Stomachs are churning and nerves are jangling across the North East again, like they haven’t in the last seven years. This weekend sees the return of the Tyne-Wear derby for the first time since 2016, as Newcastle United travel to Sunderland in the FA Cup third round. One of England’s most fierce and intense rivalries is re-establishing itself, and albeit for very different reasons, it is possibly the game that neither club, or fan base, really wanted.
There will be those, on both sides of the divide, who will relish the chance to feel the adrenaline of such a high stakes game again. For Sunderland, who are unbeaten in the last nine meetings with Newcastle, winning six, it is arguably a free hit. Now in the Championship, it is their demise that has ultimately meant this fixture has had to lay dormant for so long.
After a terrible few years which resulted in successive relegations in 2017 and 2018 and a spell in League One, the Black Cats are largely on track, functioning as a club with an identity and an aim. The sacking of Tony Mowbray and subsequent hiring of Michael Beale was a controversial and unpopular decision with many supporters, but they are a team with a group of young, hungry players who are very much in the playoff hunt and are enjoying a good run of form at the right time. They are on a journey which could make the derbies a bi-annual tradition again soon enough, and perhaps this meeting, with such a disparity in both financial clout and quality to their bitter foes, could be seen as a free hit.
No defeat is ever tolerated for either side. On paper at least, the gap has not been bigger in a long, long time. Over recent years, this game has been packed with angst at the prospect of having to avert disaster; now both teams are on the way up. Having played Champions League football this season, and with players who both cost and earn more than Sunderland’s entire squad, there is little doubt that Newcastle are favourites and have the quality to hurt their hosts.
Could this game be coming at a worst time for the Magpies? Hardly, in truth. Defeat at Liverpool on New Year’s Day was their sixth in seven matches, and they have only won once away from home all season. Eddie Howe’s side are becoming increasingly vulnerable on their travels, too; high intensity, energy, effective passing and running through the middle and going behind in games have proven fatal. Sunderland’s gameplan has already been written.
Having the extra pressure of being favourites is unlikely to inspire a Newcastle side that are fatigued and already facing season-defining game. Injuries have, at times, been unprecedented, this season. The number of games they’ve played has robbed them of the recovery time needed to play with the sort of intensity that became their trademark in what was an incredible season last year. But they have also been rightly criticised for a lack of proactivity, knowing they’d be facing an increased workload this season, both tactically and in terms of recruitment.
Howe has become a hero on Tyneside with a status worthy of rivalling Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson. He has developed a bond with supporters who believe he is the man to end a trophy drought that dates back to 1969. There is good reason for that; he guided them to the Carabao Cup final as well as a first Champions League campaign. But going out of both competitions before Christmas, as well as the overall terrible form, means that the FA Cup may well be the last chance to make a success out of this campaign. Pressure has been growing on Howe externally for some time; most supporters have stuck by him, but losing a derby, especially considering Newcastle’s recent record, is the sort of thing that can turn a tide dramatically.
Sunderland will fear players like Bruno Guimaraes, Alexander Isak and Anthony Gordon. Newcastle might just fear the worst. But for all these games can condemn, they can also mark a positive change. Victory for the away side, with the fixture pile up subsiding, players returning from injury and the January transfer window open, could be transformative, and possibly even open up the possibility of a first trophy in more than a generation, though.
Most importantly, though, Saturday is about greeting an old enemy and finally settling scores.