As we attempt to make sense of what was, among other things, possibly the most non-confrontational and tepid Wear-Tyne derbies ever staged (more on that later), it’s difficult not to recall iconic images from this game of years gone by.
You know the sort of thing.
Kevin Ball’s block tackle and Kevin Phillips’ knee slide in the St James’ Park deluge of 1999; Michael Gray, Niall Quinn and Don Hutchison sticking it to the Leazes End in 2000, Jermain Defoe crashing the ball home on the volley as Tim Krul dived like Sylvester Stallone in ‘Escape to Victory’ at the Stadium of Light in 2015, and so on.
These were games in which big personalities created moments that’ll never be forgotten.
Beyond the north east, the prestige of this fixture might be questioned by Merseyside football fans, supporters of the two Manchester clubs, those on opposite sides of the north London divide and so on, but we know that it remains the game, something genuinely special, and an affair that demands more from players and coaches than they’ve possibly given before.
However, the latest instalment of this ferocious rivalry contained no such iconic moments from a red and white perspective, and as Newcastle and their 6000 Saudi-cosplaying supporters made the trip back to Tyneside, they did so on the back of a 0-3 victory that was quite frankly one of the anticlimactic we’ve ever experienced in this fixture.
We’ll come onto the football shortly, but in the meantime, it’s perfectly fair to question whether the magnitude of this fixture was lost on the key figures at Sunderland during the buildup to the game.
If we’re brutally honest, Saturday was the final chapter of a thoroughly dismal week for everyone connected with the club, and you have to ask whether they consciously tried to downplay the significance of the match. Was the prevailing attitude in the boardroom that of ‘It’s just another game and it won’t really matter come Sunday morning, so let’s just roll with it’?
If that was the case, the Sunderland hierarchy made a fatal mistake. Rule number one as you prepare to face Newcastle is never to give the old enemy an easy ride, and rule number two is that you never, ever serve up material with which they can mock you for a long time to come.
The club’s actions in the days prior to kick off smacked of an inferiority complex and of a plucky underdog desperately trying to keep a supposed ‘big gun’ onside. That’s not Sunderland AFC. That’s not what we stand for or should represent, and how we rolled out the red carpet for the visitors was utterly shameful.
As if the outrage about gifting the travelling supporters an entire stand wasn’t bad enough, the redecorating of the Black Cats Bar with a black and white theme, which was promptly undone and met with a strong statement from Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, was an unfathomably stupid act; a desecration of our own stadium for reasons that’ll probably never be explained and may never be fully forgiven.
Dreyfus, as he’s been at pains to declare since arriving on Wearside in 2020, is the self-proclaimed ‘custodian’ of Sunderland AFC.
That might sound like a phrase of deep meaning and heartfelt sincerity, but truly understanding what a Wear-Tyne derby means to our supporters is what makes the difference between a genuine custodian and a ‘fly-by-night’ owner, and if Dreyfus didn’t ‘get it’ beforehand, he certainly should now.
Quite how much he knew about the decision to roll out the red carpet so fulsomely is up for debate but ultimately, he’s the man at the apex of this whole operation and one thing is for certain: he’s going to have to work very hard to regain the trust that’s been lost in recent days.
At a time when there’s still widespread scepticism about our direction of travel on the field and the club’s pragmatism when it comes to spending, PR disasters of this nature merely add to the lingering feelings of mistrust, and the fact that it was entirely self-inflicted is utterly infuriating.
On the pitch, we got it wrong on just about all fronts on Saturday.
We can rightly question things such as Michael Beale’s tactics and the insistence on opting to play out from the back against Newcastle’s high press, not to mention his selection of a visibly-flagging Jobe Bellingham, but what hurt the most was the fact that the majority of Sunderland’s players simply didn’t demonstrate the level of ferocity that this game should stir.
There were moments, of course, brief flashpoints that hinted at a revival at various stages of the game, but overall, we lacked aggression, we seemed to stand five yards off Eddie Howe’s team for the majority of the ninety minutes, and we appeared to be visibly overawed, either by the magnitude of the occasion or Newcastle’s quality.
The harsh reality is that too many of Sunderland’s players weren’t on their game on Saturday.
Jack Clarke was completely ineffectual, Pierre Ekwah was at fault for the second goal and found the going tough; the hard-tackling Trai Hume endured a difficult day and it was a curious quirk of fate that despite scoring an own goal and conceding a penalty, Dan Ballard arguably left the pitch to greater acclaim than many of his teammates.
We knew that to have a chance of victory, our performance would have to be nigh on faultless, but the fact that Newcastle won without getting out of third gear stung badly.
Despite the loss and the inevitable fallout that followed, it’s important to highlight that nothing conclusive was proven about the ability of the players to make the step up, and nor did it demonstrate that they’re not worth the amounts of money that have often been affixed to them.
They fluffed their lines against an opponent of superior quality, but if they can learn from the experience and channel the frustration into their upcoming league performances, this might not have been an entirely wasted exercise.
It’s also important to note that this game won’t determine whether Beale will be a success as Sunderland head coach, because the upcoming league games will provide a far more accurate gauge of that.
You can argue that he perhaps didn’t quite tap into the emotion of the game either, but he’s still reasonably new to the club and more decisive games await.
When all is said and done, our fight was never with Newcastle this season, because they’re levels above us on just about every metric, something there’s no shame in admitting.
Our rivals at this stage are West Bromwich Albion, Leeds United, Hull City, and the many other clubs vying for Championship promotion, and the trip to Portman Road this weekend will be far more telling in the longer term than Saturday’s FA Cup tie.
We’re all aware of the level that we’re aiming to reach in the years to come.
We’re some way short of that at this stage, which is fine, but a clash with Newcastle United should be treated with reverence and for a group of players who might not get a crack at the Magpies again whilst playing for Sunderland, it sadly felt as though they gift wrapped the victory for the Saudi-funded team as opposed to truly making them work for it.
The final insult on Saturday was delivered as Newcastle’s jubilant players staged an impromptu selfie in front of their fans at full time. That’s an image that will sting for a long time to come, and one that summed up the whole sorry tale, and such pathetic kowtowing can never be allowed to happen again.