Analysis - Why the derby is NOT the be-all and end-all for Sunderland anymore

Steve McClaren
Steve McClaren
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There was an element of pandering to the galleries when Steve McClaren crowed like a festive-obsessed whipper-snapper about his anticipation for his first Wear-Tyne tussle.

“I can’t wait (for the derby) and we will build up to the first one – away from home – in October,” said the new Newcastle boss this week after the release of the fixtures list.

For the last two years, all efforts seem to have gone into beating Newcastle to the detriment of the bread and butter games

But McClaren’s comments also belied the desperation on Tyneside for an opportunity to halt the losing streak against Sunderland.

The five-in-a-row sequence is a noose hanging around Newcastle’s neck and McClaren knows one of his immediate tasks will be to halt Sunderland’s derby monopoly, especially as the prospect of a record six successive defeats will cause such anxiety for black and white players and fans alike this October.

But the derbies are NOT the most important dates on the fixture list for Sunderland any more.

After years of under-achievement in these game of games – when Sunderland would have given a right kidney for a derby victory – that seems a slightly hypocritical statement.

It’s rich to begrudge Sunderland’s best ever run over their fiercest of rivals.

But for the last two years, all efforts seem to have gone into beating Newcastle to the detriment of the bread and butter games – defeats following each of the last four derby successes.

Sunderland have to get away from that.

The derby cannot be the be-all and end-all if Sunderland continually find themselves embroiled in a sweaty-palms relegation fight - the last three creating a fear factor that now dogs the whole club.

The nine games which precede Newcastle’s visit to the Stadium of Light on October 24 (until the inevitable television rescheduling changes the date) are arguably just as important as the encounter pitting Messrs McClaren and Advocaat.

With Manchester United and Spurs the only members of last year’s top six to face Sunderland pre-derby during an appetising start to the season, there is a chance for the Black Cats to put some points on the board and begin to fulfil that much-coveted objective of stability.

Privately, Dick Advocaat will be aiming for a points haul well into double figures from that set of fixtures and it’s a realistic target.

Sunderland need to get off to a good start though.

There has been an understandable ‘here we go again’ anxiety among supporters for the last three years when Sunderland have been hovering ominously above the bottom three.

And inevitably that transmits to the players.

A nervy, fractious atmosphere generates inside the Stadium of Light and visiting teams look to prey upon that.

If Advocaat can produce a rollover from last season’s finale though and generate some momentum early doors, it will alter the whole atmosphere on Wearside.

For once, Sunderland would be able to go into the derby looking to consolidate their league position, rather than facing a make-or-break encounter where anything less than victory would leave their survival hopes in tatters.

Yes, perhaps the perilous league situation has given Sunderland extra motivation in recent derbies, with Newcastle’s players clearly sporting flip-flops in April.

But it’s not a healthy state of affairs that can continue indefinitely.

Sunderland have to be bigger than just the team who triumphs against their nearest and dearest, because, as a club, they have been left behind over recent seasons.

The likes of Southampton, Swansea and Stoke are all ahead of Sunderland in terms of academy development, recruitment and managerial structure.

Big progress is needed from this club over the next couple of years, if they are to avoid finally falling into the Championship.

That doesn’t make the derby meaningless.

Let’s face it, it’s the closest either of these two perennial under-achievers come to lifting any silverware.

Advocaat and McClaren have faced each other previously in Holland, when they were in charge of PSV and FC Twente respectively, and both have a chance to put a genuinely meaningful result on the board in the Autumn.

But let’s get rid of this obsession with the derby to the expense of all other games.

Meetings with Leicester, Norwich, Swansea and Aston Villa during the opening month have to be treated on a par with Newcastle.

While the Magpies may need to get the monkey off their backs, Sunderland have to treat it as just another game on the fixture list.