Ten years of Newcastle v Sunderland

The list of clichés regarding how important football is for the people of the North East of England is almost as long as the number of years since either of its major teams enjoyed significant success on the pitch. Nevertheless, the rivalry between those in black and white and those in red and white remains one of the most intense in the Premier League, even if in recent years, the battle has more often than not been over which club will stay clear of relegation, rather than compete for titles.

In many senses, despite radically differing starting positions, fans of Newcastle and Sunderland have ended up enduring strikingly similar fortunes over much of the last ten years. Both have endured time outside of the top flight and with the odd brief period of promise; and both have toiled in the lower to mid table section of the Premier League, while undergoing changes of ownership, and countless changes of manager.

Newcastle fans will maintain that their club has ultimately come closest to achieving genuine success over the last decade, while Sunderland will protest that of late they have reasserted themselves – after all, it is their side that has reached a cup final during the period, and have recorded numerous heavy Tyne Wear derby victories in recent seasons.

But where does the truth lie?

An overview of the last decade

Looking at the headline numbers, it’s immediately clear both sides have undergone significant traumas over the last decade. Appointing 17 full time managers between them (nine for Newcastle, eight for Sunderland), the North East rivals have also seen over 400 players come and go between them over the last ten years.

toon v sunderland comparisons

Given this near permanent state of flux, it’s hardly surprising that the clubs have also shared between them three relegations and three promotions.

But if we were teleported back to the beginning of the period in 2003, most Newcastle fans would struggle to comprehend just how disappointing the forthcoming decade would be.

At that stage, the late, great, Sir Bobby Robson was still in charge, and although a 5th place finish underwhelmed many at that time, the idea that this would be the best a Newcastle side would muster for the next eight years would have been unthinkable for the majority of Geordies. Yet a succession of disastrous recruitment decisions, both in terms of managers and players, followed Robson’s sacking, meaning that his time in charge remains the biggest highlight of the last ten years. Mike Ashley’s sacking of Kevin Keegan and appointment of Joe Kinnear during the club’s relegation season remains the undisputed lowlight.

By contrast, Sunderland began this period outside of the Premier League, and it wouldn’t be until 2007 that the Black Cats became fully established in the top flight, following a promotion and immediate relegation (with just 15 points) earlier in the period. Four years of Premier League progress followed under the new chairmanship of Niall Quinn and the leadership of Roy Keane and then Steve Bruce, as transfer investments like Darren Bent yielded results on the pitch, and Sunderland rose to 10th in the Premier League.

toon sun league history

However, following indifferent results, fans grew impatient with Bruce, and he was sacked in 2011. Martin O Neill, Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet have all struggled to rejuvenate the club since, although fans may be more optimistic following the club’s fantastic run to safety last season, and FA Cup final appearance against Manchester City.

The Tyne Wear Derby

Ask any fan of Newcastle or Sunderland which fixtures they look for first at the beginning of the season, and all will point to the Tyne Wear Derby. Although Newcastle have shaded it in terms of overall wins since 2003, the pendulum has swung quite significantly in terms of which of the two sides has tended to come out on top in this fixture in recent years – from Newcastle’s remarkable 5-1 win upon their return to the Premier League in 2010, to a series of thumping 3-0 wins for Sunderland in 2012 and 2013.

Always passionately contested, and usually with a fair share of controversy, in recent seasons Tyne Wear derbies have taken on an extra edge, as one or both of the clubs have found themselves fighting relegation. Few on Tyneside will forget Di Canio’s knee slide or Poyet’s fist pumps as their side slumped to heavy home defeats, and Alan Pardew could certainly do wonders for his standing with Newcastle fans by improving his record against the Black Cats in the season to come.

Why have the performances of Newcastle and Sunderland converged?

To understand why two rivals who were so far apart in terms of form and performance in 2003 have ended up competing so closely, there are a number of factors that should be considered:

New ownerships and several false starts

Both Newcastle and Sunderland have endured changes of ownership during the last ten years, which have caused disruption and led to a number of false ‘fresh starts’ in terms of new managers and players. The ensuing turmoil has done much to bring the two clubs together in the league table.

On Wearside, the Irish Drumaville Consortium took over the club in 2006, spearheaded by former Black Cats’ striker Niall Quinn. Keane’s reign would be shortlived however, and following his resignation in 2008/09, Irish-American tycoon Ellis Short completed a full takeover of the club from the Drumaville Consortium, and appointed Steve Bruce as manager.

Short assumed full control of footballing matters in 2011, replacing Niall Quinn, and a period of significant instability has followed. Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill and Paolo Di Canio have all been sacked by Short in the three years since, with each having been given significant transfer funds to invest. Time will tell whether Gus Poyet’s reign will be as short lived.

On Tyneside, Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley replaced the ailing Freddie Shepherd in 2007. Ashley would soon dispense with the services of boss Sam Allardyce, taking the audacious step of appointing Newcastle legend Kevin Keegan in the dugout in 2008, together with a new Director of Football, Dennis Wise. It proved a disaster, with Keegan walking out due to interference later that year.

Joe Kinnear, Chris Hughton and Alan Shearer each took turns at trying to stabilise Newcastle’s fortunes in the league, and failed. Relegation followed, and although the appointment of Alan Pardew in 2010 has signalled a period of relative stability for the Magpies, there is no doubt the short term fortunes of the club were damaged during the transition to a new owner.

Increased investments on Wearside, and declining investment on Tyneside

Both clubs have also undergone a shift in their transfer strategy during the last ten years. Having previously specialised in marquee signings with massive price tags, Newcastle have more recently made headlines for the large fees they have received, rather than spent. Even with the signings of Obafemi Martins, Albert Luque and Michael Owen, the club’s net transfer spend was on the decline from the heights at the beginning of the new century. Amazingly, across the period 2003 – 2013, the club have spent around just £10m net on signing new players.

toon sun net spend

Almost the opposite approach has taken place on Wearside, with the club committing to significant, season on season investment in the playing staff since 2006. While the record of those players signed has been far from universally excellent, and much money has been wasted, their net transfer spend of £120m+ has nevertheless allowed the Black Cats to establish themselves in the top flight.

One suspects that Newcastle’s current transfer policy of scouting foreign leagues for as yet unearthed gems at reasonable prices will ultimately yield better returns – both financial and sporting – but in the short term at least, the swap of transfer policies has contributed to bringing the two clubs closer together in the league standings.

Identical wage bills

Although there has been quite a significant difference in the two clubs’ net transfer spend over the period – largely as a result of the more shrewd transfer dealings taking place at Newcastle in more recent years (both clubs have benefitted from high value sales, but only one has built a track record of unearthing jewels in the bargain basement), on wages it’s a different story.

At the end of 2012, the clubs had identical wage bills (£64m), which as we have seen, is one of the key determinants of likely club performance.  Perhaps then, it isn’t so surprising that ten years on from their vastly differing positions in 2003, the Magpies and the Black Cats have ended up converging somewhat, with each now focussing on pulling away from relegation fights, and consolidating in mid table.

The next ten years of Newcastle v Sunderland

In contrast to the media depiction of Newcastle and Sunderland fans, it’s telling that in the main, both sets of fans have rather measured expectations of their clubs in the near future. Both are weary of false dawns and unrealistic expectations, and would almost certainly settle for gentle progression in the league table and an exciting cup run. Oh, and finishing ahead of the other, of course.

But competition in the Premier League is fierce, particularly outside of the top seven, where any three of 13 clubs could find themselves relegated come 2015. Newcastle’s impressive summer recruitment drive has given a fresh edge to a depleted squad, while Sunderland have gambled on injury prone Jack Rodwell, who if capable of staying fit, will bring much needed quality to the Black Cats’ midfield.

Yet it is almost impossible to predict what the next decade holds for both of these clubs. Even though both have many of the fundamentals ready to succeed – big stadiums, dedicated fanbases, elements of real quality in their squads – their erratic fortunes over the last decade means it is almost as feasible to imagine progression to regular European football as it is relegation to the Championship.

Although marked by turbulence, it’s fair to say the last ten years of football in the North East has been anything but dull. The next ten years is likely to be just as exciting / traumatic.

(All transfer data sourced from http://www.transfermarkt.com)



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