Friday 23 March 2018

Northeast rivals facing unexpectedly bleak winter

Jason Burt

Just 15 miles, one point and only three places in the Premier League table separate Newcastle United and Sunderland. Unfortunately, those places are numbers 14 and 17 – dangerously and unexpectedly close to the bottom three. It was not supposed to be like this.

The expectation this campaign – not least from the men themselves – was that with two such fiercely competitive managers as Alan Pardew and Martin O'Neill in charge, the two rivals would drag themselves up the table as they slugged it out for local bragging rights.

Pardew talked of another tilt at the top four, Sunderland chairman and owner Ellis Short spoke in the summer of wanting to be "well within the top 10". His assumption was that Sunderland were established in the Premier League.

As Sunderland prepare to face Norwich City away today, and Newcastle ready themselves for a home fixture against Wigan Athletic tomorrow – which Pardew has already categorised as "must win" to arrest a parlous run of four defeats – the reality is that they both have to quickly scramble away from the relegation scrap or be dragged into it. The potential is there for it to be a bleak winter.

Tomorrow will be a year since O'Neill took over from Steve Bruce, who was sacked after winning just five of 27 league matches.

O'Neill has won four of his last 27 and Sunderland have not beaten a team who finished with 11 men since early March when Liverpool were defeated 1-0 with almost the last kick of the game. Although both northeast clubs are united in their plight the circumstances and the mitigation are, very different.

Last Saturday, Sunderland were forced to deny a social-media rumour that O'Neill had offered to quit following the 4-2 home defeat to West Bromwich Albion. But it did not seem beyond the realms of possibility.

The 60-year-old has two more years left on his contract and there is no undue pressure on him, right now, from Short.

"We're not happy with where we are," the Texas businessman said after Sunderland's 13th-place finish last season, and he will not be happy now having sanctioned £22m of signings in the summer with the acquisitions of Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson. And with no discernible improvement.

"He has only been here a year," says midfielder Craig Gardner of his manager. "He's not Superman – but he's unbelievable. Everyone is behind him. He's a top-class manager with a top-class squad and I don't know why people are getting so hyped up about it."

Admirable loyalty. But there are worrying trends. O'Neill did have success, for a while, at Villa but it came at a hefty price. The club overspent and are still trying to mop up the mess. That may not have been O'Neill's fault but his stewardship at Sunderland is following a familiar pattern – not least in the transfer market where he often is guilty of paying over the odds and failing to look beyond the top flight.

O'Neill himself remains understandably defiant. "I know what I'm capable of doing," he said. "History would tend to suggest I will pull it round. History is there to be rewritten of course, but I'm pretty confident about things."

In Newcastle, the pressure has also ratcheted up on Pardew with dark suggestions that the eight-year contract awarded to him in September, after last season's fifth-place finish and the Manager of the Year award from his peers, has led to a loss of focus. That would appear grossly unfair. Newcastle's problems are far more easily quantifiable. Success has come too quickly, and the demands of a Europa League campaign – with Newcastle already qualified for the last 32 – have taken their toll, with 11 players out injured.

Although the decision to concentrate on holding on to star players rather than adding to the squad in the summer was understandable, it has left resources looking thin.

At West Ham, Pardew took the club to an FA Cup final and ninth-place finish in the league in 2005-06 but struggled the next season and lost his job. There is no danger of that happening again right now but he, like O'Neill, has to beware the danger signs.

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