‘It’s grim up north’… or so they say. Actually it’s far from it, as anyone who lives in, or has visited, many of the towns, cities and surrounding countryside will testify.
In footballing terms, however, this old adage might ring true. More specifically it’s grim if you’re a fan of either North East side in the Premier League right now, but that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as nicely.
Currently occupying two of the three relegation places, bitter rivals Sunderland and Newcastle are seemingly having their own battle to see which city can underwhelm the most, in footballing terms at least.
With just 14 and 15 games left respectively, both clubs are firmly entrenched in a relegation ‘dogfight’ – although I expect the Bigg Market has seen far worse than a dogfight – and are in serious danger of playing out the Tyne/Wear derby in the Championship next season.
Given the size, finances and players at their disposal, neither club should be in this position. But who is in the best place to escape the dreaded drop?
Looking at recent activity, the immediate answer would seem to be Newcastle. One of the most active sides during the January transfer window, Steve McClaren was able to add English duo Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend to his ranks along with Henri Saivet from Bordeaux and Seydou Doumbia on loan from Roma.
Sunderland too added several players to their squad although the names of Jan Kirchhoff, Dame N’Doye, Lamine Kone and Wahbi Khazri are far less recognisable to the average Premier League football fan.
On paper at least, the side in black and white appear to have the upper-hand on squad strength. All four of their January signings should make an immediate impact, adding something to a talented but under-performing group of players and helping the side to continue it’s up-tick in performance. The jury’s out on the ‘lesser’ names for Sunderland, but the Tunisian attacking-midfielder Khazri has bags of promise.
Mike Ashley’s chequebook may have helped tip the balance for the Geordies with regards to players, but what about the managers? Certainly for a side fighting relegation, you’d have to favour Sam ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce. Only perhaps Tony Pulis holds more appeal to sides facing a ‘battle’ and Allardyce has previous in this regard, helping to cement Bolton, Blackburn and West Ham as solid mid-table sides in his managerial career.
His opposite number Steve McClaren has had a far more up and down time of things as manager of several clubs since leaving his role as assistant manager to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2001. Only perhaps his spell with FC Twente in the Netherlands can be categorised as a true success and he has certainly never been involved in the intense environment of a relegation dogfight – has he got the ‘bottle’?
So if this was a football match it would currently be 1-1 with all to play for. The deciding factor may come down to the fixtures. Both have some tough games ahead, no doubt, but I think Newcastle again edge it here. The advantage they gain at St James’ Park can be significant at times and their home fixtures look easier than the Mackems’ set, their next three on home soil being West Brom, Bournemouth and then a visit from their bitter rivals themselves. Chelsea, Leicester and Liverpool amongst others present some tricky away ties, but results in-front of their own fans are likely to be the key.
Sunderland on the other hand finish with home games against Leicester, Liverpool and Chelsea so their task will be much tougher, but then again that didn’t stop them escaping last year.
The month of February should tell us a lot about the spirit in the camp though, ‘Big Sam’ taking his side to Liverpool and West Ham, as well as hosting Manchester United. More than three points from those four games would be an achievement.
Attempting to predict anything in the Premier League is tough, more so than ever this season. We have already seen Sunderland survive by the skin of their teeth just last season and there’s every chance they can do it again. Their neighbours seem better positioned to dodge the drop, but can they galvanise in time under McClaren?
Two English managers, two great English club’s, two supremely passionate sets of fans – all eager to stay in the league and gather the riches that await next season. It should be one hell of a fight, question is: are they up for it?