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When ball number thirty eight emerged from the mixer during Sunday lunchtime’s FA Cup draw, there may have been a brief surge of optimism among Sunderland fans as a home tie was confirmed.
Would it be a nice easy fixture to kickstart our cup campaign, or would the draw throw up something unexpected in the form of a top flight opponent?
Seconds later, when ball number twenty seven was selected, thereby confirming that we’ll be taking on Newcastle United in the third round of the competition in the New Year, the mood might well have shifted from positivity to pessimism.
Indeed, that was certainly the case on social media as the outcome you either feared or wanted more than anything, depending on how steely your nerves are, became a reality and the post-draw analysis began.
There’s little doubt that a first game between the two sides for seven years throws up all kinds of permutations and fascinating subplots. If the broadcasters are seeking their ideal choice for a live televised game on the Sunday, they need look no further than this one, because it’ll be an absolute must watch.
Sadly, the renewal of a local rivalry has also got the potential for some unsavoury scenes and the prospect of 6,000+ Newcastle fans descending on Wearside will be a logistical nightmare for those tasked with keeping everyone safe. A midday kick off seems to be a certainty, and let’s hope that any serious violence is avoided.
Regardless of whether this game is good or bad for Sunderland, it’s certainly been a long time coming.
Since our paths last crossed, we’ve tasted the bitterness of relegation to League One and the elation of promotion to the Championship, while Newcastle have added quality by the bucketload and emerged as a serious challenger in domestic football after becoming a tool of an oppressive and brutal regime following their Saudi-backed takeover.
On the weekend of January 5th-7th, it’ll be Luke O’Nien, Dan Neil and Anthony Patterson versus Alexander Isak, Joelinton, and Anthony Gordon. Underdogs versus heavyweights, promise versus established quality, and a game that'll doubtless be played in a ferocious atmosphere inside the Stadium of Light.
So, is the tie a foregone conclusion? Should we not bother turning up on the basis that we’ve got two chances of winning- slim and none- and that it’s bound to be a derby day humiliation in front of the TV cameras?
No, it isn’t, and yes, we absolutely should.
In the first instance, the demand to ‘think like a big club again’ wouldn’t lead us to shy away from this particular challenge. If and when we regain a place in the top flight, challenges of this magnitude would be an almost weekly occurrence and we’d need to be able to tackle them head on in order to secure survival.
Yes, there’s undoubtedly a gulf between the two sides and a man-for-man analysis would suggest that Eddie Howe’s team should make light work of Tony Mowbray’s promising youngsters, but given that the expectation will be for Newcastle to win and win comfortably, why can’t we go out there, give everything we’ve got, and believe that we can do something exceptional?
For the local lads including Patterson, Neil and Chris Rigg, this game will be extremely close to their hearts and they’ll be desperate to make an impression. For those not from the area and who may not be well versed in the hostilities of a Tyne/Wear derby, it'll be unlike anything they’ve experienced in their fledgling careers so far.
Any game against Newcastle at home is a test of character but in this context, it’ll be even more pronounced, with a level of intensity and emotion greater than many of them could imagine.
How many of our players do we believe could make an impression in the top flight? Many of our current squad have been linked with Premier League moves in recent months, and this game will give us a tantalising glimpse of who might make the cut, and there’ll be no hiding place when the action starts.
I’m excited at the prospect of facing our black and white neighbours once again. Perhaps that’s borne out of misplaced optimism, masochism and a touch of naivety rather than anything logical, but I can also understand why others aren’t thrilled about it.
Last season, whenever the big games came around, there was often trepidation and predictions of heavy losses among our supporters, to which the counter-argument was, ‘Did we spend four years trudging through the third tier only to lose our nerve at the first real challenge we face?’, and I think the same is true as we gear up for the cup tie.
We might lose and lose heavily against Newcastle, but there’s also a chance that we could do something remarkable and produce what would undoubtedly be one of our greatest results of recent times.
At the moment, they’re on one path and we’re on another, but I just hope that we make the most of the chance in front of our own supporters, play without fear and acquit ourselves as best we can.
If they are to advance to the next round, let’s make them earn it rather than gifting it to them.