Malcolm Dawson writes…….for our pre derby WAY we enter the cloistered world of academia and find Durham University don Adrian Darnell proving that the phrase “intelligent Newcastle United fan” does not have to be an oxymoron. Adrian and I regularly cross swords over the Bridge table, where he is happy to play in Hearts and Diamonds, but steadfastly refuses to back my campaign to have our regular packs of cards replaced with those where Clubs are green and Spades are blue. The past couple of weeks have seen the boardrooms of both clubs in turmoil for different reasons, but it’s the action on the pitch that is in the forefront of our minds this week. Here’s how Adrian sees things in black and white with an honest and thoughtful set of answers.
Salut: To begin with, let’s concentrate on footballing matters. This has been described by many as the most important derby game since the 1990 play off but with all the mega bucks that the Premiership attracts it might even be considered the most important derby of all time to the clubs themselves. It seems to be accepted widely that if either side loses this game they are virtually doomed to the Championship. How important to you personally is Premiership survival?
AD: To be honest, at the start of season I’d have said ‘everything’, but now it’s all become a bit wearisome and even embarrassing at times. Our performances have not been premier standard, we’ve just capitulated too often and our mistakes (at the back especially) would not have such dire consequences in the Championship. Perhaps a year of rebuilding and coming back stronger would be good for us. The best would be if dropping out the Premiership led to both Ashley selling and WONGA withdrawing from their sponsorship. Having said all that, on balance it’s got to be better not be relegated, take stock and buy the players of the quality to generate a team worthy of the shirt.
Salut: In recent times both Newcastle and Sunderland seem to have taken the responsibility for player recruitment and retention away from those who are in charge of the team. How much do you feel that is responsible for both clubs languishing in the relegation zone?
AD: Totally agree with the sentiments – it would be like asking me to manage my team at work whilst barring me from drawing up the job description, person specification and appointment process. It’s time both clubs returned to the model of ‘manager’ rather than ‘coach’.
Salut: Do you feel the current squad of black and whites are up for the fight? Who is or isn’t pulling their weight?
AD: They are from the first whistle, but once the first goal goes in (and we go one down) heads fall. They need leadership and maturity. I wouldn’t point the finger at any one individual, but a transfer policy which doesn’t take into account leadership, leads to where we are I fear.
Salut: On the same theme, most Sunderland fans are happy with the players Big Sam brought in (and shipped out) during the January transfer window. Newcastle brought in Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend both of whom are highly respected internationals, but are they enough to keep you up?
AD: I wish, but when you look at our needs in defence (and particularly the organisation of the defence) and for a proven goal scorer who can take more than 1 chance in 3, it looks like too little. Making chances is important, but converting them is critical.
Salut: Back in the days when I had a paper round I was just as likely to go to St James’ Park as Roker. I remember seeing Jimmy Smith, Tony Green, Wyn Davies and Malcolm MacDonald. Who are some of the better players you recall who have worn the black and white stripes? Any you shouldn’t have touched with the proverbial barge pole?
AD: The better players I recall include Moncur, Keegan, Beardsley, Shearer of course, and MacDonald was always exciting. But that was all yesteryear. I hate naming particular players, because it’s hard to blame them for having been bought by the club. The finger has to be pointed at the transfer policy – Newcastle have the reputation of a ‘selling’ club and if we treat players just like appreciating assets on the Club’s register, to be sold the moment the simple financial return has been maximised, the on-field performances will always suffer.
Salut: After an long running but hardly surprising saga, Steve McClaren received his marching orders. Was he ever the right man for the job and in hindsight was it a mistake to lose Pardew?
AD: To lose such a man as Pardew was both avoidable yet inevitable. To be given the ambition of ‘not being relegated’, to be told that ‘mid-table is satisfactory’ while denying him control over the ins and outs of squad meant his leaving became predictable. In my opinion this was a great loss, and McClaren has, I think, only looked his best as a ‘number two coach’ working alongside someone else. At the time it looked like an OK appointment, but he readily accepted the owner’s constraints.
Salut: Rafael Benitez has now taken up the reins and accepted a job that in recent times has proved to be a bit of a poisoned chalice. (Not that we have we have anything to brag about mind!) Is he the man and has he time to turn things around?
AD: Some say that the poisoned chalice may even lack the chalice, but I think he’s got a win-win situation. If we go down it will be said it was a foregone conclusion and what could he do in 10 games, and if we stay up Benitez is the miracle-worker. Given our starting point, he looks good to me.
Salut: Fans’ views seem to be carrying a bit more weight just now. First an alliance of Mags and Mackems brought about a rethink on the way that derby games are policed. Then there has been the change of heart on pricing at Liverpool, a £30 cap on ticket prices for away fans and clubs such as Sunderland and Everton reducing the cost of season tickets. What other measures would you like to see implemented that would improve things for supporters of all clubs?
AD: I’d love to see more of a player/fan connection. The gap (unimaginable to most) between the weekly wage of a player and the annual wage of the typical fan needs to be reduced. How about a capped basic salary for everyone, with bonuses for performance (paid to the squad – so we don’t have to rate individual’s roles and contributions).
Salut: Diving is one of the curses of modern football. Do you take the view of respected former internationals Alan Shearer and John Hartson, that whereas “simulation” is wrong a player is “entitled to go down if he feels the slightest contact”? Is it just something we should accept or are there measures the authorities might take to stamp it out? Do you take the same view about defenders holding at corners (which is one of my personal bugbears and I accept John O’Shea is one who gets away with it a lot)?
AD: Corners have become like rugby’s line-out of a few years ago. It needs stronger referees (and in Rugby’s case some law changes too). It may be difficult to identify who’s at fault, but someone is, so a few penalties would soon change defenders’ behaviour. I treat simulation as cheating – let’s call it what it is. Why not send someone off for cheating? Indeed, while I’m on my hobby horse of the rugby/football comparisons, I’d love to see the respect rugby players show the referee translated over into football.
Salut: My personal interactions with Newcastle fans I know involves light hearted banter and low level mickey taking, but I have witnessed (though never suffered) open hostility between the two sets of fans. The atmosphere at the home game between our clubs this season was as I would wish it to be – passionate but non threatening. Do you feel that maybe the way Sunderland fans responded to the tragic deaths of two Geordies off to New Zealand might have tempered the hatred that some feel or do you think it still rumbles on beneath the surface?
AD: Without doubt, and my respect is unlimited. The gesture was sincere and wonderful, and one that restores one’s faith. Let us hope this is reflected on Sunday.
Salut: What have been your best moments following NUFC?
AD: The nearly seasons of the mid-1990s.
Salut: And the low points?
Failing (oh so consistently) to play to our potential, and especially failing to beat Sunderland for so long now.
Salut: Wearside can claim the bragging rights after “Six in a Row”. Will it be seven or will you stop the rot? Honestly how do you see the game panning out and what’s your prediction?
AD: We will play better – if only for a new manager – and it will be tight. I can see us winning, just, but I think I’ll be very nervous in the last quarter.
Salut: Leicester and Spurs finally seem to be breaking into the cartel which has dominated the Premier League since its inception. Who do you think will make up the top 4 at the end of the season and honestly who will be going to Burton, Birmingham and Brentford?
AD: Leicester, Spurs, Arsenal and Man City – top 4 in that order. Villa are down then it’s two out of four but next season we’ll all be saying that Newcastle are the new Leicester.
Salut: Finally a bit about yourself.
I first watched Newcastle in the 1970s when I came to Durham University as a student. I returned to the North East in 1975 and have watched them for 40 years now. It isn’t easy – but you know that as well as I do. As a kid I was a season ticket holder at Sheffield Wednesday, and I still look for their result first after Newcastle.