Sunderland 1990 pair on how to handle the nerves in the biggest derby for 26 years

Former Sunderland FC players John MacPhail and Gordon Armstrong taking part in the Konect Derby Golf Day at the Ramside Hall.
Former Sunderland FC players John MacPhail and Gordon Armstrong taking part in the Konect Derby Golf Day at the Ramside Hall.
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This weekend’s Tyne-Wear derby is being billed as the most significant meeting between the two fierce North-East rivals since the 1990 Division Two play-offs.

With Newcastle and Sunderland two of the three sides realistically battling to avoid the drop, neither can afford to suffer a defeat which could have devastating repercussions on their hopes of remaining in the Premier League.

But with so much stake, how will the players deal with the pressure? Chris Young speaks to two members of that triumphant Sunderland 1990 line-up, Gordon Armstrong and John MacPhail.

A hastily-arranged trip to Menorca provided a break from the usual routine for the Sunderland camp in May, 1990.

Yet the getaway came during the 12 days between Sunderland’s famous triumphant second leg at St James’s Park - when Eric Gates and Marco Gabbiadini’s goals had sent the Black Cats through to the play-off final - and the showpiece at Wembley.

Beforehand, it was business as usual for manager Dennis Smith.

As midfielder Gordon Armstrong looks back 26 years later, he jokes that the trip to the Balearics “ended up being a bad idea” after Sunderland’s defeat to Swindon Town in the final.

But while top-flight teams now enjoy their sunshine training breaks in Dubai - as Sunderland did under Sam Allardyce last month - there are parallels to be drawn between 1990 and this Sunday’s showdown on Tyneside.

More than two decades on, both North East clubs are scrapping to play at football’s top table.

With so much stake, it promises to be a stomach-churning, nauseating afternoon for those 2,000 watching from the Gods and those cradling a beer or two in Wearside’s hostelries.

How will the players handle those nerves though?

Centre-half John MacPhail was 34 in 1990 and he still felt the anxiety. Armstrong felt it even more as a boyhood Sunderland fan from the black and white half of the North East.

But they believe the key to Sunderland’s success in that derby of derbies was for Smith to retain a sense of normality on the training ground.

“Dennis just did the same things in the lead-up to the game,” said MacPhail.

“Obviously, it was a different type of game, but he told us to go out and express ourselves.

“I think you’re always very nervy before a derby game.

“It did add more pressure to it with promotion at stake.

“But if you’re up for it and you do your job, then you win the game.”

Armstrong added: “It was always a massive game because I obviously came from Newcastle and all my friends were Newcastle fans. I was getting a lot of stick from that side of it.

“But they’re games you look forwards to as a professional.

“Yes, you’re a bit nervous, especially that one because it was a double-header - it was against Newcastle and it was trying to get in the play-off final.

“But we had a great group of lads, who were always positive whatever we did and over the two games we deserved to go through.”

Home advantage failed to help Newcastle in 1990 as Sunderland bounced back from the modest setback of a goalless draw in the first leg, to triumph 2-0 on Tyneside.

Neither has the hostile atmosphere phased Sunderland on their last three visits to St James’s after two 3-0 triumphs, followed by last season’s festive 1-0 victory.

Armstrong and MacPhail shrug off the reception which bombards the red and white shirts there.

“It’s just noise, you don’t hear the chants,” nonchalantly reflects former centre-half MacPahil, now 60.

But the pair agree that Sunderland’s recent success at St James’s is a psychological advantage heading into Sunday’s encounter, particularly for those who have experienced euphoria in the fixture previously.

“In the last four or five years, Sunderland have always won,” said MacPhail.

“Newcastle would have thought after the first or even second defeat, that it was going to be their turn again.

“But as it’s gone on, the momentum is with Sunderland and they’ve got the confidence to do it again.”

Even if Sunderland only come away with a draw on Sunday, Sam Allardyce’s men would at least stay above the Magpies and prevent the hosts generating upwards momentum under new boss Rafa Benitez.

Armstrong admits Benitez’s arrival is the great “unknown” hanging over this weekend’s game, but still believes there is more pressure on Newcastle’s shoulders to record a victory.

“A win for Newcastle would give them a massive lift because they haven’t had a derby victory for a long time now,” he added.

“It’s a bigger game for Newcastle than it is for Sunderland.

“It’s obviously big for both sides, but they NEED to get a win. I think if we get a draw, we can be more than happy.”

Armstrong and MacPhail were speaking at the 2015-16 Konect Derby Cup – pitting teams of fans and former players from Sunderland and Newcastle against each other on the golf course.

Martin Scott, Martin Smith, Micky Horswill, Dick Malone, Ritchie Pitt and Don Rankin were the other ex-Sunderland players involved.