16 January ~ Every football fan views their club's local rivalries slightly differently. Some take the generous view that they like to see the region's teams do well. These unnaturally cheery individuals can at least take some enjoyment out of the increased tension and excitement of a derby game. Unfortunately, as a Sunderland fan and having grown up with the suffocating mythology of 1990s Newcastle Utd, I find games against our neighbours unbearable. This afternoon, I'll be sat there pale-faced, repeatedly intoning: "Just please don't bloody lose." As such a derby-phobe, last season, with Newcastle in the Championship, was bliss. Needless to say, the last time we played them was quite the opposite.
It's been a highly successful season for Sunderland so far – we only need seven points to reach the 40-point safety mark and it's only January – but that 5-1 defeat at St James' Park on Halloween last year still rankles slightly. While most supporters will forgive the team an occasional off day, such a performance, at such a time, at such a place and with such a scoreline, was difficult to forget. At the time, it was particularly painful considering the bullishness in Sunderland before the game – the WSC Daily summed up the feelings of many on Wearside: "What the club needs now is a symbolic moment to ignite genuine enthusiasm amongst still scarred supporters. The derby could not have come at a better time." We were all clearly very mistaken.
But since then Sunderland's unaccustomed upper mid-table form – sitting proudly in "joint fifth" on Christmas Day – has focused minds away from that horrible result. All Sunderland supporters have revelled in the long-term health, pace and youth of our squad. Good results, none more so than the 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge, have grabbed the media's attention and, whether you like it or not, Sunderland's "brand” is “extending”. This has led to some surreal stories, such South Shields MP and former foreign secretary David Miliband reportedly considering a non-executive role at the club.
So, despite getting some irritatingly good results themselves, Newcastle have largely faded to the back of our minds since a week or so after October 31. We're still allowed some griping over their "Wimbletoon" long-ball tactics or the private life of Andy Carroll, a Newcastle striker who makes Alan Shearer look likeable. Having said that, without fail, all Sunderland supporters have looked forward to "revenge in January". Unfortunately, for me at least, we've now arrived at that point and can't put it off any longer.
For those fans (they exist at every club) who like to concentrate on their rivals' downfall almost as much as the success of their own team, this is a defining game of the season. For more grown-up types, a draw is the minimum. Losing twice, once by such a heavy margin, to newly promoted local rivals is bound is cause some irritation, whatever happens during the rest of the campaign. We only lost twice at home in 2010, to Man Utd in May and Blackpool on December 28, so I know I could be slightly more confident. But I just don't feel like it. So I'll be sticking with my derby refrain: "Just please don't bloody lose." Ed Upright