Newcastle v Aston Villa, 4pm
2 September ~ On May 24, 2009 Newcastle United were relegated at Villa Park after another in a series of lacklustre capitulations. Newcastle barely managed a whimper on the day, let alone something resembling a bang. Years of overpaying in the transfer market for has-beens and never-weres finally sucked the Magpies under. The club's regeneration since then, pivoting on the opportunity provided by the necessities of its resultant reduced income, is well known. Overpaid underperformers and those without a taste for the fight were shipped out and over the course of a couple of years replaced by younger, cheaper and better players.
The transformation of the club was completed by last season's fifth-place finish, with a less expensive squad than the one which was relegated.
Aston Villa, who finished sixth following that win in 2009, as they had the year before and would the next year too, have also seen their fortunes change. They finished last season just two points above the drop and are currently bottom after losing both of their league games so far, despite replacing Alex McLeish with serially upwardly mobile Paul Lambert in the close season. Lambert has a struggle on his hands unless he can conjure some form fairly soon, with his squad looking very similar to the staid workaday outfit of last season.
This fixture has increased in importance for Newcastle fans since 2009, from just another game to something approaching a grudge match. The 6-0 home victory over Villa in 2010 was celebrated more than any other that year except for the 5-1 over Sunderland.
The reason for that is the perception that Villa's fans celebrated the relegation a little too much. There is a difference between feeling a momentary frisson of schadenfreude at the failure of others and preparing in advance a concerted campaign of mockery through the medium of painted bedsheets.
Several of last year's standout performers for Newcastle have yet to hit top form so both clubs probably feel it's a good time to face each other. Newcastle want to prove the previous season was no fluke. If they are to build on a decent opening after two difficult games they need to beat a side like Villa.
Lambert's team need to start winning very soon if they are not to become this season's disaster story. To transform an ordinary squad and return them to success would be an undeniable triumph for their new manager. Should Lambert prove unable to revive Villa before the owners panic it is difficult to see even a Messiah saving them. Mark Brophy