Ashley joins fans to avoid taking shirt off his back

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The Independent Online

Perhaps it is the presence of Roy Keane and Sam Allardyce, and that of the Sunderland consortium, Drumaville, and the Newcastle owner, Mike Ashley, who will all experience their first North-East derby. Or maybe it is Michael Chopra's possible appearance in red and white when the last time this game was here he scored in black and white. Or perhaps it is because both sides desperately need not to lose: whatever it is, there is a rare sense of anticipation in the North-east as Sunderland host Newcastle today in the 138th Tyne-Wear derby.

The 18 months that have passed since the last – Chopra scoring Newcastle's equaliser in a 4-1 humiliation for Sunderland – add to the increased agitation locally and it is also the first time in 11 years that the season's first derby between the clubs has been held on Wearside.

Sunderland could not win that game in 1996 at Roker Park, the last derby there, just as they have been unable to win at home in a derby since 1980. Ken Knighton was in charge of the Wearsiders then and he was the manager who signed one Sam Allardyce the following season.

This week Keane has reminded people that Allardyce tried to sign him for Bolton when Keane was leaving Manchester United. Keane also compared the Sunderland-Newcastle rivalry to the Mancunian one with Liverpool.

"I was impressed with what Sam had to say but Celtic was a better option," Keane said.

The Sunderland manager recalled that Allardyce started out as a coach at Limerick in the early 1990s and was also complimentary about Allardyce's achievements at Bolton.

But Keane added: "His next challenge at Newcastle is certainly the hardest one, no doubt about that. He had an element of success at Bolton playing that way and that's the way he will go at Newcastle, percentage football, playing in your half and making it hard for you. I don't expect them to play it around at the back.

"They will be looking to put us under constant pressure. There is a way I want our team to play. The managers I played for have certain principles and that has rubbed off on me, even if some days I can be frustrated with myself because we over-play it.

"But that is the influence of the managers I have played under. People should not be critical of Sam Allar-dyce, far from it. His career has been very, very good."

Allardyce has confessed to insomnia following last Saturday's home thrashing by Portsmouth and Abdoulaye Faye said: "I was supposed to have two days off but I didn't want to stay at home. I've come in to training to work in the gym because I've got too much excitement in me to not train. When I was at Bolton, we didn't have a game like this one." On Tyneside there is concern that Faye is part of a foreign grouping who will not understand the passions of this fixture.

Add the suspension of the influential Nicky Butt and a possible doubt over Obafemi Martins and there is apprehension.

But on Wearside there is also anxiety. Keane has called for "warriors and leaders" but Sunderland have not won for six matches going back to mid-September and, on paper, have a weaker squad than Newcastle.

Chopra had to leave St James' Park to get first-team football of course. "I'd love to score," he said. "I know exactly what this game means to the fans, I'm a North-east lad born and bred and I understand the rivalry. Hopefully?

"I'll be one of the lucky few to play for both teams. I'm sure there'll be a lot of banter between the fans.

"Sunderland fans already sing 'Chopra's one of us'."

Mike Ashley, Newcastle United's new billionaire owner, has solved the problem of wanting to wear his replica jersey to today's game but avoiding causing upset in the Sunderland boardroom and instead plumping for a place among Newcastle's travelling fans.

Ashley will be protected by bodyguards and an enhanced police presence on Wearside and is due to travel the 12 miles from the Tyne on one of the supporters' buses.

Ashley had been warned by Sunderland that sitting in the directors' box wearing a jersey would be a provocative gesture. After a discussion between the clubs' respective chairmen, Niall Quinn and Chris Mort, Mort said: "Niall Quinn and myself have had some very constructive conversations on this topic this week.

"Niall understands that Mike wants to wear his black-and-white shirt for this game more than any other, but at the same time he does not want to cause anyone at Sunderland any problems for doing so. As a result Mike has decided to watch tomorrow's game with our fans behind the goal, and he is very much looking forward to doing so."

Ashley first wore his jersey at Middlesbrough but that was at short notice and Boro chairman Steve Gibson was taken by surprise.

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