North by Northeast

North by Northeast

For the first time, two, bitter local rivals have something in common. They’re in disarray. Both Newcastle and Sunderland find themselves marooned on two points from six games, winless, propping up the Premier League. The Geordies sit in 19th, the Mackems in 20th. Technically, the former has the bragging rights. Scant consolation, pet.

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To the passing outsider, this state of affairs may appear somewhat shocking. Newcastle have been considered, rightly or wrongly, a top side for a long time. As for their Wearside neighbours, Sunderland seemed to have settled in the Premier League and looked to be making progress with steady investment. For the die-hard football fans, or, indeed, the fair-weather Match of the Day viewers, I doubt it will come as much of a surprise to see the Magpies and the Black Cats at the bottom of the football food chain.

Personally, I have no axe to grind with either club. I love going to St James’ Park and the Stadium of Light, and, although this may seem a scathing and personal attack, I am merely commenting on what I see as a football supporter. For me, Sunderland have lost their way in recent years. As for Newcastle, it seems to me that a sickness lies upon the club and it shows little sign of recovery. Things have to change if this region is to regain its deserved footballing pride.

Football matches are won, and lost, by the players on the pitch. If they can’t do the business, the team inevitably struggles. It is frivolous to suggest that a couple of wins will sort out the deep-rooted problems at both Newcastle and Sunderland, but we can’t ignore the fickleness of football fans. A few decent results in October and it’s all smiles once again.

That said, even if improved results could fix the chaos, it’s hard to see where they’re coming from. The players on the pitch simply aren’t good enough. If they are, they aren’t showing it. After flirting with relegation last season, the recruitment at both Newcastle and Sunderland over the summer months has been random and slapdash, exactly the opposite of what was required. The additions at St James’ Park have done nothing to fill the creativity and leadership vacuum, whereas Sunderland have replaced dross with yet more dross. The re-signing of Fabio Borini from Liverpool smacked of desperation. Even worse was the purchase of Younes Kaboul. £3m? Daniel Levy couldn’t believe his luck.

The former Tottenham skipper has not covered himself in glory in his fledgling Sunderland career, he was the chief architect in his side’s downfall at Bournemouth last weekend. Turned inside-out by Callum Wilson for the Cherries’ opener, then given his marching orders after his second clumsy challenge of the game (both on Wilson), the stand-in skipper had an afternoon to forget. Sebastian Coates, another unconvincing summer recruit, struggled alongside him. The lack of solid foundation at the back is worrying. Alarm bells will be ringing for Sunderland fans.

Newcastle are the lowest scorers in the top four divisions so far this campaign. Papiss Cisse has been his usual inconsistent self, and new boy Aleksander Mitrovic has had more cards than shots on target. With such big money thrown at Florian Thauvin and Geroginio Wijnaldum, Newcastle’s ability to perform due diligence on incoming players is called into question once again. On paper, the signings caught the eye. On the pitch, it’s a different story. After substandard showings last season with little passion, desire and organisation, it seemed nonsensical to invest in yet more luxury players. Newcastle have good individuals. They do not have a good team. John Carver lamented a lack of ‘DNA’ in the club and its players. It still rings true today. With Fabricio Coloccini fading ever further into the background, coupled with Jack Colback’s continuing decline, it’s hard to back Steve McClaren’s troops in a relegation skirmish.

These poor performances could be forgiven from a stale squad. They could be forgiven if a club had refused to loosen the purse strings in the off-season. It’s just not the case. Newcastle spent close to £50m, whereas Sunderland have the 8th highest wage bill in the Premier League. Both clubs appear in the list of ‘Europe’s top 15 net spenders’ during the summer transfer window. Newcastle’s policy of bringing in foreign players under the age of 26, with the intention of selling them on at a profit, is not conducive to survival in the toughest league in the world. Sure, players need time to settle, but you can’t afford a slow start if you want to stay in this division. As for Sunderland, money has been wasted and obscene wages have been paid. Who’s to blame for the braindead transfer dealings?

For the fans, the buck stops with the manager. The gaffer, whoever it may be, determines who comes in and who goes out. They set the team up every Saturday to try and win games. It’s their fault. In reality, the blame should be laid at the feet of those behind the scenes. Lee Charnley, managing director of NUFC, was responsible for the atrocious appointment of John Carver to replace Alan Pardew. The scattergun approach to management has now thrown up Steve McClaren, sacked by Derby County after a disappointing end to their Championship campaign last season. What makes the hierarchy think he will bring any more success than his predecessors? From the management structure to the players on the pitch, nothing has changed. No lessons have been learned.

The decision making of the director of football at Sunderland, Lee Congerton, is remarkably poor. The failure to sign a proven goal scorer over the last four seasons, combined with rash transfer dealings and constant managerial changes has left the club with little stability or success. Hopes have now been pinned on Dick Advocaat to bring some order, as they were on Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet before him. We all know how that turned out.

At the top of the tree, Mike Ashley and Ellis Short are, primarily, businessmen. As a result, there is more focus on making their clubs a commercial cash cow and a global asset than sorting things out on the pitch. Don’t get me wrong, this is a problem in modern football as a whole, not just in the Northeast, but the connection to the supporters at Newcastle and Sunderland in particular has taken a massive hit in recent years. The fans are kept at arms’ length and are feeling increasingly detached from the club they love. Two historic, famous clubs are losing their soul.

Perhaps, with all this in mind, it’s time for the fans themselves to temper their expectations. The days of European conquests on the Tyne are over. Indeed, the days of top half finishes may be over. The general consensus in the Toon is that ‘they are too good to go down.’ Just like in 2008, eh? For Sunderland, survival has to be the first aim. At this stage, it probably is. Both sides need to maintain their status, benefit from the huge cash injection from TV deals, and go again.

It’s all very dramatic, isn’t it?

‘They must maintain their status.’ ‘They cannot afford to go down.’ In truth, it’s still early days. One win could take the pair out of the relegation zone. There is no way of knowing how they will react to their current hardships. Football’s a funny, old game. Nevertheless, with Newcastle at home to Chelsea, and Sunderland away at Manchester United this weekend, the despair could continue for another week at least. In reality, the despair could continue until May.