Okay, so it’s not quite the league table of 1908/09 – that season Newcastle were convincing champions, Sunderland finished third and Middlesbrough ninth – but I think it’s safe to say this season we have witnessed something of a rebirth in North East football.
Newcastle won their fourth and final league title in 1926/27, dominated the FA Cup in the early 1950s, won the Fairs Cup in 1969 and enjoyed 11 seasons in European competition between 1994 and 2007. Sunderland meanwhile, have six league titles to their name, the last coming in the 1935/1936 season, as well as a famous 1973 FA Cup triumph, where they lifted the trophy from the second division. Recent history, however, has not been so kind, with both clubs experiencing relegation (and promotion, I hasten to add) in the last 10 years.
This season looked set to be the same old story – mid table obscurity, top half at a push. Newcastle had not spent heavily and fans voiced their concern at an apparent lack of ambition from the board. Sunderland had somewhat overhauled their squad, but barring perhaps Seb Larrson, struggled to fill the void in quality left by Jordan Henderson and Asamoah Gyan. So, aside from the customary Geordie delusion, there were no great expectations in the North East and Newcastle’s unimpressive pre-season, where they struggled to draw 0-0 with an MLS side, did little to lift the fog on the Tyne.
Fast-forward a few months, and look where the two clubs stand. While Newcastle’s shrewd summer signings in Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye have made an instant impact, the profligacy of Chelsea and Liverpool means Alan Pardew sees his side sit comfortably in sixth with the prospect of Champions League football not entirely unrealistic. In a season where ninth would have been acceptable, the former Southampton boss has reshaped the squad into a genuine European outfit. Not only have Pardew’s new signings impressed, but he has got some of the old guard playing too. Captain marvel Fabricio Coloccini has been outstanding at the back, while heart-on-his-sleeve winger Jonas Gutierrez has begun to show some of the early promise he did under Kevin Keegan, not to mention cult hero Shola Ameobi’s knack to pop up with an important equaliser.
Sunderland have been no less extraordinary. Granted they had to sack the Geordies’ man on the inside, Steve Bruce, but Martin O’Neill has steadied what seemed a sinking ship in exemplary fashion. Without making a single permanent signing himself, he has seems to have guaranteed a top half finish, whilst the Black Cats find themselves at the business end of the FA Cup, playing an organised brand of football so emblematic of the ex Villa man’s management. Such has been O’Neill’s influence that even Nicklas Bendtner is amongst the goals!
Football in the North East is a phenomenon in itself, taken with almost tribal seriousness, and finally it seems the fans are being repaid for their unquestionable loyalty. The average gate during Newcastle’s relegation season was 51,231, higher than Serie A winners Inter Milan and nearly 9,000 more than that of Manchester City. During their brief stay outside of the top flight, they had the third highest attendance in English football, bested only by the two clubs with bigger stadiums than them. Sunderland fans are similarly passionate, and were the loudest recorded at home, curiously enough also during Newcastle’s relegation season.
And at last it seems we have managers at these two clubs that understand the expectation associated with them and thus far appear able to cope with it. Boyhood Sunderland fan O’Neill has made no secret of his love for the club, while Pardew regularly acknowledges the demands of the “Geordie Nation”, and it is this sense of duty and belief that has seen the two teams soar up the Premier League table. Although the Tyne-Wear derby may still be a long way from emulating the dizzying heights of Arsenal and Spurs, this season has certainly been a step in the right direction. As Newcastle continue to give a season-long middle finger to Mark Lawrenson in their pursuit of European football, O’Neill has laid the foundations for what could soon be a similar side.
And finally, though perhaps not as meteoric, we should give some mention to the relative rise of peripheral Middlesbrough, as they revive their own promotion hopes and Tony Mowbray keeps one eye on the play-offs.