While Sunderland and Newcastle United fans fiercely protest their bitter rivalry, there has been something of a similarity between the two developing over the past six months. They both had solid enough seasons, with Newcastle consolidating their position in the top flight after their return and Sunderland breaking into the top half of the table. However, a more worrying area in which they have previously found common ground is their tendency to sell their key players.
Over the course of the January transfer window Sunderland lost Darren Bent, only signed in Summer 2009, and Newcastle allowed Andy Carroll to leave. Then, come the summer, Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson joined Liverpool and Newcastle sold Captain and leading goalscorer Kevin Nolan to newly relegated West Ham. A lack of ambition or a case of player power pushing through unwanted deals?
Every year sees a huge turnaround in the squads, arguably to such an extent that fans find it hard to choose a name for the back of their replica shirt for fear of that player leaving and their £60 pound investment consequently prancing off with him. However compared to previous seasons, the flock of migrating birds heading to sunnier (or more financially appealing) climes is dramatically smaller this year. Henderson and David Healy, last seen on loan at Doncaster Rovers, are the only Sunderland exits this year so far, with only Nolan leaving Newcastle as yet. The Magpies’ former captain, it was revealed yesterday by manager Alan Pardew, was after a 5-year deal at the club, something that Pardew couldn’t offer as he didn’t see Nolan in his midfield in 4 years time, let alone 5.
This does raise an interesting question, being what is the difference this year? Perhaps it is the fact that most of the players can see the progress that is being made on the field after last term. Sunderland finishing higher than their arch-rivals was a massive boost for the Black Cats, and the players and fans know it. Steve Bruce now has to deal with greater expectancy this year, and he is very clearly looking to add experience to his squad in order to stave off a similar fall away as they saw at the end of last year. The potential signings of Wes Brown and John O’Shea will add renewed steel to the team, as well as an understanding and experience of what it takes to win big, although admittedly restrictedly at Manchester United. The actual signing of Connor Wickham, allegedly from under the nose of Liverpool, shows that Bruce is planning for the future. And if Wickham saw that he could fulfil his potential greater at Sunderland than on Merseyside, something must be going right for the Mackems.
Similarly Newcastle’s progress should be cause for celebration following last season. They put in the best (second half) performance of the season against Arsenal, survived losing one of their main men in January and the unjust sacking of Chris Hughton and all in all had a solid season. While some fans will have been hoping for a more miraculous return to the league, with Champion’s League qualification a formality, hopefully most supporters will see the positive signs from last season; that they can cut it among the big boys once more and the performances of players like Cheik Tiote, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique. Assuming that there are no more contractual disagreements, they should be able to keep the squad together. Further to this, Pardew has begun moulding the squad in his shape, bringing in the likes of Demba Ba from West Ham, Yohan Cabaye from French champions Lille and Sylvain Marveaux from Rennes. This influx of pace and creativity should enable the team to push on from last season, with a top-half finish definitely within their sights.
It looks like Geordie Shore might have some competition for the ‘Pride of the North East’ award this year.