As I look ahead to next Sunday, the Tyne-Wear derby at The Stadium of Light and the predicament of Sunderland’s new boss Gus Poyet, it is hard not to draw comparisons with my situation at Everton 19 years ago next month. I had left Oldham after 12 years to return to my first club, who were in dire trouble, with one win from 14 games, eight points from a possible 42 – and my first match in charge was the Merseyside derby with Liverpool at Goodison Park. Poyet’s situation is similar, it will be his second match as manager of Sunderland, who were thrashed 4-0 at Swansea in his first and who are rooted at the bottom of the Premier League with a mere one point from eight matches. Now, he faces the ordeal of the biggest match of his club’s season, the North East derby, knowing the result can make or break his bid to drag the Black Cats off the foot of the table.
My re-vamped Everton produced a stunning 2-0 win over their old enemy, Liverpool, to spark a revival that saw us go on to clinch our Premier League survival with some points to spare, an achievement which I rate as one of my best in management. The building blocks for Everton’s turnaround that season were the players who previous boss Mike Walker was not using, but who I identified as men who would add the steel we needed. They were lads such as Barry Horne, Joe Parkinson and Andy Hinchcliffe, who were, I quickly decided, being wasted in the reserves. I can’t help but think that Poyet, who has succeeded the bizarre Paolo Di Canio, has similar decisions to make before going into the cauldron of next Sunday’s match. And, boy, does he need a win in this, of all matches, if he is to kick-start Sunderland’s season. The bragging rights of a big city derby win cannot be underestimated. Nor can the often calamitous effects of a defeat, especially if it is a heavy one. In those circumstances, hasty, sometimes illogical decisions can be made at boardroom level though, in this case, the latter is only likely to apply if Newcastle were to be thrashed. Sunderland can hardly start wielding the axe again, so soon after making Poyet the latest in a line of managerial changes over the past four or five years.
Ironically, Sunderland beat Newcastle 3-0 at St James’ Park last April, one of the few upbeat occasions during the ill-fated reign of the eccentric Di Canio, who seems to me to have signed too many players who are not up to the job. Poyet will be working hard this week to identify the men he hopes can come in and do the business, just like I did at Everton all those years ago, when reinstating the players who came to be dubbed my “dogs of war.” Indeed, both Alan Pardew, at Newcastle, and Poyet must feel like they are on a form of football war footing, with Sunderland’s predicament producing huge pressure and Newcastle fans venting their disdain for owner Mike Ashley and his Director of Football Joe Kinnear in a pre-match march through the streets last Saturday. If the Magpies were to suffer a heavy defeat – unlikely though that seems – Pardew might have reason to look nervously down the corridors of power, for it is so often the manager who is first in the firing line when the tension gets tight in the boardroom. It really is difficult to overstate the importance of Sunday’s match to both clubs.