Football "debates" these days often seem to centre on "who is the best...Messi or Ronaldo?" or "who is the biggest club...Barca or Real?" It can't be that Messi and Ronaldo are two of the finest footballers to ever grace the planet, as good as each other in their own, different ways or that similarly, Real Madrid and Barcelona are massive clubs, with rich diverse histories, rooted deeply in Spanish and Catalan culture. No no, one must be better or bigger than the other.
This dispute generally rears its ugly, arbitrary head twice a season in the North East as the region's derby approaches, with Sunderland and Newcastle fans arguing over who is the biggest, based on a number of different factors, such as trophies won, attendances, European football played, whether the city centre has a KFC...the pertinent subjects.
Very rarely during these discussions, which are utterly meaningless and do nothing but go round in circles, does anybody take a step back and say, really, both clubs are about the same size with very similar pasts, presents and if they are anything to be judged by, futures too. They both even have a KFC, how about that?
Both Sunderland and Newcastle are very much of the region they are based in, with supporters drawn from generally the same class of people. It's a cliché, but there was a time when supporters would attend games of both sides. In fact, the late, great Sir Bobby Robson may have managed Newcastle, but he also regularly attended Sunderland matches after his retirement from the game.
With neither club having won anything of note for a few decades now, the argument often boils down to attendances. Given the differences involved, approximately 10k on average per season between the two, it's a pretty a pointless one, as frankly both clubs have home and away support that is the envy of many clubs around both this country and the rest of Europe. For the record, Sunderland have pulled in the biggest single attendance for a game, while Newcastle tend to have the better overall averages.
Speaking of European football - another topic, which is regularly broached once this sort of discourse begins - Sunderland actually have the highest average attendance for a club who have failed to play continental football in the last forty years. In that respect, the fact so many continue to come through the doors is quite remarkable. Newcastle on the other hand, have a much better European pedigree, having won the Fairs' Cup - not recognised by UEFA, but precursor to its own currently named Europa League - and played in European competition a number of times in the last couple of decades.
Like any Sunderland fan, I'd love to see the Lads playing in Europe, but it's not really a fair measure of club size either. Newcastle had a spell of dominance over us during the last 20 years where finishing as runners up or even lower got you Champions League football. In fact, of the two clubs, only Sunderland have competed in Europe by virtue of winning an actual trophy, when we competed in the Cup Winners' Cup after our FA Cup victory in 1973. Had the league been structured differently, or continental competition existed in earlier decades, then Sunderland would have played far more European football. Newcastle, in this instance, just got lucky with their timing.
In terms of trophies, again there is very little to choose between the sides. Sunderland have the superior record of league titles - six to Newcastle's four - while the Magpies dominate the Black Cats in the FA Cup stakes - six to two - without taking into consideration their Fairs' Cup win. Neither club has won the League Cup, though Sunderland do have the opportunity to change that in March; here's hoping we do. Manchester City will certainly be a formidable obstacle in our quest for silverware, but the thought of masses of Sunderland fans welcoming the players back to Wearside, celebrating at a trophy parade, is now tantalisingly close to becoming a reality.
Then there are head to head records; Sunderland hold the biggest win between the two sides - 9-1 on Tyneside soil - while Newcastle dominate the overall head to head statistics, though in the grand scheme of things not by a significant margin. Newcastle currently have 53 wins to our 45, while they have scored just six more goals, leading the way 218 - 212. Again, both of these records stand to change this weekend, but whoever wins, the margins will remain fine.
The closeness of the rivalry is probably the key influence on the heated nature of the debate. In other derbies around the world, there are often obvious, significant differences between the sizes of the club. I have nothing at all against Manchester City and they are doing their level best to catch up with Manchester United at the moment, but as it stands United are clearly the bigger club, with a rich tradition, masses of trophies and huge support. I don't intent to belittle City or their fans, but there really is no argument over "who is bigger". Similarly, in Madrid, although Atletico are arguably the third biggest club in Spain, Real are vastly bigger; unquestionably so.
In the North East of England, we are much more akin to rivalries between bigger clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United, Celtic and Rangers or Boca Juniors and River Plate. Our rivalry is just as fierce, if not more so though, because our dispute over "who is bigger" is about all we have these days. Ultimately, that's the crux of the matter; we spend so much time arguing over "who is bigger" because neither club has given the club a sniff of the success their long suffering supporters deserve and that is the most damning similarity of all.