Tuesday 21 April ~
The received wisdom that "there's no such thing as bad publicity" is debatable. But those who run our football clubs now seem to see any form of media attention as a positive thing – exposure is everything. With five Premier League games remaining, however, there is one corner of the country where, for once, one set of supporters would be happy to leave all the publicity to a supposedly more celebrated neighbour. As a Sunderland fan, I'd be very pleased to see plenty more "Toon Doon" headlines as we approach the end of the season.
It's not usually like this. It is a common source of irritation to those who live in the region and don't support Newcastle or live in the city that the north-east is defined nationally by one town and one football club. When Newcastle lose the vast majority of the region smiles rather than swears. Yet Newcastle's domination of the north-east seems to be growing. The marketing of NewcastleGateshead as a unified city grates on many. At a recent cultural event I spluttered into my complimentary glass of wine as the speaker compared both sides of the river Tyne to those of the Danube. For Newcastle and Gateshead, read Buda and Pest. Though the media's view of Newcastle Utd has soured over the last few years, there is often still an overtone that the Premier League somehow "needs" Newcastle. Going by this theory, think what wonders the presence of Newcastle could do for the Championship.
Compared to what seems to me to be the deluded optimism of many Newcastle fans, pessimism is a natural state for a Sunderland supporter. Especially so this season when the club is still not safe and there are clear problems. The cautious hope of Niall Quinn's new regime has long since disappeared along with the positive publicity brought by Roy Keane. Millions have been spent over recent seasons and this is, on paper, the best Sunderland team I have ever seen. But performances have not been good, the team has not gelled and many believe that, though a excellent coach, Ricky Sbragia is out of his depth as manager. Wearside is in paralysis. Many believe that Newcastle will wriggle out of it as always, very possibly at Sunderland's expense.
I do have Newcastle-supporting friends who have resigned themselves to relegation. But this only makes the tension worse. It's so close yet so far. If Newcastle do survive and Sunderland don't, the unfair balance of power and attention in the north-east will be emphasised again. This time the scars may last for years to come, defining a generation of north-east football fans. Many Newcastle supporters claim that their red-and-white counterparts are "obsessed" with their local rivals. But this cuts both ways – last time Sunderland were relegated, a fanzine was produced with a singular subject matter and title: "Let's all laugh at Sunderland". The stakes are high. In the meantime the only thing for me to do is put a modest wager on Newcastle staying up. It's the only way of guaranteeing some joy come May 24. Ed Upright