Mark Douglas: Turbulent year ends with North East clubs facing crossroads

Newcastle United and Sunderland AFC have taken steps back during 2013 but at least seem to be repairing damage

St James Park, the home of Newcastle United Football Club
St James Park, the home of Newcastle United Football Club

And so it ends with Sunderland 20th and resurgent Newcastle eighth.

When you boil it down to the bare numbers, 2013 looks like just another routine year of underachievement for North East football. The devil is in the detail though, and the circuitous route taken by both clubs to arrive at those positions has made this a remarkable year for the region’s clubs – and not always for positive reasons.

For the purposes of this column, the litmus test is whether our clubs find themselves in a better position now than when Auld Lang Syne was being belted out at the fag end of 2012. By any measure, it has been a bruising year.

If eighth is suddenly considered a roaring success for Newcastle – and some of the hubristic stuff coming from St James’ Park in the last two weeks would have us believe we are witnessing a great rebirth – then Mike Ashley’s job is almost complete.

If expectations have been depressed to such an extent that bettering the club’s extremely modest target of 10th is cause to celebrate then talk of Ashley convincing his black-and-white doubters has been exposed as bunkum. Of course there are things going well at the football club (it employs and empowers some extremely talented people) but Newcastle supporters are entitled to tilt for more.

There have been some promising signs on the field but, as ever, much of the intrigue over the last 12 months has developed away from that.

The owner’s contradictory year saw him wisely finance a January spending spree that empowered his talented recruitment team and laid the foundations for Newcastle’s fightback. But he also employed Joe Kinnear in a handsomely-paid executive position and allowed him the platform to insult, well, just about everyone.

The return of Kinnear has changed something at Newcastle – and not for the better. He has a friend who owes him everything in a key position and suddenly the dynamic has changed.

The baby steps being made under Derek Llambias in explaining United’s vision have been re-traced: any semblance of accountability from the boardroom tossed away in a mad dash to say ‘Do what we say or else’.

While many don’t care about the off-field landscape as long as Manchester United are being seen off at Old Trafford, the scorched-earth policy has left many feeling divorced from their football club. Most have reached an uneasy truce whereby they support a team that work tirelessly to make progress but have distinct reservations about the club’s direction.

Whether it is the director of football who is directly responsible for the curdling of relations with fan groups, local newspapers and certain players is unclear but, unlike making summer signings, it has happened on his watch. Whether it is laying foundations upon which proper and sustained progress can be made is another thing entirely.

For while the second half of 2013 has seen United under Alan Pardew look like a proper, competent and occasionally thrilling side once again, I cannot be alone in wondering whether this is really the start of Newcastle re-asserting themselves. The manager has done an excellent job in the last three months, but we’ve been here before, and he has worked for Ashley long enough to know how difficult it has been in the last five years.

For when Pardew claims the club is “in a good place” you can’t help but smile. We all know that turmoil and tumult has clung to this owner during a difficult year and it will take more than a block of nine impressive results to convince us that Newcastle are moving towards a position of even challenging Everton.

Newcastle have done well in the last three months but this race is not run yet, let alone won. They have got themselves into a great position in the league but, as a club, has 2013 strengthened or weakened them? If this were Everton, Southampton or Liverpool (all in elevated positions) the answer would be simple. Despite ending the year on a high, the jury remains out on whether Newcastle United as a football club are in a better position for 12 farcical months.

The Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland AFC
The Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland AFC
 

Somehow, Sunderland end a mostly wretched year on an upbeat note. Gus Poyet has carved five wins from his time in charge and taken the Black Cats into a League Cup semi-final that will be the most pleasant of distractions during January.

Although Manchester United are in excellent form, Sunderland have developed a habit of matching the best on Poyet’s watch. None of this should obscure a dreadful five months during which the power brokers at the Stadium of Light staggered towards the brink of disaster. Poyet is merely repairing damage done in the previous months.

Ellis Short will always maintain that employing Paolo Di Canio was a necessary injection to remedy a situation that was sidling towards relegation and he is right that something was amiss in the court of Martin O’Neill.

Di Canio was never the answer, though – and anyone who carried out the most basic of background checks could have predicted that he would not come close to fulfilling the long-term contract handed to him in April. Notwithstanding the derby win and a defeat of Everton that fed the soul after so much dreary O’Neill-ball, Di Canio was a preening disaster from the moment he launched into an ill-tempered rant about Phil Bardsley’s professionalism after Tottenham.

That betrayed a naivety about the way management worked that continued throughout the summer and confirmed that he had been hugely over-promoted after a successful stint at Swindon.

His teams were tactically misguided and his players didn’t like him: it was a recipe for the disaster that was to unfold.

For Short, the questions remain: Who is Roberto De Fanti and why is he there? What does a successful Sunderland under him constitute? How can he ensure Gus Poyet’s promising start is maintained?

At least he made an apology in the match-day programme a few months ago, acknowledging lessons that must be learned from a disappointing year. That was crucial: burying heads in the sand and insisting all was OK would have been a massive mistake.

Sunderland seemed to have progressed from annual relegation fights but this is the second year running they’ve been solely concerned with matters at the bottom. With Poyet at the helm there are reasons for cautious optimism but he has a huge salvage job to do. Just as at Newcastle, this promises to be a crossroads campaign.

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David Whetstone
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Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer