Despite the friendly banter flying back and forth throughout many a North East workplace, the underlying bitterness residing in Tyne-Wear rivalries means Sunderland fans would usually dislike their manager announcing he sees emulating Newcastle United as one of his main targets.
Having been the region’s top dogs for three consecutive seasons, many of the Black Cats faithful felt confident of maintaining their superiority for years to come, but the Geordie enemy’s resurgence last season was in stark contrast to the hardship faced at the Stadium of Light and having seen their rivals leapfrog them once again, fans have now learned that Martin O’Neill believes his team should be looking to replicate such success. When purely looking at the sentiment behind trying to match another side’s improved level of performance, the Northern Irishman’s comments are encouraging and motivational, but given the hatred between sections of supporters, should the Sunderland faithful be pleased at having to gaze up at Newcastle once more when dreaming of prominence?
While it’s a sad sign of the times that Newcastle have regained their supremacy, the reality is they have become the benchmark for aspiring mid-table teams looking to compete higher up the league. It may not be something Mackems fans will appreciate hearing but despite the truth being painful at times, the club still have ambitious plans and should not be downhearted because the Magpies have enjoyed some brief success. O’Neill and Chairman Ellis Short have big plans for the club and though they may not have made huge strides in the transfer market so far this summer, the intention is to strengthen their squad before the start of the season. They may not have vast sums of money to spend but Newcastle showed recently that some intelligent scouting can lead to rapid on-field improvement without breaking the bank. Fans will know all too well which positions Sunderland need to improve but their methodical approach to signing Wolves’ Stephen Fletcher illustrates a desire to avoid overspending, having wasted many a million funding former managers Roy Keane and Steve Bruce. Though an economical approach doesn’t guarantee success, Sunderland still possess the financial capacity to spend big on a player should they see fit as O’Neill seeks to build a side capable of challenging for Europe.
Given the setup at the Stadium of Light such targets are not beyond the realm of possibility and despite the club having little European pedigree, any desire to follow in the footsteps of Newcastle is not an admittance of inferiority but more an appreciation of what can be achieved by the so called ‘lesser’ sides. After all O’Neill is not citing Newcastle’s achievements as some sort of inflammatory stimulation but rather looking at what similarly statured teams are capable of. A few seasons ago Fulham were the side that the rest of the league looked up to after their 7th place finish and UEFA Europa League outing, a decade ago it was Everton’s rapid rise under David Moyes. Examples of relative success stories are understandably used to demonstrate why a confident preseason outlook is more than justified and is vital given the competitive nature of England’s top flight. Simply because O’Neill has chosen Newcastle’s topical accomplishments as the carrot with which to inspire his troops should not be misconstrued as a tasteless attempt to be divisive but as a natural desire to improve the team.
The former Aston Villa manager understands all too well the need to maintain his side’s progression next season and fans should be encouraged to hear that he is aiming higher up the table. A spirited rivalry adds passionate fuel to the derby day fire but an unhealthy obsession with all things Newcastle is unwise for they are just one of twenty opponents and, like everyone else, only offer six points in an enduring league campaign. Any concerns that the club’s mantra is solely based on matching Newcastle can be discounted for while it’s frustrating to see ones foes overachieving, there is also a begrudging acceptance that they deserved their accomplishments and a determination to challenge the league’s top sides is something every team possesses, regardless of affiliation.
Should Sunderland fans feel aggrieved that they are looking to follow Newcastle or is it just their rivalry being over-hyped to stir up trouble when it’s only natural to want to emulate your rivals?
Let me know your views and opinions by following me on Twitter – Tweet me @Alex_Churcher