Sunday 17 December 2017

Enduring cycle of love and hate

Sunderland and Newcastle are rivals beset by seemingly endless struggles, writes Dion Fanning

‘Ellis Short has taken a risk again with the appointment of Gus Poyet, although after Di Canio it must seem like Ron Greenwood has walked through the door’
‘Ellis Short has taken a risk again with the appointment of Gus Poyet, although after Di Canio it must seem like Ron Greenwood has walked through the door’

Dion Fanning

Last week Judge Paul Sloan jailed a Newcastle supporter for a year for punching a horse. Barry Rogerson was captured on film swinging at the horse with a scarf wrapped round his face. This, he told the BBC, was to stop the wind getting into his mouth after "a filling had dropped out".

When he punched the horse he was wearing a Newcastle United shirt, a shirt that tells you that, in football terms, the wearer has known much suffering. Perhaps not as much as the horse, Bud, that was punched by Rogerson.

Rogerson was jailed as an example to others with Judge Sloan stating that with "the next derby just days away, I'm keen to stress that this demonstrates tough action will be taken against anyone involved in such behaviour".

Nobody could condone the punching of a horse and happily Bud will be on duty this weekend, experiencing the angst of the supporters of Sunderland and Newcastle United.

Gary Breen had three years at Sunderland when things were bad and the club spent most of its time trying to get into the Premier League. He played in one derby and he knows what makes it different.

"With London, Liverpool or Manchester derbies, they all come from the same place. This is different. They're so close but they're different and it really is tribal."

When the suffering of Newcastle supporters over the years is considered, it is strange in some ways that more horses have not been punched and more men like Barry Rogerson have not found themselves in jail as an example to others.

Alternatively, if you were told that Paolo Di Canio had punched a horse you would not be particularly surprised, although again you might question his methods. Di Canio's short time at Sunderland has probably been the best thing to happen to Newcastle United in recent months.

Sunderland could point to tough opening matches if they look to explain why they are at the bottom of the table. They have one point from eight games but they have played Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. They have also lost to Crystal Palace.

But few people are taking that route with good reason. Di Canio's arrival pushed a club toying with relegation last season to a point where they will struggle to survive whatever the new manager, Gus Poyet, does this season.

When Ellis Short decided to dismiss Martin O'Neill last March, Sunderland were 16th in the table and hadn't won in eight matches. Among the defeats in those eight matches were losses to QPR and Reading. Nobody felt things were going well. What Short did was spectacular: he made things a lot worse.

Yet O'Neill had never achieved as he had hoped when he arrived at the Stadium of Light, recalling his worship of Charlie Hurley and his longing to make the club great. He had replaced Steve Bruce whose Newcastle roots would, Breen says, always have aroused suspicion. "Steve could have won the league and he wouldn't have been accepted by some fans," he says. Of course, Bruce wasn't close to winning the league but when O'Neill returned, there could be no disputing his desire.

It had been a long quest. Sunderland wanted O'Neill as their manager before Roy Keane and if Keane energised the club, especially in the promotion year, there was the expectation that when O'Neill finally arrived in 2011, he would do the same but with more patience and a cooler head. Sources close to the club insist that his failure (although Sunderland would be happy with the position he left them in today) was for many reasons. O'Neill was said to have been dismayed at the failure to strengthen the squad and his relationship with Ellis Short is believed to have been strained.

Short, according to one source who knows him, is a fierce competitor who hates to lose. If he thought last season was bad, this season is at least providing plenty of experience in how to handle defeat.

The appointment of Di Canio was a mess from the start when David Miliband resigned as vice-chairman and when the rolling sports news led for days with the new manager's failure to renounce fascism, there was the feeling it wouldn't end well. They turned out to be the good old days.

Di Canio lasted 175 days and if anything he stayed too long. His greatest moment came in the derby last season when Sunderland went to St James' Park and won 3-0. Sunderland would win only one more league game under Di Canio, the following week at Everton, but it was enough to keep them up, even if they finished 17th.

If he had left then Di Canio might have simply been a curious moment in the history of Sunderland. But he stayed for the summer as 14 new players arrived at the club, brought in by Di Canio and director of football Roberto De Fanti. These players can't claim to have improved the side and while they would need time to settle in, there was very little settling in being done under Di Canio.

When he departed last month in the wake of stories of his rage, the banning of soft drinks and the suggestion that pineapple be used instead of anti-inflammatory pills, it may already have been too late.

Breen read those stories but to him they didn't matter as much as another one: Di Canio's instruction that the staff at the Stadium of Light must not talk to the players on match day in case it affected their concentration.

"The people who work there have so much to do with the club and its success," Breen said last week. "I don't think Paolo understood that, it's a club that means so much to the people."

Short has taken a risk again with the appointment of Poyet, although after Di Canio it must seem like Ron Greenwood has walked through the door. Breen has concerns. Poyet has never managed in the Premier League but, Breen feels, "they have exhausted all other options".

Today's game is a chance for Sunderland to bring their season to life against a club which seemed to have the worst of the summer. When Joe Kinnear appeared on the radio last June explaining that he was the new director of football at Newcastle, the club looked like it had lurched back into crisis. Newcastle United, in some ways, exists in a perpetual crisis. As soon as Alan Pardew signed an eight-year contract in September 2012 there was the sense that this extravagant commitment was too much, that Newcastle United were at their best when expectation was low and they were trying to make it day by day.

Kinnear's return was too much. If Sunderland were exploring the limits of strong leadership then Newcastle United were toying with an anarchic structure as Kinnear explained that he wasn't there to take Alan Pardew's job and his presence would open any door in world football. In the summer, the doors opened but the players didn't arrive.

Newcastle made no permanent signings even if Loic Remy, taken on loan from QPR, has demonstrated his quality on occasion.

When Pardew took the club to a fifth-place finish in 2012, it seemed that Mike Ashley had found a formula for success. The signings of chief scout Graham Carr were praised and it was expected that the club would move on. Traditionally this is when Newcastle confound expectations. Pardew signed his eight-year deal and Newcastle began to struggle as their squad was stretched by the exhausting Thursday-Sunday routine of the Europa League and Premier League

Again they couldn't meet expectations. Some inside the club insist that there is always a struggle persuading top-class players to move to Newcastle United, especially if they are competing with established clubs or those in London. Remy chose QPR ahead of Newcastle in January when he arrived from France.

What Carr did brilliantly was bring in players who wanted to make it in England and saw Newcastle as the first step. Those players would, if they were a success, want to move on. In January, Demba Ba joined Chelsea and Yohan Cabaye became disillusioned with Kinnear in particular when his move to Arsenal fell through. Two weeks ago, he said Kinnear was the only man who knew what went on.

"The only person who can explain what happened is Joe Kinnear," he said. "If he is honest, he will tell it. Otherwise it will not get out of my mouth. Was my failed transfer to Arsenal difficult to swallow? At first, yes. But you have to quickly get focused again, because if you go on thinking about it you have a grudge against a lot of people and that is useless."

Newcastle finished two points and one place ahead of Sunderland last season. They have looked more organised this year, playing with purpose against Liverpool last week even if the first half at Everton three weeks earlier had revealed that old habits die hard.

Last week Newcastle fans marched in protest against the ownership of Mike Ashley. They have been understandably angered by the return of Kinnear as well as issues such as the sponsorship deal with Wonga and the renaming of St James' Park. Pardew began the season under pressure from all sides. Victory today and he would seem to have some security even if the long-term issues around Ashley's ownership remain. Sunderland's position is more fraught but they know what a victory today can do. "The thing is," Breen says, "as much as they hate each other, they miss this fixture when it's not around."

The police horses in the north-east of England might not miss it. There will be joy and frustration today and all anyone can hope for is that no animals are harmed in the making of this production.

Sunderland v Newcastle Utd

Sky Sports 1, 1.30

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