It has been 12 long days since the Magpies trooped off following a disappointing 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United.
With hindsight, it felt from the offset that the task would be too great – injuries to players in key areas and poor league form coming in to the game did not assist in our preparations, while there’s something about Sunday afternoon kick-offs that causes a deflated atmosphere around St James’ Park.
The international break which followed probably came at a good time for United after a stuttering start – a chance to recoup, regroup and reassess the squad in preparation for the run up to Christmas. On the pitch, the international break has been fairly uneventful for Newcastle compared to last time out, with first teamer involvement with their countries at a minimum. The African trio of Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba and Chieck Tiote played out three quarters of their AFCON play-off which ended in bizarre and somewhat disturbing circumstances, with violence and unrest on the terraces spilling over onto the pitch.
Elsewhere, the ‘Gallic Xavi’ played out 90 minutes against his Hispanic counterpart, gaining a creditable 1-1 draw in the world cup qualifier between Spain and France. Back on Tyneside meanwhile, the United hierarchy announced their decision to part company with Virgin Money and unveil a new sponsorship agreement representing an “excellent commercial deal for both parties” – enter Wonga.com.
Association with a less than respected company renowned for its ‘legal loan-sharking’ brought about a mixed reaction from fans, councillors and media bodies across the city and beyond. Debates on various radio talk shows commenced, with certain members of the north east press attempting to re-open the issue of southern-media bias, with claims that the club receives too much negative attention.
Whether true or not, this is what happens when clubs at the top of the game hit the news. Less was said of Wonga’s sponsorship deals with Edinburgh based Heart of Midlothian and championship side Blackpool, mainly because less people were interested. Additionally, Wonga are also a broadcast partner of the FA Cup on ESPN – a fact largely omitted from media publications released recently. Whether we like it or not however, for as long as Newcastle are performing in the upper echelons of football in Britain, we will continue to provide headlines.
Now that the media hysteria has settled somewhat, the details of the ‘lucrative’ deal can be scrutinised slightly more objectively. Regardless of the moral issue of being associated with a company who earns profits through dubious means, do the perks of the deal itself outweigh the losses that have been incurred by making the switch?
Reinstating the St James’ Park sign outside of the ground has been a big plus, and has been welcomed by everyone in football (including I suspect, the owner and chairman). £6m a season (or £8m depending on which unofficial source you choose to follow) and an extra £1.5m to be poured into community/academy projects seems to have been a big selling point, a point Derek Llambias has been keen to stress. However, when you compare our deal to the £10m+ a year received by Sunderland, £20m a year by Liverpool, and £51m a year by Man Utd from their respective sponsors, you have to ask the question – was this really the best we could do?
On the pitch, Newcastle have a date with their nearest rivals up next. Despite the nature of arguably England’s most ferocious derby, many Newcastle fans were hoping to see this game as another three points in the bag, and an extension of an already healthy gap in the points table. However, the beginning of the season hasn’t panned out as well as many had hoped, and this derby means more to us than we may have originally hoped. Everything we need to kick-start our season can be taken from this game – we want points, we want confidence, we want to beat our nearest rivals, we want to prove we are top dogs in the north east. This feeling has been exacerbated following a poor start leaving us neck and neck in the points charts, and following an abstinence from bread and butter football during the international break.
In many ways, this game has come at the perfect time for Newcastle fans, and hopefully the team as well. Newcastle’s line up could be healthier than it has been all season if reports are to be believed: Tim Krul, Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini are all pencilled in for a return to action, while Danny Simpson and Davide Santon should make up a back five which performed with promise at times last season. Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote are both fit and have miles on the clock, while Ben Arfa and Jonas Guiterrez – who are likely to make up the midfield – are always ready for action. Up front we have a clean bill of health, including the mackem slayer himself!
From Newcastle’s perspective, the ingredients are all there to make for a memorable afternoon for the supporters. Personally, I’m nervous, terrified, excited and confident all at the same time, a unique feeling we can only experience twice a season – Newcastle v Sunderland!
Howay the lads!
By Martin Gibson