It was Ruud Gullit who once observed that North-east derbies cannot be compared to matches between Milan's two teams, a comment which contributed several spadefuls of earth to the digging of his own grave as a Newcastle manager of less than popular recall. Gullit's dismissive words were issued at Durham's Chester-le-Street cricket headquarters, once used as a training ground by Newcastle.
Sitting in the very same seat on Friday, Peter Reid was never likely to perpetrate a similar blooper ahead of today's Wear-Tyne clash. "The atmosphere will be white-hot, or should I say red-hot?" forecast the Sunderland manager. "Games don't come any bigger and the lucky lads are the ones who are going to play against Newcastle."
Gales and assorted inclement conditions had blown Sunderland away from their regular training ground and inland to the cricket stadium near Durham, where at least there was respite from the recent high winds of dissent as the club's demanding fans attempt to come to terms with that rarity, a downturn in the remarkable achievements of their manager.
Reid will clock up his seventh year in the job next month, testimony enough to the success he has delivered. But a run of seven games without a win, ended only by a 1-0 victory at Derby in their last game a fortnight ago, induced a collapse of confidence in the team and the ugly sound of abuse directed at the manager. When Sunderland lost their last home game, another torrid derby occasion against Middlesbrough, there were barricades and security guards to ensure disgruntled supporters were kept at a distance from Reid.
He claims the trouble has been blown out of proportion, but privately has been deeply hurt by the boos. "The fact that there were a couple of people upset at the Middlesbrough game was highly publicised but there were 48,000 there and the majority of them were different class, as they have been to me since I've been at the club. Make no mistake, they will be behind us on Sunday. There ain't a problem. When you win, you get the plaudits, when you get beat you get a bit of stick. That's part and parcel of the job."
What is also part of that parcel, at such times of stress, is the backing of the chairman, otherwise known as the kiss of the viper. But the impassioned defence of Reid by his boss, Bob Murray, did not come across as a preliminary to a parting of the ways. Murray acknowledged that the recent results had frustrated supporters, but urged patience. Refuting allegations that his club are lacking in ambition, the chairman urged: "The fairest way to measure Peter's success is to look at the big picture, not just a snapshot. Overall, we are still going in the right direction."
Murray cited, as proof of this, a £50 million investment in a new stadium, flourishing youth academy and club infrastructure, "achieved without having to mortgage the club to the hilt". But as Murray knows and Reid would agree, you are only as good as your last result in the pop-eyed opinion of many. In a sense, Reid has been driven on to the back foot by the very feat of pushing Sunderland into seventh place in both seasons since their arrival in the Premiership. So the expectations this season were high, perhaps unrealistically so. The measure of the disappointment is that a recent poll of supporters revealed that just under 50 per cent of them want Reid out.
A sacking, to judge by Murray's words, is unlikely. However, despite being a shareholder in the club and one of the highest-paid managers in the land, Reid might opt to look elsewhere this summer if the level of vilification escalates. Seven years is a lifetime in his calling, even for someone whose protuberant ears have earned him the affectionate nickname Monkey's Heed. Reid competed in the Great North Run wearing a shirt bearing a monkey picture and one of the club websites is running a "save the chimp" campaign.
Prompt elevation to sainthood, rather than salvation, will await Reid if he can win today, as he feels his side are capable of doing. He has brought in a new striker, Patrick Mboma, on loan and he will be pitched into today's red-and-white-hot occasion. "I have been scouring Europe for a striker and was delighted Patrick decided to join us," said Reid. "He's got a lovely touch for a big feller, he's got a great left foot and is a bubbly character."
Buying big has not been Reid's style. His most expensive signings, at £4.5m each, are Emerson Thome and Claudio Reyna. "Why pay £5,000 for a sofa when you can get one for £500?" he once said. Alas, some of his defenders have more closely resembled dining-room chairs, especially in the 5-0 humiliation at Ipswich which precipitated the run of poor results, and his side could prove vulnerable to an in-form Newcastle (seven wins and a draw in eight games) who can strike from the wings as well as through the middle.
"Newcastle have done terrifically well, better than I thought they would, I have to admit, and they can get goals from anywhere," said Reid. "But it is up to us to try and knock 'em off that perch. I think we are capable of winning. Even though the points are important in the context of our League position, we are desperate for those three points for the fans. It is a massive game for the supporters. We have quality players here and they have to go out and do their jobs. If they do, we will win."
Boos or not, Reid will also be doing his job today and not making the mistake of thinking, as Gullit did, that Wear versus Tyne can't hold a candle to Milan.Reuse content