Friday spotlight: Envious eyes cast towards Sunderland

Sunderland fans celebrate getting to Wembley. Picture by Kevin Brady.

Sunderland fans celebrate getting to Wembley. Picture by Kevin Brady.

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“THERE is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “And that is not being talked about!”

It’s a quote which springs to mind ahead of tomorrow’s derby – with Newcastle United fans seemingly so unhappy with their lot, despite sitting a more than respectable eighth in the Premier League – five points ahead of ninth and only half-a-dozen points behind a European place.

You know things must be bad when Tynesiders talk about envying Wearsiders’ current campaign!

But I’ve seen many Magpies saying just that, because of relegation-threatened Sunderland reaching the Capital One Cup final and the last 16 of the FA Cup, while they ducked out early in both competitions.

It was a dismay in evidence, even before their travails of this week, with star man Yohan Cabaye being sold to Paris Saint-Germain at the same time as leading scorer Loic Remy was getting himself banned from tomorrow’s derby.

And that dismay is all to do with the gap between expectations and reality on Tyneside.

On the face of it, there should be absolute delight with the position Alan Pardew has managed to steer Newcastle to in the league.

With not a great deal of investment, he has managed to produce a more than effective Premier League outfit which has recorded some genuinely eye-catching results.

Newcastle fans expect more though. Much more.

They always do on Tyneside – their expectations fuelled by the Kevin Keegan era, there are still some who argue the Magpies’ natural rivals are Manchester United rather than Sunderland.

That might have been a case you could have made from 1995-97, but that spell was the exception, not the norm, and many Newcastle fans seem to find that difficult to accept.

Fed on a diet of Sky’s Andy Gray talking about “The Entertainers” on Sky, their team taking a 12-point league at the top of the table and an indulgence of the charisma of the Toon Army, many United fans have a misplaced sense of their club’s importance in the scheme of things.

And that’s what is unfortunate about their current happiness. It stems from a belief that they are a natural Champions League club, that they have a right to be at the top table challenging for the top honours.

They don’t.

No-one does – not even Manchester United.

Sunderland fans long ago grasped that.

That’s why former manager Steve Bruce’s comments on the “expectations” of Sunderland fans a few years back struck such a bum note.

Sunderland fans do not expect much, in contrast to their near neighbours who demand the spotlight as a birthright.

Newcastle supporters want to be loved.

They can tolerate being hated.

But they cannot bear to be ignored.

And they are unhappy because they know that is exactly what owner Mike Ashley is prepared to accept.

“Que, sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re eighth, with stability,” was the witty response of some United fans the night Sunderland reached the Capital One Cup final with a nail-biting win at Old Trafford.

The irony there is that there was truth in what they were saying – since when was a financially well-run, established Premier League club, not something to be happy about?

The reason for their unhappiness with the current situation, though, is that Ashley’s vision for the club curtails their dreams – “aim high but not too high” is his pragmatic motto and he underlined that with the sale of Cabaye this week.

It might be sound business, but it ignores the fact that football is still the glory game.

It’s all about daring to dream – which Sunderland are currently doing on three fronts at the moment; Newcastle on none.

And perhaps the greatest irony this weekend is that, with so little to play for in the remainder of the campaign, this is by some distance Newcastle’s biggest game of the season.

Not the game against Premier League champions Manchester United in early April. Not the match against Southampton the week before which could help ensure they finish no lower than an eighth-place finish.

No. All Newcastle have left to play for this season, realistically, is winning local bragging rights and avoiding Sunderland beating them in the derby three times in succession for the first time since 1923.

It’s an unedifying thought for that generation which walked in a Keegan wonderland.

For a brief, shining moment tomorrow afternoon, the eyes of football will be focused on one of the best derby games anywhere in the world.

Newcastle and Sunderland will be talked about.

Then they will not be talked about.

Sunderland fans have accepted that with a shrug for many years now. Newcastle’s must learn to.

Twitter @sunechograeme

* Don’t miss tomorrow’s derby special Football Echo – it’s online from around 7pm with the biggest and best coverage of the big day