Sunderland and Newcastle legends on relegation, Allardyce v Benitez and why Cats are '˜better equipped' to stay up
The chances of both Sunderland and Newcastle United extending their stay in the Premier League appear as remote as sinking a hole in one.
Relegation rivals Norwich City are four points clear of third-bottom Sunderland and a daunting six clear of Newcastle.
And with just seven games to go, Sam Allardyce and Rafa Benitez have their work cut out to secure either side’s top flight status and putt an end to the annual threat of relegation.
So, with both clubs very much in the rough, we caught up with Black Cats legend Gary Bennett and ex-Newcastle and England defender Steve Howey on the golf course ahead of another crunch round of fixtures.
How do you assess the task facing Sunderland and Newcastle?
GB: “We are running out of games and because of that it is getting harder.
“But Sunderland are playing well, the only thing they haven’t been able to do is combine scoring goals and keeping a clean sheet.
“The late Norwich winner was a big body blow to Newcastle and they have to get a result against Southampton.”
SH: “It is a pretty dire situation. Newcastle’s result at Norwich certainly didn’t help them and it didn’t help Sunderland either.
“It is going to be a tough ask for Newcastle to get anything at Southampton. Leicester have only lost a couple of times - can Sunderland pull a result from nowhere?
“There is a big chance both will go down and it would be devastating for the area to lose one, never mind two.”
Who is best equipped to stay up?
GB: “Sunderland, by far. There has been a massive improvement under Sam Allardyce and the four draws could easily have been four wins.
“You look back at those games and think it is two points dropped.”
SH: “I think Newcastle have better players, ability wise. But Sunderland are better equipped because they have that grittiness to dig out results. Newcastle have just got nice players.
“Sunderland look more suited to being in the trenches. For Sunderland, they have to beat Norwich. It is as simple as that.”
Which manager is best suited for the relegation fight?
GB: “Sam Allardyce has never been relegated from the Premier League and knows what needs to be done to stay in the division.
“From day one, he has hammered home those messages and if we’d kept clean sheets then we wouldn’t be in this position.”
SH: “Sam has been there and done it and to an extent Rafa Benitez has too but with top teams - Liverpool and Chelsea.
“Sam has been in the lower leagues and he is probably better equipped but does that make him a better manager than Benitez? No.
“Both teams are lucky to have very good managers.”
Key men in the fight for survival?
GB: “You just have to look at the spine of the team. From Kone, Kirchhoff, Defoe. Kirchhoff gets on the ball and makes things happen. He is getting fitter and is a key player.
“Kone is no-nonsense and has fitted in well.”
SH: “Goals win you games. Defoe, for me, is an evergreen and still looks really sharp. He was unlucky against West Brom.
“Aleksandar Mitrovic is coming into good form at the right time. He is big and strong and puts himself about. Those goals against Norwich will have given him a lot of confidence.”
Who had the best January transfer window?
GB: Sunderland. We are not losing games, we should have won more but that is down to concentration, perhaps. You can’t switch off in the Premier League.”
SH: “Kirchhoff’s first game wasn’t great but he is a very good player. Jonjo Shelvey hit the ground running and Andros Townsend looks to be picking up.
“Georginio Wijnaldum tends to drift away, especially away from home.
“Both teams have quality but you can’t say both have been unlucky; they have flirted with it for too long. It was always going to be a matter of time before it caught up with them.”
Who will stay up?
GB: “Sunderland are in the better position. No matter what happens on Sunday, it is what happens at Norwich in two weeks time- that will be the big game.
“If we can go there and win, then who knows.”
SH: “Out of the two, you’d probably think the one [to go down] would be Newcastle because Sunderland still have it in their grasp.
“One of them is definitely going down and really it looks like two out of three from Newcastle, Sunderland and Norwich unless Crystal Palace and Swansea have an horrendous end to the season.”
Should the worst happen, who is best equipped to come back up?
GB: “If Sunderland can keep that spine intact: Kaboul, Kone, Kirchhoff and Lee Cattermole - he would do well in the Championship.
“Jack Rodwell would be a big player and Seb Larsson too. It would be difficult to keep the likes of Jermain Defoe but others will come in.
“Sunderland are better equipped if they go down to the Championship.”
SH: “The Championship is such a difficult, horrible league to get out of. The games are constant. Newcastle’s players aren’t suited to that; they won’t like that.
“Sunderland have those type of players, the likes of Lee Cattermole - who is horrible but he would be great in the Championship! The type of players you want.
“Newcastle don’t have anyone like that. But then, they could go there and because of the quality completely run away with it.”
* Bennett and Howey were speaking at the launch of the new North East FootGolf Series at Ramside Golf Club, in Durham.