Despite being a heated affair surrounded by controversy, the derby game between Newcastle and Sunderland was, as always, something to behold.
I thought myself, and many have confirmed since who were in attendance, that the atmosphere was as good as I have heard in a long time as the teams took to St. James’ Park. In fact, the crowd were literally deafening upon kick-off, so much so the players didn’t hear the first blow of the referee’s whistle.
The passion hit the roof less than a minute in when Lee Cattermole launched into a ‘tackle’ on Tiote and was very lucky not to do him serious damage. From that moment on, the first half turned into a slugfest in which both sides were lucky to leave the field with eleven men.
I personally can’t give what you would call credit to Sunderland for their first half performance. Of course they made it a physical encounter, unsettled Newcastle and didn’t allow us to play, but the method of doing so was questionable to say the least. I love when tackles fly but there’s a distinct difference between tough and dirty.
Personal feelings on that aspect aside, Sunderland did shade the first half from what little football got played and with Williamson giving away the penalty they found themselves in a position at half time they could only dream of. 1 – 0 up with Newcastle frustrated and not playing well.
Lucky for those of a black and white persuasion, Alan Pardew, as he has done many times this season, put in a half-time team talk and tactical change to stem the tide and change the course of the game, and Newcastle came out second half like a team possessed, virtually pinning Sunderland to their own box long before the sending off of Sessegnon.
Obviously with ten men and Newcastle now putting serious pressure on, Sunderland had to adopt a siege mentality and park the bus, kitchen sink and anything else they could get in front of their goalkeeper to keep Newcastle at bay, and in fairness to them, they nearly got away with it.
The atmosphere was unbelievable, I would say especially so for any impartial onlooker, and any outside chance of it dying down was being given a regular boost by the enigmatic Frenchman on the right wing, who had arguably his best performance in a Newcastle shirt.
Almost every time Ben Arfa got the ball, something happened to get bums off seats and encourage the crowd. Kieron Richardson was literally tortured by Ben Arfa second half, the winger showing exactly why some rate him so highly, showing skills and dribbling ability as good as any player you could mention.
On another day, Ben Arfa may have got the deserved goal that would have solidified him in Geordie folklore but it wasn’t to be. His 2nd half performance did a whole lot though in unsettling Sunderland, constantly lifting the crowd and impacting our style of play for the better.
Despite Ben Arfa’s best efforts, Tiote now absolutely dominating in midfield, Jonas and Ryan Taylor playing as two left wingers and Demba Ba being much improved and causing their defenders all sorts of problems, the ball just wouldn’t go in for Newcastle and time was ticking away.
Then just as Sunderland may have started to believe they could keep Newcastle out, one man emerged from the dugout who strikes fear in the heart of mackems young and old. Shola Ameobi certainly has had his critics, me included at times this season, but when you need a goal against the local rivals, there is not a striker on earth I would rather have on the pitch.
Within minutes he had made his impact, touching the ball beyond the sliding Frazier Campbell in the box to win us a penalty and the stadium erupted once again. I don’t think there’s a Newcastle supporter in existence that didn’t want to see Shola placing the ball on the penalty spot but the opportunity was given to our Senegalese hitman Demba Ba instead.
Deafening noise suddenly became stunned silence as Simon Mignolet pulled out a good save down low to his left to keep Newcastle out and could have easily had a massive negative effect on both the crowd and the team for the remaining minutes.
True to form though, the crowd instantly got behind the team again from the corner and beyond, every cross and every half chance being nearly willed into the net by the Geordie faithful. We still had time and more importantly, we still had Shola.
I don’t need to explain what happened next. In fairness I don’t see why we were so worried. It was inevitable that he would be the one to break mackem hearts once more and with it, St. James’ Park exploded in elation like I have never heard before.
50,000 odd Geordie’s rejoiced along with many more around the world, jumping around pubs or dancing with the dog in their sitting room, making anyone neutral in attendance look in awe at what it means to be a Newcastle supporter, the passion we have for our club.
Martin O’Neill expressed afterwards, as best he could, what it feels like to be involved in a game like that. Simply put, he said it had everything and he was right, from physicality, altercations both on and off the pitch, penalties, sendings off, to a truly astounding atmosphere you will be hard pushed to find at any other game in the world.
The following may be a biased opinion, but one not far from the truth and not many could deny having watched that match the other day. Newcastle vs Sunderland in St. James’ Park stands alone as the best derby in English football. It has to be number one.
For any player who has been tracked by Newcastle in recent times and may be a summer target, watching that game would have to make an impact. Why wouldn’t they want to play in an atmosphere and match like that.
Newcastle often get called the most passionate supporters you will find, but rarely do outsiders get to see it in such blatant terms. I think despite the animosity and altercations surrounding the football that was played, that match could have done us the world of good in terms of chasing targets.
I know if I was a player in France, Holland or elsewhere, I would love to have the opportunity to play in a game like that, in front of supporters that passionate, and in the best league in the world.
Today’s comments in the Daily Mail by Jan Vertonghen may be the perfect example of the effect such a game can have on players, with both him and Toby Alderweireld looking to play in the ‘unique atmosphere and stadia’ of the Premier League.
The timing of those comments purely coincidental? Maybe. One thing is for sure. If there is a player we are after who wouldn’t want to sign after seeing that match, then they’re not worthy of the black and white shirt.
I know one thing. I will be doing everything in my power to be at that fixture next season. It beats any cup final or European night for me.