Football: Reid and Robson on the rise

Forget Newcastle, the best football in the North-east is to be found in Sunderland and Middlesbrough.
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IT IS live on Sky, it is the nearest thing Newcastle have to a Premiership derby this season, but Leeds United's jaunt up to St James' Park tomorrow is not the biggest game in the North-east this weekend.

That takes place down by the Riverside this afternoon: Middlesbrough against Sunderland. Second in the First Division against third. Two teams whose combined gates topped 70,000 in midweek.

Boro's sell-out for their Coca-Cola Cup semi-final return with Liverpool was, perhaps predictable. Less so the Nationwide League record of 40,579 who contributed to the first lock-out at the Stadium of Light.

This, remember, on a chilly Tuesday night in February, which saw Peter Reid's side skate to a 4-1 win over a Reading team whose travelling contingent totalled 150 fans.

On and off the field, the response by both clubs to last season's disastrous demotion from the Premiership has been remarkable, and only magnified by the Magpies' fall from grace.

With Newcastle having been forced to revamp their old ground after objections to plans to relocate to the nearby Town Moor, supporters on the Tees and the Wear can boast better stadiums - and local pride demands that they be filled.

Sunderland's astonishing turn-out four days ago was the biggest in the region for 17 years and physically can't be bettered by either of their neighbours. Following Boro, they have also beaten Newcastle in launching their own cable TV station. More fame, of sorts, will come from the five episodes of Premier Passions which start on BBC1 next Tuesday. It is understood Reid's tasty team talks would make a sergeant-major blush.

His side, like Boro, are playing the sort of attractive football which is putting Kenny Dalglish's team in the shade. Admittedly, United do hold the North-east's only Premier place but, by next season, all three could be back on an equal footing, with lessons learned from the traumas of the last campaign.

The parts played by their major summer signings should not be undersold. Paul Merson's decision to leave Arsenal for provincial Boro took the country by surprise. On a local level, though, the impact of Lee Clark's conversion from black and white to red and white was second only to the tremors which greeted Kevin Keegan's exit from Newcastle.

Both players were medium-large fry in a big pool, but neither were first choice on the manager's menu. Given new, unprecedented responsibility, the pair have flourished and are emerging as the outstanding candidates for the region's player of the year award.

Despite the departures of Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson, manager Bryan Robson has drafted in high-profile replacements, using Merson's arrival to tempt Andy Townsend, the Colombian striker Hamilton Ricard and the Italian front man, Marco Branca. By contrast, Reid seems to have scoured the Nationwide handbook to come up with 21-goal Kevin Phillips from Watford and the classy centre-back Jody Craddock from Cambridge.

Never once straying from the party line, Robson has always insisted that promotion is this season's No 1 objective. The failure of last year's triple mission, when Wembley was attacked on two fronts while the club simultaneously fought for Premiership survival, left too many scars.

No sooner had they completed the ceremonial spraying of the dressing- room walls on Wednesday, with a second successive Coca-Cola Cup final assured, than the players were warned to leave the rest of the champagne on ice.

"I told the lads they could have a good half hour, but that was it," said Robson, known to enjoy the occasional party himself. "We all wanted to celebrate, but they knew they had to rest and recover in time for Sunderland, because that game is more important than Liverpool."

Without such diversions, Reid has taken Sunderland on a thrilling run which has seen them lose just one of their last 20 League games.

Curiously, it is the Scouser, Reid, who has made his home on Teesside, while North-east born Robson commutes from Manchester. Yet despite the rivalry of their teams' followers, the pair remain close friends. They have been known to compare notes at a wine bar in Yarm. Tonight's session could be a long one.