Has the pendulum ever swung so drastically in the North East as it has the past five years? After Sunderland’s relegation in 2006, they gained promotion as champions a year later whilst neighbours Newcastle sacked Glenn Roeder, finishing 13th. One year on, United had sacked Sam Allardyce and re-appointed Kevin Keegan, yet finished above a contented Sunderland by four points.
Another year on, the Toon Army were relegated and Sunderland survived, both sides now with new managers after the departures of Keegan and Roy Keane. Chris Hughton took over the reins as Sunderland opted for Steve Bruce. Yet the Magpies returned to the top-flight as champions and the Mackems finished in a disappointing 13th. Unlucky for some.
Sunderland are languishing in 16th whereas Newcastle occupy a Champions League berth. This despite the latter discharging Hughton (having overseen a 5-1 Tyne-Wear derby triumph last October), and employing Alan Pardew halfway through the previous campaign. Instability is as omnipresent on the Tyne as the fog.
But the Geordies now stand as a paragon for generating success. Rather than splurge the £35m for Andy Carroll for the sake of proven transfer activity, they spent a mere £12.8m, building on the prudent blueprints of the previous year.
Sunderland, also the beneficiaries of an inflated transfer fee for an England striker, however have been reckless. The £24m cash injection following Darren Bent’s move to Aston Villa compelled Bruce to spend that sum’s entirety on a plethora of players.
Concerned at the prospect of last season’s injury crisis recurring again, he has saddled the squad with ineffectual interims. The quantity-over-quality recruitment drive actually intensified expectation in August, but that was foolhardy when there were two glaring absentees from Bruce’s squad. Namely, strikers.
To compound Bent’s departure, Asamoah Gyan upped sticks for Qatar in the summer, expanding the gaping hole at the tip of the arrow. Bruce however rashly parted with £8.1m for the prodigious 18-year-old Connor Wickham. Newcastle meanwhile spent nothing on Demba Ba; a proven scorer in the Premier League in his half-season with West Ham United, who has hitherto scored nine league goals.
One bookmaker suspended betting on Monday that Steve Bruce would be the next managerial casualty in the Premier League after their weekend home defeat to Wigan Athletic. Knowing Newcastle owner Mike Ashley’s penchant for haphazardly squeezing the trigger, this would have been a feasible scenario a day after Pardew’s appointment.
Yet via the seemingly illogical decision to employ a man out of work for almost 18 months, Newcastle’s nomadic behaviour has ironically ended. Pardew has embraced the bare necessities such as continuity and balance, and imbued the squad with a collective selflessness. The club have learnt their lesson from past outlandish outlays.
On Wearside meanwhile, they are weary. And patience has worn out. Bruce wasn’t the antithesis of Pardew’s permanence, but he bought inadequately and failed to bring in an outstanding goalscorer. Wickham is out until January and in Nicklas Bendtner, they possess an impotent striker with delusions of grandeur.
Martin O’Neill is an immediate upgrade on the old-school Bruce, whose Football Manager experiment in the summer was destined to fail. Aided by trusted assistants John Robertson and Steve Walford, he will need their support and honesty as he works his way through a to-do list as crammed as the deadwood-ridden Mackems squad. As Pardew knows, less is more.