I’M in my third decade of covering Newcastle v Sunderland derbies and experience has taught me not to be optimistic going into these encounters.
Discussions with colleagues and Sunderland fans after Sunday’s defeat to Chelsea offered a similar viewpoint ahead of a derby challenge on away turf being taken on by a Sunderland side badly out of form and now ravaged by injuries.
But when I asked Sunderland fans whether they felt the same way, the reaction from Twitter followers was not what I expected.
Far from sharing that pessimism, the vast majority of people who replied were hopeful, most excited, and some were even confident that Sunderland might not only avoid defeat but even taste victory at St James’s Park for the first time since the year 2000.
It just goes to show that hope springs eternal in the defiant hearts of many Sunderland fans because if Sunderland are to get anything out of this weekend’s game they will have to overcome so many odds.
Firstly, there is the weight of history in a game in which Sunderland have been inexplicable under-achievers in recent decades.
The Black Cats have bogey teams and in the case of Champions League sides like Manchester United and Chelsea it’s not difficult to understand why, with their pedigrees. A good case can even be put for David Moyes’ Everton side’s ongoing success against Sunderland.
But although, in contrast, Newcastle’s fortunes have fluctuated wildly as a Premier League side, just about the one consistency in the record of the Tyneside team over the last 20 years is that they have continually held the upper hand on their local rivals.
Since the Premier League was created, Sunderland have won just three of their 21 encounters – the greatest disparity in results in well over 100 years of derby history, in a fixture in which traditionally there was little between the two sides.
I have seen Sunderland play well and draw, I have seen them play well and lose. I have never seen them play poorly and get anything from the game – although I have seen that happen with Newcastle.
History, of course, counts for nothing on the day but the worry for Sunderland fans is that there are also present day factors at work too – not least the fact that the Black Cats have not won in nine Premier games now; not since January 19 in fact.
On top of that, they have lost two of their most important players – top scorer Steven Fletcher and captain Lee Cattermole – to season-ending injuries, while fierce competitor Craig Gardner is suspended and Danny Graham, Titus Bramble, Carlos Cuellar and David Vaughan are all doubtful with injuries.
Newcastle, meanwhile, have staged a recent revival, winning their last three home games in a row and – worryingly for a Sunderland side with a tendency to fade in the second half – winning them all with last minute goals.
Yet still plenty of Sunderland fans are excited and hopeful about the forthcoming fixture.
The one thing those fans have in their favour, apart from blind, bloody-minded belief, is the knowledge that Newcastle’s midweek game must deplete the home team’s energy levels.
The Europa League game against Benfica will require the effort of every Magpie sinew if a 3-1 deficit from the first leg is to be overturned. They will necessarily have to go for it, if they are to stay in the competition.
It will also mean that there’s a chance too of Newcastle sustaining knocks and injuries from the Benfica game which will cause selection problems from the weekend.
Perhaps the biggest thing Sunderland have in their favour though is that despite the derbies have rarely been predictable affairs.
Who would have expected mild-mannered Stephane Sessegnon for example to have been sent off for a challenge involving Cheick Tiote last season? Or that Howard Webb – referee this weekend by the way – would award a penalty for a clear Steven Taylor dive? Or that Thomas Sorensen would save THAT penalty?
For Sunderland fans, the luck and the unpredictability has tended to work against them in recent years.
Steve Bruce’s side had been flying and Chris Hughton’s listing when the two teams met in October 2010 at St James’s Park only for both sides to be astonished by a 5-1 drubbing of the Black Cats.
Bruce was in charge again in August, 2011, when the Magpies came to the Stadium of Light in disarray and on the verge of revolt – with Newcastle fans as twitchy and pessimistic about the game as many Sunderland fans may be this week.
And yet at the end of the game, Newcastle had emerged as 1-0 winners from a scrappy, ropey game which signalled the start of Bruce’s spiral towards the sack.
Those are reminders that this is a fixture which is always likely to surprise us.
And that’s what Sunderland fans have to believe this weekend.
Maybe the silent majority of Black Cats supporters have a sense of dread about this Sunday’s game. Maybe it was just the optimistic few who replied on twitter this week.
But going into the game, we know only two things for certain: that red and white fans who make the trip to St James’s Park this Sunday will give total support to a team they are utterly desperate to see do well; and that Paolo Di Canio will have total belief in his team’s ability to get a result.
What ultimately counts though is whether the Sunderland team that the Italian puts out, truly believes as well, and also whether it has the ability to get a win which would do wonders for their Premier League survival hopes.
In a derby game, the only thing, the best thing, is victory.
But perhaps derby victories against the odds are the best and sweetest of them all.