SUNDERLAND, England — Life can come to you pretty quickly if you’re a Sunderland fan.
It’s May 2016, and manager Sam Allardyce is dancing on the Stadium of Light pitch after a 3-0 win against Everton ensured Premier League survival and condemned rivals Newcastle to relegation at the same time. . It’s the sweetest moment for Sunderland – staying top is one thing, but knocking off Newcastle is like hitting the jackpot, and confirms Sunderland’s status as the best club in the north-east of England.
However, two months later, Allardyce resigned to become England manager (albeit briefly), and everything began to unravel.
By May 2018, Sunderland had been relegated twice, dropping to League One and hiring four different managers during that period. The club even abandoned its iconic pre-match music, Prokofiev’s stirring “Dance of the Knights”, as it ascended to the third tier. (Prokofiev’s song returned in May 2022 and the team has been on an upward curve ever since.)
Meanwhile, Newcastle regained their place in the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship and by the time Sunderland emerged from four seasons in the third tier in 2022, Newcastle had been acquired by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, with the new owners talking. of plans for Premier League and Champions League glory.
When the two teams contest the Tyne-Wear derby (named because Newcastle is on the River Tyne, Sunderland on the River Wear) for the first time since March 2016 in the third round of the FA Cup at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, Both clubs will be unrecognizable from those who last faced each other almost eight years ago. Newcastle now has the ambition and financial resources to rival the best clubs in England and Europe, while Sunderland has built the youngest team in all four divisions and is owned by French-Swiss businessman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, who, at his 27 years old, he is the youngest owner. in English football.
– Stream LIVE: Sunderland vs. Newcastle, FA Cup third round, Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+
On paper, it should be a mismatch. Newcastle, with a squad worth more than £400m, will face a Sunderland side whose average age in the New Year’s win against Preston was just 23.4 years old. But a football rivalry dating back to a first meeting in 1898 remains incredibly close historically with 53 wins at Newcastle, 50 wins at Sunderland and 50 draws in previous meetings – the clubs have taken turns being the best.
With injury-hit Newcastle entering the tie having lost six of their last eight games in all competitions, Sunderland – unbeaten in their last nine meetings against Newcastle – have the chance to remind their closest neighbors that they are still a true rival. .
“Throughout the history of the rivalry, the two clubs have largely had equal powers,” Ian Murtagh, who has reported on Newcastle and Sunderland for more than 30 years, told ESPN. “Sunderland have been champions of England six times, to Newcastle’s four, while Sunderland’s success in the FA Cup in 1973 was the last major honor won by either club.
“Newcastle became the glamor club when Kevin Keegan took charge in the 1990s and almost won the Premier League in 1996; it coincided with the regeneration of Newcastle as a city at a time when the last coal mines closed in Sunderland. But even then, Sunderland became an established Premier League team.
“With the takeover of Newcastle by Saudi Arabia, the financial gulf between the clubs has truly opened up and every player in the Newcastle team now earns more than Sunderland’s highest-paid players. However, Sunderland have a gold mine of young talent. Jobe Bellingham, Jack Clarke, Dan Neil, Daniel Ballard, Anthony Patterson, Trai Hume and Pierre Ekwah are all capable of moving on for big fees if Sunderland fail to win promotion.”
A focus on youth is the central pillar of Sunderland’s plan under Louis-Dreyfus, whose acquisition in November 2020 was followed by the appointment of Kristjaan Speakman as sporting director a month later. Speakman had spent the previous 10 years in charge of Birmingham City Academy, from which Jude Bellingham emerged as the star graduate.
When manager Tony Mowbray was sacked last month, replaced by former Rangers boss Michael Beale, it was driven by Speakman’s determination to make changes while the team was on the rise. Mowbray had won promotion from League One in May 2022 and followed up with a place in the Championship playoffs last season, but even with Sunderland on the sidelines of the promotion chase this time, Speakman opted to turn things around.
“Ultimately the club is obsessed with progressing and improving, and we felt we had to make a change,” Speakman said at the time. “Do you do it early and it’s a surprise, and people maybe worry because they don’t weigh the results? Or do you do it too late?”
“Michael comes to a team that is performing well, the team is in a good situation and does not need to recover from a long and bad run of results. We felt it was the right time.”
Building a team from within and identifying emerging talent elsewhere (Jobe Bellingham, younger brother of Real Madrid’s Jude, was signed from Birmingham for a £3m fee last June) is the policy at Sunderland, and it is expected that Beale adopted her.
“The club has a long-term strategy to achieve sustainable success,” a senior Sunderland source told ESPN. “To achieve this, it is essential to identify and develop young talents committed to an exciting style of play.
“We will give the young players the opportunity to show how good they are. Hopefully they can help Sunderland get to the Premier League, but if not, the next best thing is for them to get there themselves. “We have the youngest team in the world .EFL, but age is no barrier to being good enough.
“Jobe is only 18 years old, but he has already become one of the leaders of the group. When we play Newcastle, Miguel Almirón, with £20 million, will have cost more than our entire team combined. But it will still be us against them, red and white against black and white, and an opportunity for our players to show how good they can be.
While it provides a useful measuring stick for Sunderland’s progress as a young team, Saturday’s match is also a reminder of what the club continues to miss. Since the turn of the century, Sunderland have enjoyed 15 seasons in England’s top flight, and their Premier League exile in the EFL is out of sync with a club sitting 10th, one place behind Newcastle, in the standings. of all times. English football table. They are the best-supported team outside the Premier League and, outside of the top European divisions, only German clubs Schalke, Hamburg, Hertha Berlin and Kaiserslautern average more attendances than Sunderland’s 40,823 this season.
However, the Stadium of Light will be full on Saturday, with 6,000 Newcastle fans making a total capacity of just over 49,000 people. Due to hostility between rival fan groups (a Newcastle fan hit a police horse during notoriously violent scenes at a derby in April 2013), all Newcastle supporters must travel on transport provided by the club, who will be escorted the 13 mile journey from St James’ Park.
Expectations are high on both sides of the divide, as highlighted by Newcastle defender Dan Burn, who will face Sunderland with his boyhood team for the first time this weekend. “It’s class, right?” Burn told the BBC. “I was thinking, since I managed to come back to the club, we got to the League Cup final, the Champions League and now I’ll get the chance, hopefully, to play against Sunderland.
“It’s crazy. I’ve always said I wanted Sunderland to be in the Premier League so we could have these games more regularly. To be able to do that will be a great class.”
For Sunderland manager Beale, whose last job saw him take on the frenetic atmosphere of the Old Firm rivalry between Rangers and Celtic in Scotland, the excitement of preparing for his first Tyne-Wear derby is clear. “I arrived at the club after the draw, but you could already feel the expectation,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “Now we are here and everyone is looking forward to the first derby in more than seven years, which is too long a wait.
“It’s a game that captivates everyone in the northeast. There’s obviously a difference between the two clubs now (the last seven years have been ups and downs for both), but it’s an intriguing match between our young team and a Champions League team. .
“We are really ambitious. We play for our fans and our city and it is very important that we put that in our game: it is our stadium with our fans behind us. That energy will go to the field.”
Only 17 league places separate Newcastle (ninth in the Premier League) and Sunderland (sixth in the Championship), but the gap seems much greater due to the different paths the two clubs take off the pitch. However, Sunderland know better than most that things can change quickly in football. You can’t take anything for granted.