After all the must-win home games we somehow managed to win, here comes the must-win away tie. If we cannot get three points at Derby, where can we win? Nick Britten, the tall one in the middle at the Wembley playoff final last season, counts Danny Higginbotham as a mate, but is a diehard County fan with a column on the matchday programme, The Ram. He limits his immediate hopes to avoiding Sunderland’s hard-won title of worst ever Premiership team. So guess how he thinks it will go on Saturday? A fluke home win for his “insipid, clueless and lacking in desire” team
Sunderland are annoying me. Mostly because I feel we have a huge amount in common as clubs, yet in recent times they just seem to be doing things better. When we went on a roll last season, so did Sunderland and beat us to the promotion punch.
When we looked to spend in the summer, so did Sunderland and landed our prime target, Kenwyne Jones. When we both needed to get results to keep us in with a chance of staying up, guess who won their matches?
Neither team this season is likely to have punters in Hawaii rushing to buy tickets for the 39th game, but that’s not what it’s about.
I’ve had some memorable Sunderland-related moments down the years, two that spring to mind in the space of a few weeks early in the 1990/91 season. Travelling back to my student digs in Liverpool on the train on a Wednesday night after seeing a Mick Harford hat-trick destroy the Red and Whites 6-0 in the League Cup, I was forced, along with the rest of the North-west, to change at Crewe.
Alighting with a Mackem I’d met, I walked into a pitched battle between Liverpool and Man Utd fans, who’d decided to carry on festivities that had begun between their teams earlier in the evening.
Cowering in the cafe, my new best mate and I feared for the worst as a huge Man Utd fan went round those stupid enough not to run away, seeking knowledge of their allegiance. If matey boy and his henchmen, acting as judge and jury, decided they were Liverpool fans, they were beaten. Coming across displaced Rams and Mackem replica shirts he was so clearly stumped as to how we’d ended up in a pre-arranged punch up we had nothing to do with that we were spared with a quizzical shrug of the shoulders.
A few weeks later I managed to force my Newcastle-mad father-in-law across the threshold of Roker Park (away end, naturally) to witness one of the most one-sided games ever. A Marco Gabbiadini-inspired Sunderland battered us relentlessly, while an even more inspired Peter Shilton kept them at bay enough for us to sneak a 2-1 win (Mick Harford again). It was one of the most dogged goalkeeping and defensive performances I have ever seen.
And then there was the time I received a telephone call from the founder of Salut! Sunderland. More accurately, it was from the Daily Telegraph newsdesk in a bit of a panic, asking me to phone him on his mobile urgently. Being early Sunday evening, and Colin then being a Telegraph newsdesk man, I presumed a major story was breaking. And it was, of sorts.
A bus load of Sunderland fans had broken down on the A50 near Uttoxeter after the driver had stopped to empty the toilet. Mr Randall, amongst them, sent out an SOS and I, living in Derby 15 miles away, was summonsed to rescue him and take him to Derby station to continue his journey to London.
I did wonder whether to leave him stranded for the night on the hard shoulder, but, after just losing to Millwall and blowing the best chance they’ll ever have of getting to another FA Cup final, it seemed just a tad harsh. My wife, coming from a family of fervent Newcastle fans, disagreed, but I’m just too nice a guy to turn my back on a sap in need.
But to the match. Derby had improved under Paul Jewell and had gone from being easily beatable to harder-to-beat, and slightly closer to graduating to winning games.
Sadly, in recent weeks they have slipped back to being insipid, clueless and lacking in desire. Saturday’s defeat to Wigan was a low point in a season of lows, and Jewell clearly let it be known he has had enough with the majority of the players, few of whom seem bothered about wearing the shirt with any pride.
Which means we should see one of two things on Saturday: a positive reaction when the team gives something back for once to the supporters who have remained remarkably loyal, or they continue to sulk and we slip to another spineless defeat.
Given Sunderland’s woeful away record, any other team would think they are there for the taking, and the law of averages states we’ve got to fluke a win sooner rather than later. Having taken four points of Newcastle this season, three off Sunderland as we battle to overtake their lowest ever tally of Premiership points would be most welcome…………..
What did you think of our respective clubs’ prospects before season started?
I was hoping for a Jim Smith-style assault on a European place like the last time we went up, but it’s fair to say it hasn’t quite materialised. Yet. Realistically both clubs would have been happy with 17th place or above. I didn’t think we would be quite as bad as we have been – I have never quite wished we hadn’t been promoted, but there have been some dark days. Sunderland have performed as I would have expected, although given the amount of money Roy Keane has had at his disposal, Niall Quinn might have expected better
When did you last see a SAFC v Derby game home or away, and what happened?
Last season. Roy Keane’s first game in charge. Derby dominated. Went in one up at half time. Predictable rocket from Keane, predictable collapse from Derby, predictable result – a 2-1 defeat. Sadly when it came to our new manager’s first game in charge, Paul Jewell’s against Sunderland at the SoL in October, there was no repeat!
Were you there when we beat you 5-0 at your own ground? Not one of your happier memories, I imagine
No, but I bet you weren’t there when we beat you 6-0 at our place (see above). Any time before this season, a 5-0 defeat would have seemed humiliating. This season, it’s considered a half decent result
How often have you been to SoL? What do you make of it? Of Sunderland itself? Had you ever been to Roker Park?
The last time I was in the Stadium of Light was in July for a classical music concert performed by the Sunderland Symphony Orchestra. Jolly good too it was. Prior to that a few visits have yielded a single point, but it’s a great stadium and one I like visiting. Roker Park was a horrible place to visit. Being stuck up in the uncovered away end with a freezing wind whipping off the sea, and always in winter. Or maybe it’s just the weather’s like that all year round. I was lucky enough to witness one of our rare away wins there (see above). While I have always enjoyed the company of the local folk, Sunderland itself I always found a bit grim and soulless. Not unlike many a town centre up and down the country, it is need of some major redevelopment. I can say that now that we’ve got a shiny new shopping centre
What about the signings each club has made in the transfer window?
Derby have begun rebuilding for next season with some interesting buys. Hossam Ghaly, on loan from Spurs, already looks technically head and shoulder above anyone else in the team, and if he stays will have a good shout for the Championship’s best midfielder. Savage hasn’t yet really begun firing, while Argentinian striker Emmanuel Villa looks easily good enough to score goals in the league below. Roy Carroll and Alan Stubbs should walk it in that league so with a few astute buys in the summer I think we will start the season in confident mood, despite this season’s calamity. As for Sunderland, £4 million for the ex-Red Andy “Michelin Man” Reid could rival the £7m Leeds paid us for Seth Johnson
Your predictions for both clubs for rest of season?
only aim this season is not to take Sunderland’s title of worst ever Premiership team. A win on Saturday will not only have its irony but will leave us three points away from drawing level. Even that would be a relief. Sunderland haven’t ever quite dragged themselves clear from the relegation scrap but should have enough from their home form
Do you regard Leicester or anyone else much as we regard Newcastle? Or are you more grown-up about such things?
We only have one rival. Nottingham Forest. It’s not quite as severe as the Newcastle-Sunderland rivalry but then again neither are fighting dogs. With a bit of luck Forest will go up next season so we can play them again and send them down again
Memories of managers, players linked to both clubs? Clough, Todd, Marco are obvious. Then there’s Rob Hindmarch, John O’Hare, Dave Watson and Alan Durban
I should mention my mate Danny Higginbotham, who played for Derby, now dons the red and white stripes. He’s knackered his toe at the moment so won’t be fit thankfully. He was wearing red and white the last time he was spotted at Pride Park, last season, when he was with Stoke. And he scored the winning goal. Prior to that he wore the red and white of Southampton. Must be a fetish. He still owes me and my family dinner after he bet me that Derby wouldn’t go up last season. Fool
Club vs country. Who wins for you?
No contest. Club every time. I’ve never been over bothered about England’s fortunes
Who will win on Saturday? Score?
Well, a win would edge us closer to the magical 16 points, and Sunderland at home is one of those games you think you should win. But we’ve lost every game we thought we should win, and most of the ones we didn’t. Nevertheless, with familiar weariness and completely unfounded optimism, I’ll plump for a home win. Logic suggests a draw, although the way we’ve defended this season, Kenwyne Jones might be eying the match ball. As ever I shall be there watching through my fingers with the rest of my body parts either gritted or clenched. If all goes well I might even manage a smile
* Nick Britten is a classic glory hunter. Growing up in south London, he started going to the football aged four when his dad dragged him along to Selhurst Park week in, week out. Palace weren’t up to much and Derby, having won one Championship under Brian Clough and in the process of winning another under Dave MacKay, seemed a better bet. Since then he has spent his life travelling from all corners of the UK to the Baseball Ground and Pride Park, thought these days luckily the ground is only 20 minutes away. For the last seven years he has written a column for the matchday programme, The Ram.