x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sunderland and Newcastle battle for local supremacy

The Tyne-Wear derby may not be the most well known, but in England's north east it is the biggest game of the season.

Newcastle's Fabricio Coloccini fails to stop Ahmed Elmohamady of Sunderland during last season's 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light.
Newcastle's Fabricio Coloccini fails to stop Ahmed Elmohamady of Sunderland during last season's 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland is the biggest place in the United Kingdom between Leeds and Edinburgh. Factually correct as it may be - and official statistics depend upon interpretation of where city boundaries lie - it was an unusual piece of information to find on a football club's website, where it was long displayed. Then again, this seemed no random detail.

Slighted by implication were Sunderland's nearest, if not dearest, neighbour. Newcastle may be perceived as the capital of England's north-east, but Sunderland begs to disagree. It can cite a population of 280,000, around 3,000 higher than Newcastle's and a football team which, for the first time in almost three decades, have finished above their rivals in three successive seasons.

A club that still has more league titles - six to four - and was once the country's superpower had long been seen as the area's lesser light, but the pattern is changing.

However, the battle for bragging rights is complicated. Take the simple question of residents.

Tyneside, home to Newcastle, has almost three times as many inhabitants as Sunderland's Wearside. Newcastle possesses a greater catchment area, including neighbouring towns such as Gateshead and North Shields, and, along with a larger ground, higher average attendances (47,720 to 40,011 last season). Sunderland won the north-east's mini league, but Newcastle had the better of the derbies.

Andy Carroll, Shola Ameobi and Kevin Nolan combined to inflict a historic humiliation on Sunderland at St James' Park last October, a 5-1 thrashing their heaviest loss in such contests since 1956. Only Asamoah Gyan's added-time equaliser at the Stadium of Light spared them a second derby defeat.

Local enmities put clubs' identities under the microscope. Both Newcastle's and Sunderland's are evolving rapidly. Long regarded as big spenders, Newcastle can be deemed a selling club after a year in which Carroll, Nolan and Jose Enrique have gone, with less than 20 per cent of the proceeds spent in the transfer market.

The same accusation can be levelled at Sunderland, with Darren Bent and Jordan Henderson both lucrative departures this year but the difference is that they are reinvesting the profits. Steve Bruce has made 10 summer signings, a total unrivalled by any of his peers.

Bruce, a Geordie and a boyhood Newcastle fan, finds himself in an awkward position today after crossing the great divide. The notion of understanding this fixture is crucial as he seeks to make amends for last year's drubbing, which he deems his worst result in football.

To that end, he hopes one of his recruits from Manchester United, John O'Shea, will be fit to join another, Wes Brown, in the defence. "Wes and John will handle the occasion which is something we did not do last year," he said. "It will be a full house and it will be rocking so it is all about handling the atmosphere and the occasion."

That is Alan Pardew's concern, too, with the Newcastle manager worried that Joey Barton's notoriety precedes him. "He'll tell me 'They'll target me today, gaffer.' And I mean that in the nicest possible way, I might add," Pardew said.

Barton contrived to inflame last Saturday's stalemate against Arsenal. A contest with a similarly feisty competitor, in Lee Cattermole, at a hostile Stadium of Light beckons.

In the bigger picture, this might be the start of a season-long scramble for mid-table positions.

"As long as I am the Sunderland manager, the one thing I want to do is finish above them," Bruce said. "I know to some supporters, [winning today] is the be all and end all. 'It doesn't matter where you finish, as long as you beat Newcastle' will be some people's take on it. It certainly isn't mine." But in the 144th Tyne-Wear derby, he may be in a minority holding that view.

sports@thenational.ae

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