Friday 23 March 2018

North-east rivals need results to match their grand schemes

Today is a litmus test of the progress being made by Newcastle and Sunderland, writes Louise Taylor

Recent snowy days have seen Heathrow-bound British Airways passengers from Bangalore, Boston, Cairo, Istanbul, Montreal and Tokyo making unwanted diversions to Newcastle airport. Down the road at St James' Park, Alan Pardew is hoping Manchester City will feel similarly discomforted and disoriented when they find themselves face to face with Andy Carroll, Joey Barton and company today.

Just as their local airport is proving rather good at coping with adverse weather, Newcastle United have a habit of rising to the occasion.

If erratic home results against the Premier League's lesser lights were largely responsible for Chris Hughton's sacking, Pardew inherited a side who had won at Arsenal as well as thrashing Aston Villa 6-0 and Sunderland 5-1.

It has left Newcastle eighth, two places behind a Sunderland side whose reaction to that autumnal humiliation on Tyneside has been the mounting of a concerted Europa League push symbolised by a startling 3-0 victory at Chelsea.

This afternoon offers a litmus test of the Tyne-Wear rivals' progress and potential. While Pardew pits his wits against the Blue half of Manchester, Steve Bruce takes Sunderland to Old Trafford seeking a maiden win against his old manager at United, Alex Ferguson. Neither Ferguson nor Roberto Mancini will be remotely complacent.

While Pardew says he possesses "four or five top players" Bruce -- whose decision to revert from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2 since the Newcastle debacle has paid dividends -- talks of building the best squad in Sunderland's history and hosting "fabulous European nights" at the Stadium of Light.

It could all turn out to be a cruel chimera. Yet with Asamoah Gyan, the £13m African Footballer of the Year, alongside Darren Bent and the United loanee Danny Welbeck (ineligible today) in attack, Jordan Henderson pulling strings in midfield and Craig Gordon marshalling a defence that has produced the most Premier League clean sheets this season, there seems genuine cause for optimism by the Wear. For all that, the attacking relationship between Bent and Gyan is not always smooth and, although Bruce's team are slowly evolving from reactive scrappers to pass and move stylists, there is a lack of midfield flair.

"We can't get carried away," acknowledges Gary Rowell, a goalscoring Sunderland cult hero of the 1970s and 1980s, now a local radio match analyst. "We've seen numerous false dawns. But we are level on points with Tottenham and Harry Redknapp is still talking about their chances of challenging for the league title. We're not in a false position. Sunderland are in a good place at the moment; we can go to Old Trafford and express ourselves." Public expression is not something to which Ellis Short and Mike Ashley, the rich owners of Sunderland and Newcastle, are prone; Short has refrained from uttering a word to the media since buying the Wearside club.

Omerta is not the only thing they have in common. If Ashley's highly impulsive, knee-jerk stewardship of Newcastle contrasts with Short's infinitely more patiently measured delegation to his eloquent chairman, Niall Quinn, the pair share some broadly similar strategies. Both owners have a deliberate policy of signing, and then honing, young, often hitherto little known, players. Sunderland's Ahmed Elmohamady and Newcastle's Cheik Tiote are prime examples.

While Short's initial patience with Bruce is paying off, Pardew's somewhat demanding brief is to ensure his new team immediately start winning with panache. Ashley deemed Hughton's tactics overly cautious.

Judging by his liberal use of the word "aesthetic" in discussing varying the service to Carroll and enthusing about hurting opponents courtesy of a "possession game", Newcastle's latest manager seems to have taken that message to heart. Preventing things from ending in tears will, as ever here, not be easy but equally there is no reason why a now mercifully less brash Pardew should not reprise the purple patch he enjoyed in charge of West Ham.

At least after spending a few early adult years working as a glazier on skyscrapers in London and the Middle East, he has acquired the knack of holding his nerve in precarious situations. Newcastle players are already describing his heavy deployment of psychology as mind strengthening.

Providing he can cling on to Carroll next month, it is not impossible that Pardew's head for heights could come in handy as his side challenge Sunderland for Europa League qualification. Newcastle airport's autumn schedule may yet feature flights to exciting new continental destinations.


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