Six-point Saturday is absolutely crucial to mapping out the rest of the season for the North East’s big two. Chief sports writer Mark Douglas sets the scene for a critical day.
ON the south coast, they have sized us up. The Southern Daily Echo – the local newspaper that covers the zigzagging fortunes of Southampton – has pegged Newcastle and Sunderland as “winnable” games for their local club.
United and the Black Cats are tagged in Hampshire as teams embroiled in a basement battle, along with their own club – who were among the favourites to go down when the first ball was kicked on a sun-kissed August afternoon.
You would have been offered long odds back then that this would be a season of toil and potential relegation trouble for both of the North East’s big two.
Sunderland had added two internationals after the biggest single day of spending in their history while Newcastle had managed to stave off Premier League predators to retain the nucleus of the side that finished fifth last year.
Caution is always the name of the game on Wearside and Tyneside but it was underscored by optimism. Two fine managers with good squads, went the theory – what could go wrong?
Nothing catastrophic has. Instead it has been death by a thousand cuts for both clubs, who have been beset by injuries and suspensions to key players while also seeing summer transfer gambles fail to pay off. Momentum, as Alan Pardew is fond of saying, has eluded both clubs all season.
They have both secured crucial wins of late but neither has managed to build on that foundation, and every week sees confidence and composure ebbing away.
Speaking of today’s opponents QPR, Pardew hit the nail on the head. “They've got some momentum and that's very important in the Premier League. It's something we've been searching for,” he said.
“We had a little bit in the start of the season, but it got away from us and it's momentum that carries you through in this league.” Which brings us to ‘six-point Saturday’ – the point at which both clubs could alter the course of their campaigns.
With QPR visiting Tyneside this afternoon and Sunderland on the road at fellow strugglers Southampton, there can be no underplaying the importance of these 90 minutes to the North East’s Premier League representatives.
Three points for both would ease the pressure immensely, and provide a much more comfortable route into a tricky set of festive fixtures. Lose (or in Newcastle’s case fail to win), and it would only heighten the sense of anxiety ahead of a really difficult run for both teams.
Between them they face the two Manchester clubs, the Merseyside duo and North London’s finest. They represent five of the Premier League’s top six and on current form, you are taking those teams on in hope more than expectation.