FIRST, the bad news. As inconceivable as it might seem to any North East veterans of the bruising 2008/9 relegation battle, Sunderland and Newcastle have conspired to collect fewer points so far this season than they had done after 17 games back then.
Lest we forget, it was a campaign which ended with four managerial changes, a club up for sale, not the slightest whiff of a Cup run and the two teams occupying two of the bottom four places in the Premier League.
For those of you with short memories (or those of you who have chosen to expunge it from your memory banks), it was unremittingly bleak.
Yet Newcastle are two points shy of their 2008/9 pre-Christmas tally (and lower in the table), while Sunderland – though higher in the league – are also running two fewer than their total back then.
For those of us who believed Alan Pardew and Martin O’Neill had ushered in an era when relegation worries were swept to one side in favour of North East dreaming, it is a jarring wake-up call.
We must hope the same uncompromising message is rebounding around the respective dressing rooms too, for on current form both will be sucked into the battle at bottom before the end of the season.
It felt like it was heeded by Newcastle at least on Saturday, when they turned in a defiant second-half display full of brio that warranted reward against Manchester City. If they play like that consistently in the second half of the season, talk of relegation will sound frankly ridiculous come May.
However, this weekend, in particular, will be critical.
Newcastle welcome a QPR side which, while improving under Harry Redknapp, simply have to be dispatched at St James’ Park while Sunderland travel to Southampton in a game they dare not lose.
A pair of defeats and suddenly the mood will shift dramatically.
Despite those unflattering comparisons with the 2008/9 season, though, there should be greater confidence in the North East our big two will be able to extricate themselves from trouble before long.
Form and results might not support that assertion, but both teams are benefiting from a stability which was notable by its absence four years ago. The first signs of Roy Keane’s revolution unravelling were noticeable in the early days of autumn but not until December did the menacing air around the Stadium of Light turn toxic.
By the time Keane went, Sunderland were 18th and fully embroiled in a battle at the bottom.
He was replaced by the unconvincing Ricky Sbragia, a good man and excellent coach but patently uncomfortable in the manager’s seat.
We sniffed trouble on the horizon, and so it proved.
This time around, there is Martin O’Neill. Everyone knows where they are with the Ulsterman, not least the North East media after Ellis Short’s strident tour of the Stadium of Light press room last week. He is here to stay and that is worth its weight in gold.