PARACHUTED in to save Sunderland’s Premier League status, Gus Poyet had little time to grasp the scale of the Wear-Tyne derby before facing Newcastle in only his second game at the helm.
But now, after more than a year of living and working on Wearside, the Uruguayan is well aware of the stakes against the Magpies this weekend.
Sunderland reporter Chris Young speaks to the Black Cats boss about the derby.
“NO I didn’t,” admits a frank Gus Poyet after taking a few seconds to ponder his answer.
“People talk about it, but no, I didn’t. From outside, you don’t see it how it is.”
The question of course revolves around THE derby and whether Poyet quite knew what he was letting himself in for when he agreed to take stewardship of one half of the North East’s fiercely opposed factions.
North of the Tees, no-one is blasé about Sunderland vs Newcastle and the magnitude of the encounter.
But on a national scale, this game still doesn’t always register; Merseyside, Manchester and North London derbies remain the ones latched onto and labelled as ‘fierce’ rivalries by the uninitiated.
The Wear-Tyne, or Tyne-Wear as it is this weekend, is too often overlooked or cheapened as an exercise in fisticuffs among enemy clans.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Poyet wouldn’t have been aware of the scale of the rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle after spending the bulk of his playing and coaching career in the south.
He’d experienced the volume levels of both the Stadium of Light and St James’s Park, but neither Chelsea nor Tottenham’s trips to the North East held quite the same magnitude as Black Cats versus Magpies.
It wasn’t even his maiden derby at the helm, Sunderland’s 2-1 October triumph at the Stadium of Light, which opened Poyet’s eyes to the size of this fixture.
At that stage, Poyet’s mind was still a whirlwind after taking charge of a side who didn’t look like they had a prayer of survival.
A first Premier League win of the season was far more important for rock-bottom Sunderland than any bragging rights over the neighbours.
But when Sunderland recorded a second successive 3-0 win on Tyneside and did the double over the Magpies for the first time since 1967, the Uruguayan grasped what this game of games was all about.
“The Stadium of Light was so much about the win,” he told the Echo.
“We just needed a win against anyone. It came against Newcastle which made it special, particularly with the goal from (Fabio) Borini.
“But the away game was the one where it sunk in.
“The hostility when we got out of the bus, the game itself and then how we played it with the fans. Mamma mia.
“That made it very, very special.
“Then you see the reaction of the fans.
“After, I went back to the pitch to do the press and the stadium was nearly empty, except a few Sunderland fans still up there.
“I had my unique celebration with them, celebrating on the side of the pitch. That was nice!
“I was just a bit unhappy that I didn’t go a few minutes earlier when there might have been more of them!”
The proximity of Newcastle to Sunderland is what makes this derby so fierce, believes Poyet.
The clear limits of the two cities lying 12 or so miles apart creates a tribal split, rather than the co-habitation of supporters from the world’s other big-hitting derbies.
“It’s not two teams from the same city,” said Poyet.
“And it’s not two teams from different cities that are 600km apart like Barcelona and Madrid.
“These two cities are next to it; touching each other. That’s special.
“It’s not just the clubs, it’s the people, the cities, everything.
“I don’t know what it’s like for the people in the middle in Gateshead.
“But that’s what makes it incredibly unique.”
In Poyet’s native South America, derby day is a notoriously combustible occasion too – Argentina’s Superclasico between Boca Juniors and River Plate routinely sees more than 1,000 police officers in the stands attempting to keep the two sets of supporters in check.
But that involves two clubs from the suburbs of Buenes Aires.
It’s a similar situation in Uruguay between Club de Nacional, the club Poyet supported as a boy, and their rivals in Montevideo, Club Atletico Penarol.
“It’s madness in Uruguay with Nacional, but that’s the same city as well,” added Poyet.
“It’s like Boca Juniors and River Plate.
“Everyone there can be either Boca or River.
“But here it’s like, no, no, no, I’m from Sunderland.
“I’m not from Newcastle.”
With that last comment, it can be safely concluded that Poyet’s understanding of this rivalry has improved immeasurably since he arrived at the Stadium of Light.
He certainly gets it now.