like two decent teams with a point to prove. With minds focused on the transfer deadline, this game has almost crept up on us. Without the tortuous build-up, it might turn into the best one for years.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer