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Apathy & The Ghost Of Derby Day Past

As the first derby clash of the season fast approaches, the usual mixture of apprehension, fear, excitement and tension have been replaced by something I've not associated with the day for seven years; indifference.

Matthew Lewis

Ahead of next weekend's derby, the four second half goals conceded against Swansea City on Saturday were aptly reminiscent of a defeat to Newcastle United in 2006. After a spirited, organised first half display in South Wales, Sunderland capitulated and succumbed to defeat. It was a result and performance that left me feeling as I did seven years ago, with apathy taking over. The only difference being, that was the first and only time I had felt such indifference ahead of a derby as well as after it.

Of course that game arrived in April when Sunderland were already relegated, at the time possessing just 12 points. That was about the only saving grace going into the derby - at least Newcastle couldn't relegate us - and with Kevin Ball in charge, there was perhaps a smidgen of hope that some pride could be restored by beating them. On the whole, after a season of punishment, apathy reigned leading up to what was essentially the only remaining match to hold any significance for supporters.

Just over 40,000 fans turned up to witness a spirited first half performance, with Justin Hoyte even giving the Lads a deserved lead. The size of the crowd was telling; when a derby crowd is that short on capacity, it merely confirms what the points total suggests; disillusionment had well and truly set in.

However, that Hoyte goal gave credence to the idea that while the season would not be saved, the team might at least give the supporters something back by beating our arch rivals. Had we won, it would have been our first home win of the season - in the end, only a rearranged game against Fulham saved us the additional ignominy of going an entire season without a home victory - and would have at least allowed the long suffering fans the somewhat sardonic pleasure of being able to mock Newcastle for their inability to beat the worst team since the Premier League's inception in 1992.

This is Sunderland though and the last laugh was to be Newcastle's as they scored three times in seven minutes to turn the game on its head before rounding the victory off with a fourth. Such luminaries as Michael Chopra and Albert Luque were allowed to score, much to their supporters' delight. In typical Sunderland fashion, even this smallest of pleasures was snatched from us by that team doing what it did best; lose.

Despite yielding goals to players much maligned by their own support and conceding what should have been considered an embarrassing number of goals at home, it remains the derby defeat in my lifetime that hurts the least. Although there was a miniscule amount of lingering optimism that the players would provide us with something to savour from the season, even the build-up wasn't the same. Sunderland were a beaten club, never mind side that season, and walking away from the game I felt indifferent. Angry, sad, disappointed, elated, victorious, ecstatic are just some of the emotions I expect to feel after a derby; apathy was something new.

This brings me onto this weekend's game. This is not April and Sunderland are not relegated, although things are already starting to take on an inevitable feel. Unlike that derby seven years ago, the first half at Swansea did not result in a Sunderland goal, but it was a decent, solid performance with Steven Fletcher spurning the best chance either side was able to muster. It was a period of football upon which the second half should have been built.

Instead, the second half was a direct parallel to the derby surrender. It was a half which resulted in yet another two goals conceded from corners, a pathetic, needless penalty and a wonderful strike from De Guzman. All of this against a Swansea side who - albeit against three of the Premier League's top sides - had failed to win at home this season. In fact, it was eight games since the Jacks had won a league game at home. They must have eyed this fixture up greedily and happily for them, right on cue, the Wearside self-destruction machine did what it does best.

This result and the performances that preceded it in the games against Liverpool and Manchester United smack of the 15 and 19 point seasons; effective in patches but ultimately undone by weak submission. Indeed, at the time of writing, this weekend's derby was still yet to sell out, another throwback to those dark days.

Even in the midst of last season's dire run that led up to what was a significant and frankly miraculous derby victory I felt something toward the club. This time around the disconnection between myself - and I am sure other fans - and the club has only grown. It would take a lot to kill my love for Sunderland, but it feels like the people running things at the top are doing their level best to do just that. With that in mind, I feel unusually dispassionate about this weekend's derby.

It's been seven years since I last felt like this and perhaps as the build-up to the game continues and the date gets ever nearer, my usual excitement and nerves will kick in but as of now, I feel pretty much nothing. Of course, as with any game, I'm desperate for us to win, but if we lose, I can envisage myself shrugging it off just as I did when they put four past us.

Scars remain from those two seasons, indelible memories that have become part of the very fabric of the club and the mind set of supporters. A victory this weekend would be unexpected and like last season's would give the fans something to grasp on, but it will surely fool nobody. Sadly, reopening those old wounds has not left me feeling anaesthetised and the only thing worse than hurting, is feeling nothing at all.

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