When Newcastle announced the appointment of Rafael Benitez as manager, two things immediately sprung to mind. The first was that he was an incredible coup for Newcastle and the second was the impending Tyne-Wear derby would be Rafa against Sam Allardyce. It’s a true heavyweight clash that is a broadcasters dream because it’s between two managers who are big personalities with a personal animosity. But it’s more than a clash of personalities; it’s a clash of styles between Benitez and his passing, possession philosophy and Allardyce’s more physical and direct percentages game.
Only last year, Allardyce made disparaging comments toward Benitez in his autobiography claiming that Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League win over AC Milan had “nowt to do with him”, Benitez responded in an interview by saying: “Do you know who Sam Allardyce is? Do you know how many trophies he has won? Well that’s my answer. It is what happens when someone has a book to sell. His opinion does not have a lot of value”.
Their spikey relationship dates back to Rafa’s early days as Liverpool manager, being unhappy at the tactics and approach of Bolton, managed then by Allardyce. To add their personal conflict to such a fierce one between local rivals both involved a battle to retain their Premier League status makes this a mouth-watering contest.
Like so many derbies, this is more than just a football match or a battle between two clubs, it’s a geographical fight. The North East of England is a hot-bed of football, something I can personally testify to. The depth of feeling between the two sets of supporters is as deep as just about any other rivalry you could care to mention. It is well known how fanatical the support for Newcastle is within the city, as if it’s a black and white striped bubble.
Historically, there’s not much between the two clubs, with Newcastle winning 53 and Sunderland 51 out of the 155 times they’ve met since the first ever game between them in 1883. Recently though, it’s Sunderland who have enjoyed the upper hand, winning the last six Tyne-Wear derbies in the Premier League, much to the chagrin of the Magpies fans. Their last meeting, back in October, ended in a 3-0 romp for the Black Cats and if they can make it seven consecutive derby wins, it would take Sunderland four points clear of their bitter rivals.
Considering the situation both clubs are currently in and the fixtures remaining, this is arguably their biggest derby battle in living memory. One thing Newcastle can take solace in is that five of their remaining eight fixtures this season are against the clubs in and around them, something that could make a considerable difference if they can get some positive results. Despite only being in the job a few days, Benitez improved the organisation of Newcastle defensively and had they been better in front of goal, and could’ve beaten title chasing Leicester City on Monday night. Newcastle have too often been shambolic in defence this season and Rafa will undoubtedly improve that, as well as their tactical approach, but improving their finishing will be more difficult, especially with so little time on his hands. Meanwhile, Allardyce has had more time to instill his approach and has recently enjoyed improved results, with Jermain Defoe scoring important goals. With a frenetic, tight derby game, a in-form goal scorer can make all the difference.
The popular belief is that it will be two of Sunderland, Newcastle and Norwich that join Aston Villa in the Championship next season and looking at the Premier League standings heading into this weekend, that is an understandable opinion. However, often there’s a side that seem in no danger with ten games to go, but end up getting relegated and a side that look unlikely to survive, suddenly putting a good run together to survive. Despite a drop off in form, Watford should have enough points to be safe, but Crystal Palace could be another matter. Momentum is key and although Swansea are on the same points as Palace, they’ve found some form recently, but Palace are on a miserable run and maybe, just maybe, they could be the surprise team to find themselves in the mire this year. That may seem a tad far-fetched, but would probably be in keeping with this unpredictable season. What is for certain though, victory for either side in this Sunday lunch-time’s intriguing Tyne-Wear derby will be worth much more than local bragging rights, it could be the catalyst to a run to securing Premier League safety.