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Today is huge, but is Sunderland’s journey more important than one game?

“The importance of an FA Cup tie against Newcastle can’t be downplayed, but we’ve also got other long-term aspirations to consider,” writes Malc Dugdale.

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I have to start this piece by saying that despite all the hassle about the Black Cats Bar being redecorated (a huge error by someone at the club which should see a P45 being issued) I’m very happy to have a ticket for the FA Cup third round tie against Newcastle this weekend.

As an exiled non-season card holder who gets to eight to ten games per season, I doubted whether I’d get a ticket for this match, especially after the allocation of 6000 tickets for the visitors, but I did, and I can’t wait.

I’m even looking forward to the journey up the A1 from Cambridgeshire, knowing that I’m seeing some old mates and heading to the Stadium of Light to take on the ‘old enemy’- once again, after way too long.

Like most fans, I relish the chance to resume the banter and one-upmanship against our fiercest rivals, and although I’d refrain from saying I ‘hate’ Newcastle United and their fans, I couldn’t be more passionate about wanting to smash this lot and in the process, continue our cracking record during the last decade.

Newcastle United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

That said, I do feel we need to remember that in real terms, this game is arguably irrelevant in relation to our Championship campaign as well as the strategy of the club as a whole.

Considering the long-term targets we’ve been working on for the last couple of years at least, this game means pretty much nothing. There are a few fringe benefits, but do they really outweigh the idea of Sunderland AFC doing well two or three years from now? I’m not sure.

We enjoyed a solid and comfortable win against Preston at the weekend, but results haven’t been brilliant during the last couple of months, which was one of the factors that lead to the exit of Tony Mowbray.

Winning is a good habit to develop and after some iffy results where points have arguably been dropped against teams below us in the league, a good performance this weekend, topped off with a victory, would indirectly help our league campaign.

We’ll receive confirmation that we can take on Premier League teams in one-off games and do well in them too. It doesn’t mean that we’re ready to go up right now, but it would be a great milestone to hit on that journey.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Emotionally, the passion and drive to succeed that a Wear-Tyne derby creates for anyone who has the honour of walking out in either set of stripes may well benefit both clubs domestically.

If we do well here (and even if we get beat but still hold our own) it’ll breed confidence and team spirit, and it may give our league form a boost when we resume against Ipswich.

We know that we play better against higher quality sides and have done since our final days in League One, so this is another test of that theory and one that we had no way of benefiting from without facing such a significant cup tie.

In terms of social benefits for the fans, a good outcome will also preserve our record as the ‘head to head cock of the north’, at least until the next fixture comes around, which is huge for many of local fans, and for some further afield, too.

Although a win would be cracking, a good result for me is anything from a narrow loss or better, as long as the performance is decent, and a draw or a win of any kind would be incredible.

Most neutrals would acknowledge that Newcastle need to hammer us in order to emerge from the game with any satisfaction, if they’re ever to display that emotion, which seems to evade them perennially, such are their ridiculously inflated expectations.

The bragging rights have been ours for almost ten years, but it’s been a long time since this game took place in any competition.

We’ve been through tough times for most of that period, whereas Newcastle have established themselves at the top level, with affluent new owners and a squad they’ve paid hundreds of millions for.

Whether the players are worth what the Saudis paid for them is a different question, but t can’t be denied that Newcastle have climbed into the football elite, whereas we’ve often struggled since 2016.

Yes, we could lose the bragging rights if we take a pasting this weekend, but even so, the statistics will still be hugely in our favour across recent history.

Defeat is what everyone expects this weekend so the pressure isn’t on us, and hopefully the winning streak can continue for some time yet.

Newcastle United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Reflecting on our Championship campaign so far, we’re over halfway through the season, and given what we’ve set out to achieve since the takeover by Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and company, cup ties (even against the likes of Newcastle) are a bit underwhelming from certain perspectives.

I may feel a bit differently over the weekend but in a few weeks’ time, no matter what the result, I have to say that I don’t really expect to care about this game.

To be clear, it isn’t because this cup tie is Sunderland versus Newcastle.

If we’d drawn Manchester City, Liverpool, or any other top eight Premier League team, my view would be the same. Of course the local rivalry does crank this game up a few levels, but it is what it is.

It’s knockout football in the very early stages against a team higher in the pyramid than ourselves. Greater resources and more expensive players are involved on the other side of the chalk, and therefore our expectation must be that we’re unlikely to succeed.

Another thing to consider is that this is the third round.

If we’re honest with ourselves, even if we beat Newcastle, all we’d get in football terms is another tie and one step towards the likely outcome of being knocked out a bit further down the line.

Miracles such as 1973 don’t happen very often, as we’ve seen a few times during the past fifty years.

Sunderland v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

If we’d drawn a lower league team, we’d likely be utilising our wider squad to see if we can get through and learn a few things about the squad depth.

We’d be dishing out minutes as some of the first eleven rest and recover from the festive period, while also thinking about players we can bring in during the January window.

That rotation would be a good thing to do just now, and if we got knocked out of the cup by a Championship or lower-league team as a result, we wouldn’t really give a toss.

However, given that it’s against Newcastle, that goes out of the window, rightly or wrongly.

In the cold light of day, looking at this from a neutral perspective and considering our five-year plan, this game is little more than a one-off shot at playing a top flight team with a pretty high risk of suffering injuries whilst gaining nothing from it.

Rotherham United v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We’ve just finished a busy Christmas period and we’ve already lost key players to the treatment room, with others already in there. We know the tackles will go flying in on Saturday and not all of them will come off in our favour, potentially resulting in losing more players for a spell that we definitely don’t need.

In the media, Newcastle’s management and fans are already bemoaning their injury list, so they could probably do without this tie as well.

To an extent, we have to accept that it won’t be a full strength side we’re taking on. Their injury issues are massive, although any sympathy is non-existent.

If we go hell for leather and win this game but lose the likes of Jack Clarke, Dan Ballard or Dan Neil for three months due to injury, would we be happy with that?

Of course not.

Preston North End v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The crux of my feelings here relates to the fact that Dreyfus and his team made it clear upon promotion (and for some time before that) that the club’s aim is to get back to the top flight within five years.

We almost did it last season and we’re in a decent position to make the playoffs again, even after a mixed first half of the 2023/2024 campaign.

That’s despite often not playing as well as we can or have, and without a fully effective strike force. We’ve even thrown in the challenge of a change of head coach into the mix, too.

We’re doing OK and we’ve shown since promotion that we’re in the upper third of the league in terms of ability and performance, despite only recently being promoted, plenty of injuries, and issues up front.

In the background, we’re financially stable and our strategy is working- slowly but surely, which was always the plan.

We aren’t spending huge amounts to try and achieve promotion and enjoy the riches of the top flight, and I encourage that frugal approach as long as it’s balanced with continual development.

We know that throwing cash around can occasionally end well, but it can also push clubs into severe financial distress if it doesn’t come off, as Everton recently learned as they were docked points for breaches of FFP rules.

Ours is a sustainable and long-term approach that the owners are sticking to and refusing to be distracted from. Credit to them for that, even if they’re still making the occasional schoolboy error.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If we win on Saturday, I’ll have plenty of beers with my old best mate from Sunderland with whom I’ve been to numerous derbies and away days during the last thirty-plus years, but I’m already looking forward to the rest of the transfer window and the Championship season, as that’s what matters to me more than a single cup game.

Achieving our long term ambitions must be our priority, and it’s certainly mine.

We’ve had many years of bitter disappointment. A few years’ worth of good times is more than overdue, and winning a cup game against our local rivals, which may result in winning nothing anyway, isn’t the end of a good season for me, not by any stretch.

Let’s enjoy this weekend and let’s obliterate the very ground the barcodes walk upon, but the long game isn’t this one.

The long game is about building our team during the January window and pushing for promotion so we that can play Newcastle twice a season instead of once in a blue moon.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When we fulfil our aim of returning to the top flight, I’ll place far more value on these local derbies and I’ll not only hope but will expect us to prevail, as we’ll be at a similar level in terms of league status, player quality, experience and expected performance.

Behind all this, I’m sick of being the underdogs against Newcastle.

I want to be back at the top level and to take them on head to head. I want us to prove to other clubs that there’s another way to excel without embracing owners with terrible human rights records simply to benefit from their money.

Buying success (especially with blood money) rather than earning it isn’t the only option. I want us to show that you can build a club wisely and sustainably, and that you can compete based on those foundations.

In the meantime, I fully agree that we should go out there and do our absolute best against a team which cost far more than Dreyfus paid for our club.

However, we should also remember that the result of this game doesn’t define success this season, or any season. Getting back where to we belong represents success and will set us up for many seasons to come.

When the result is confirmed on Saturday afternoon- however it may fall- the future remains bright as long as we stay on our current path.

Now, let’s get into these muppets.

FTM.

Marco Gabbiadini Photo by Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images
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