One day to go. Pete Sixsmith cannot wait for it to be over if truth be told. Here, he climbs back on to his Soapbox to recall a bizarre derby day from the past …
Probably the most surreal derby experience I had was in our final season at Roker Park in 1997.
We had lost to them at Roker earlier in the season, despite Martin Scott putting us into the lead. Their two goals, scored in a five minute spell by Beardsley and Ferdinand were met with complete silence as there were, officially, no Newcastle fans inside the ground.
This was because the club had realised that large scale segregation inside a by now visibly crumbling Roker Park was impossible. The stadium was no longer a venerable old dowager, more a shambling, decaying bag lady and it was definitely an anachronism in the bright and shiny world of new Premier League stadiums.
In a classic piece of tit for tat, the Newcastle hierarchy acted with commendable meanness and refused to allocate Sunderland any tickets for the return game in April.
By this time, we were struggling and they were flying high. Our strike force was Craig Russell and Paul Stewart, they had Shearer and Ferdinand. We were sliding down the league, having been eleventh in February, the transfer window had closed and, despite the arrival of Johnston and Waddle, we were no nearer to solving our chronic lack of goals.
So, no tickets available. But the club came to the rescue by laying on a big screen beam back to Roker Park. The Mags had had similar in September, inside the Newcastle Arena. But no namby-pamby inside screening for us!!
Roker Park it was, with a large screen in the centre of the pitch, facing the Leitch criss crosses on the Main Stand. Tickets were difficult to get hold of, as only a section of the stand was in use, but Mr Horan and myself got them and duly turned up for a strange day out.
We stopped off at Wearmouth Colliery to see the bare bones of the Stadium of Light becoming part of the city landscape. It was all fenced off and the visitor centre was closed but we stood there looking at it and desperately hoping that next season would see Spurs, Newcastle and Arsenal as visitors and not Crewe, Bury or Oxford.
On arriving at Roker, we took our seats in the Upper Tier and prayed that the sun did not come out. Had it done so, we were warned that the pictures would be difficult to see and that no money would be refunded.
As the camera scanned around SJP, the sight of the black and white clad hordes brought forth booing, jeering and gesticulating. The arrival of the teams led to wild cheering at the close ups of our gallant lads and wild booing at close ups of their pampered superstars.
The game got under way and I started to do something I rarely did; I started chanting. At a screen. Where the players could not hear us. SUN-DER-LAND, went the crowd – and, to our surprise, nothing in response from the assembled Mags. So we did it again; no reply again.
Then, I think it dawned on us that the noise we were making was pointless. It had no impact on the game and didn’t do us much good either.
When Mickey Gray put us ahead in the 32ndminute, the Main Stand erupted. They could have heard the noise in Newcastle, because SJP fell completely silent and the camera picked up morose Magpies looking as far down in the mouth as they could.
Of course, we couldn’t hold on to the lead, and when The Great Satan (aka Alan “Mr Creosote” Shearer ) equalised with a quarter of an hour to go, we were hanging on. But hang on we did although ultimately we went down due to our failure to beat Southampton in our penultimate game at Roker.
The picture disappeared for a few minutes in both halves and a disembodied voice, probably Roger Tames, the North East’ answer to Roger de Courcy, kept us up to date. That was even stranger, listening to a radio commentary with 3,000 other people.
The drive home was a mixture of pleasure at thwarting the enemy tempered with the feeling that we were getting sucked further and further into trouble. Deep down, we knew that we would probably fail at the end, that being the kind of thing that Sunderland did.
I would happily settle for a 1-1 draw on Sunday and a quiet few months until the return. Let’s get the bloody thing over with, eh.