ONE of the most often asked questions I get from Sunderland supporters is: What is it like to play in a derby against Newcastle?
Well, with the game at St James’s just days away now, let me reminisce and share some memories and answer that question.
Quite simply, this game is totally different to any other.
I know it’s a cliché but this fixture is a one-off, unique in its demands and pressures.
I was lucky when I was playing that I didn’t suffer too much with nerves, but when this game came around, the butterflies and tension would kick in many days before the actual game started.
Forget Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal or any other club, Newcastle was always then and always will be, the Big One – the game you had to win or at the very least not lose.
Even with my playing days long gone, this fixture can still have the same affect on me.
And the result will determine my mood for weeks after.
The coach journey to St James’s would see the players with different ways of preparation.
Some would be loud and on edge with nervous energy, others very quiet, focusing on the task ahead.
I liked a game of cards just to take my mind off things and I loved looking out of the window at the Newcastle fans as we neared the stadium.
There fans weren’t very welcoming, as I’m sure you’d expect!
And some of the hand gestures were quite imaginative to say the least.
Then, when we did arrive at St James’s, usually an hour before kick-off, the abuse really started.
Getting off the coach and going into the ground was hostile but to be fair, no different to what the Newcastle players would get at Roker Park.
I’d rather have a welcome like that, than a low key one, as it sharpens the senses and concentrates the mind on just how much it all means to the fans in the region.
The hour before the game actually starts is probably the worst hour of the day.
Everybody just wants kick-off to come around, to get the game under way.
Last minute orders are given out by the manager and it can be hectic in the dressing room as the tension mounts and the minutes tick by.
Then the bell goes and you are out there on the pitch and ready to do battle with your fiercest rivals.
But the first battle you have to win is with yourself, as this particular game can catch you out and you must be ready for it.
You can’t let the occasion get the better of you.
A few years ago, we went to Newcastle and lost 5-1 – why? Because too many of our players froze on the day.
It can happen.
On the other hand, you can make yourself a fans’ favourite forever.
Gabbers and Gatesy in the play-offs, Quinny’s header, Phillips in the rain and Thomas Sorensen’s penalty save will always be remembered, and I had a decent day there too!
So if there’s any advice I would give our current players, it would be to respect this great derby and recognise the magnitude it holds for our fans.
Give absolutely everything and don’t leave anything out there when the final whistle blows.
So long as you do that, no-one can ever complain.