MARTIN O’Neill insists he knows all about the intense passion of the Tyne-Wear derby despite the fact that Sunday’s game will be the first time he’s ever been to one.
The Northern Irishman was a boyhood Sunderland fan but his love affair was conducted from afar and the High Noon showdown at the Sports Direct Arena will be his first taste of the cauldron which always accompanies the fixture.
But O’Neill is well well aware about the intensity of derby rivalries, having managed Celtic in the Old Firm fixtures against Rangers and Aston Villa in the Midlands’ battles against Birmingham City, while he also played for Nottingham Forest against neighbours Derby County in the 1970s.
“I’ve experienced an awful lot of derbies, both as a player and as a manager, and in particular a very big derby in world football up in Glasgow between Celtic and Rangers,” said O’Neill.
“I know that to some Celtic supporters, winning the derby was the be-all and end-all – beating Rangers meant more than whether or not you won the league to a very small minority of supporters.
“I don’t subscribe to that viewpoint, but I do understand the passion of the derby rivalry. And I know it will be exactly the same on Sunday.
“It’s a massive game and it’s one I am looking forward to. It’s a ferocious derby and I’m sure it will be played at a great pace.
“We’re away from home, which makes it difficult, but we have to be ready for it. And if we perform as strongly as we can, of course we can win it.”
Sunderland, under O’Neill’s predecessor Steve Bruce, lost the first encounter against Newcastle 1-0 at the Stadium of Light back in August.
And the Black Cats’ recent record in derby games is dreadful – losing 5-1 on their last visit to St James’ Park, failing to win on Tyneside since 2000 and winning just one of the last five derbies home and away.
It’s a record O’Neill has been made aware of and will be looking to improve on this weekend.
He said: “In the game earlier in the season, I’m told Sunderland were all over Newcastle and yet Ryan Taylor’s free-kick turned the game and we lost.
“And, from talking to people who were involved, the 5-1 defeat last season was seemingly one of those cases of players freezing on the day and not performing.
“We have to make sure that doesn’t happen again, and make sure we compete.”
Sunderland come up against a Newcastle side who have been arguably the surprise package of the Premier League season, with Alan Pardew’s men still hoping for a European place with less than a third of the campaign still to go.
And while O’Neill’s arrival has revived Sunderland since his arrival in December, he admits the Black Cats are still playing catch-up with the team 10 points ahead of them in the table.
“Newcastle’s season has been very good and, with 12 games to go, they are vying for a European place,” he observed. “That tells you the kind of season they have had. We’ve had a lot of catching up to do.”
Sunderland go into the derby a week on the back of their heaviest defeat of the season – a 4-0 loss at West Bromwich Albion.
But O’Neill scorned any suggestion that his players were distracted by the derby game coming up.
He said: “I don’t put it down to the derby coming up at all. I don’t think that entered our minds – and why should it?
“We just didn’t compete at West Brom, which is unlike us.
“The heavy defeat was down to me because when we were losing 2-0 I tried to be positive and get back into the game, which left gaps.
“But I don’t mind losing three or four if you are trying to change things and win the match – what’s the point of going down to a damage limitation defeat?.
“The game is over now, though, and it serves little purpose to dwell on it. The defeat was disappointing but it is also very difficult for me to criticise the players too much after all the effort they have put in over the last two-and-a-half months.”