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Black Cats Analects: Player Power Derby

In the build-up to a crucial Wear-Tyne derby for Sunderland, player power has become the unwelcome focus at Sunderland as the pattern once again repeats...

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"… I don’t agree the derby is one of the biggest games in our history … Newcastle [United] is only the most important game because it’s the next one …"

There’s nothing like cool rationality before a derby to chill the nerves.  For Sunderland that sensibility comes from Dick Advocaat.  The Dutchman has seen enough ‘civil war’ fixtures in his 28 years of management to stay sober about it but, as he’ll soon discover, rationality is lost on the Wear-Tyne Derby.

That said; Advocaat can be indifferent towards the derby because, as accomplished a manager as he is, the result on 5 April 2014 is of no great consequence to him.  His duty to Sunderland is a temporary arrangement and, should the club be relegated, he would be mostly vindicated of any blame.  Gus Poyet would sure get the bulk share of it, but it’s the players who risk getting a chastised mark from the fans.

The reason: player power.  Without directly buying into the rumours of an obstructive player culture that apparently contorts the club, there is nonetheless a group of players at Sunderland who have influenced at least one managerial switch since November 2011.  This tumultuous repetition of axing managers has perhaps inadvertently bestowed a sort of cultural authority upon the players.  That, subsequently, has produced an inharmonious chaos of either ingloriously poor or bewilderingly great performances.

The exception to Sunderland’s recent bipolar form is the North East derby.  Under the core of the current squad, Sunderland is on four consecutive victories over Newcastle United, and undefeated since August 2011.  Since then, the six fixtures to date have produced an 11-3 score-line in Sunderland’s favour, including three clean sheets – all at St. James’ Park.

Another opportune fact of this fixture is its timing.  The 153rd Wear-Tyne derby will be Dick Advocaat’s second match at the helm, just as it was for Gus Poyet and Paolo Di Canio.  Like his predecessors, Advocaat has little time to forge new strategies before his inaugural meeting with Newcastle.  For supporters, hope of a fifth consecutive win is again reliant on the compliance and impulse of the players.

They have plenty of reason to get a win too.  Should Sunderland be relegated, some of these players may never see Premier League football again.  Alternatively, should Sunderland not be relegated, some of these players may never see Premier League football again.  Y’see, all the talk of Sunderland being some ‘sleeping giant’ seething with potential is great, but the reality is the club has become an annual relegation candidate and the players are not only branded by it, but are seen as directly responsible for it.

When Martin O’Neill was appointed in December 2011, the players were motivated into a run of form that, though it secured league safety, fell apart by April 2012.  Paolo Di Canio ignited a sudden surge of raw, intravenous energy in April 2013 that collapsed the moment Sunderland were confirmed safe a month later.  Most recently, Gus Poyet spared Sunderland relegation woes in April 2014 with a ‘great escape’ that was influenced more by the players’ rising work ethic than the Uruguayan’s ill-fated ‘identity’.

Supporters no longer care how humble John O’Shea’s apologies are after each managerial out-turfing.  These players may not have beat to the drum of their managers but, above all else, they must answer to the supporters.  They’ll have a full house to prove themselves to against the Magpies.

And they can do it.  It’s just whether they choose to do it and allow that work ethic to carry through to the end of the season again.  Fortunately, after the variably failed collaboration of managers, whose ideas and visions have been lost causes on the players for too long; the Wear-Tyne Derby could not have come at a better time.  Because if any one thing seems to motivate these players; it is Newcastle United.

So the stage is set.  The Toon Army is coming to town.  Alan Pardew is out and the Omni-Geordie presence of John Carver is in; Cruddas Park-bred, with horse-punching tendencies running through his bar-coded blood like a stale Newcy Broon, boasting a decade-old studentship under Bobby Robson and a hellish 16% win record over 12 matches.  Pardew may be gone, but so has Newcastle’s form.

Yet this is where Advocaat must not be so logical.  Yes, he has nearly three decades of coaching experience and doesn’t brag about his 56% win record across 9 nations, nor that this derby clash will be his 886th game in management.  However, the Wear-Tyne derby is a unique atmosphere and form is irrelevant.  The players at Sunderland are proof of that.  For years, they have defied form for this fixture.

And now, this derby is the perfect platform for the players to prove they want to stay in the Premier League.  If ‘player power’ truly exists, then Advocaat can use the knowledge his players have of this fixture and let them freely exercise another famous derby win as they see fit.  These players must not let Sunderland’s eight-year league standing collapse because of another uninspiring season of down-tooling and underperforming.  Advocaat may have the necessary leadership in his locker but it is nothing without the cooperation of these players.  Only they can make or break this great club’s future now.

And what good a win on Sunday will do.  Should the players want it more, it would be an emphatic mark left on the legacy of the Wear-Tyne derby.  Newcastle doesn’t have many stats to boast about, but the derby win record is 53-51 to the Toon Army.  If Sunderland wins, the playing field will be that more level – a single win to separate who is the top dog.  The win would also produce a seventh derby double, and match Newcastle for a fifth and most derby wins in a row.  A lot of pride and bragging rights are at stake.

Dick Advocaat is wrong.  This derby is the biggest game in Sunderland’s history.  Not because of its 132-year legacy.  Not because of the monopolised billion-buck television deal next season.  But because the result of this game could determine Sunderland’s Premier League existence; and ultimately conclude an era under Ellis Short.  The Chairman, who has supplied hundreds of millions of pounds into Sunderland, would hardly abandon ship.  A mass club upheaval however could be imminent.

And it’ll start with this current squad.  For a club that has recently opted for restraint in selling players, the general consensus will be clear should Sunderland be relegated.  These players have gone four years providing initially good results for new managers, rested on those unspectacular laurels, and suddenly sparked a form revival when the pressure reaches its climax.  That complacency needs to end on Sunday.

The 153rd Wear-Tyne derby is crucial.  It could be the last supporters see for a time, perhaps even a long time.  To lose at home to Newcastle and be relegated would be a damning mark on whatever culture exists at the club.  These players have the power to choose what happens now.  They could under-perform, or seize the opportunity against a Newcastle team that has its foot well off the gas.  Advocaat, like supporters, will want nothing less than their best.

Fortunately, no fixture brings out their best more.