Joe Kinnear versus Roberto de Fanti: Why this North-east derby is about lack of direction

When Sunderland meet Newcastle, it is not the managers who will get the blame if the worst happens...

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The Independent Football

The nine o'clock train edged slowly out of London King's Cross heading north. It was Saturday 21 September. Newcastle United were playing Hull at St James' Park. Among the passengers, at the instruction of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, was Joe Kinnear, the club's director of football, set for his first public appearance in the position since his appointment in June. He was nervous about his reception.

Kinnear's summer had been explosive. At 66, and after four years out of the game following a triple heart bypass, he had surprisingly been installed in a senior position of power at St James'. There had been criticism of the supporters and a hugely embarrassing mispronunciation of first-team squad members during an unforgettable radio interview.

The former Wimbledon manager had become an easy figure of fun, but his appointment still rankled. He would have to face those fans, but that was for later. Instead, Kinnear relaxed and began a fanciful tale for those around him about the night when he went to see The Supremes. Eyes rolled. Joe has told a story or two this summer.

By the time he took his seat at the back of the directors' box at St James', two members of security shadowed Ashley, Kinnear and Graham Carr, the Geordie chief scout. The club had signed no one on a permanent deal in the summer. They lost 3-2.

Roberto de Fanti is believed to have been introduced to Ellis Short, the billionaire owner of Sunderland, in a London restaurant. De Fanti was an agent. Two of his most high-profile players were Nigel de Jong, once of Manchester City, and John Guidetti, the Swedish forward who has spent loan periods with Burnley and Feyenoord and looks set to leave City in January.

He impressed Short. On 10 June, De Fanti was appointed Sunderland's director of football and given an office at the Academy of Light, across the hall from the manager. The former Internazionale scout Valentino Angeloni was appointed chief scout.

Unlike Kinnear, De Fanti has genuine power. Under his instruction, Sunderland signed 14 players in the summer, seven for the first-team squad. When the then manager Paolo Di Canio warned his employers – and De Fanti – that he would only accept Stéphane Sessègnon's sale, following an opening-day defeat to Fulham, if he was handed a powerful central midfielder with Premier League experience and a centre forward with a track record of scoring goals in England, it was a sign of unrest.

Since the transfer window closed, di Canio has gone, sacked after this own players petitioned the chief executive Margaret Byrne for his dismissal. Sunderland had picked up one point from those opening five games. Alan Pardew's position at Newcastle remains precarious. Newcastle's start has fluctuated. Four points from two games followed defeats to Hull and Everton. His is an unsure future. De Fanti and Kinnear, meanwhile, remain, as yet untouchable. Indeed, the dismissal of di Canio was followed promptly by a show of support for the director of football.

In their place De Fanti brought in amongst others South Korean midfielder Ki Sung-yueng from Swansea and Fabio Borini (who had scored once for Liverpool) on loan. Neither has scored for their new club. Sunderland also signed the Swedish forward David Moberg Karlsson. Karlsson is 19 and is not even an Under-21 cap. He has yet to play a Premier League game but cost between £1.8m and £2m.

Sunderland's main signing up front was Jozy Altidore, who had spent a period of his career at Hull in 2010. Altidore, who cost £6m, has still to add to his single goal in English football, now from 34 games.

While De Fanti did deals like a hyperactive City dealer, Kinnear dithered, struggling to comprehend his new role in a changed game. In truth, he did much of what he was meant to. Derek Llambias, the Newcastle managing director, felt uncomfortable enough with the appointment to resign. Carr considered his future. Newcastle's spending stopped. Only Loïc Rémy, who had been a long-term target, moved to St James', for a £2m loan fee from Queen's Park Rangers.

Kinnear angered Yohan Cabaye for failing to complete his move to Arsenal. The director of football has not been an easy man to get hold of this summer. The initial offer for Cabaye was £10.2m. Newcastle were ready to sell, but at a higher price. The deal was not done. Cabaye, on international duty two weeks later, was withering in his attack. "The only person who can explain what happened is Joe Kinnear," he said. "If he is honest, he will tell it. Otherwise it will not get out of my mouth."

Kinnear's notes in the Newcastle programme have come as near as anything to expressing the current feelings of Ashley. "We cannot, at this time, compete commercially with the very biggest global brands in football because the hugely lucrative [sponsorship] deals will go their way," those notes said before Newcastle's 2-2 draw with Liverpool last Saturday. Two hours before kick-off, a group of around 500 supporters, called Time4Change, had marched through the city to express their dissatisfaction with how the club was being run.

On Sunday, Sunderland and Newcastle meet at the Stadium of Light for the first North-east derby of the season. The men in the dugouts know what is at stake. Sunderland, under new manager Gus Poyet, are already seven points adrift of safety and need to get their season started if they are to have any chance of avoiding the drop. Newcastle are in mid-table but still smarting from the 3-0 derby defeat at St James' in April, easily Di Canio's finest moment on Wearside.

Poyet spoke this week about the rivalry between Uruguay and Brazil in recognising the importance of the game. "Win and the supporters forget about everything," he said. "There is no health problems, no financial problems, nothing. Everything goes. You cannot lose. I don't how to explain it. It is not acceptable.

"There is something there when you are playing for your country you can feel. It is not just involving you as a footballer but your family, your friends, they need to go to work the next day. If you don't do well, the rest will make sure they let them know they are not happy about you.

"It is a derby against Newcastle. You can feel it in the streets. I was in town and people only ask to win this game. It is all about this game. Depending on the result, people will admire you or hate you."

The weight of failure has climbed on to the fixture. It buckles. There is now nothing else to win each season, other than the derby.

Derby days: Best Sunderland-Newcastle games

Apr 1980: Sunderland 1-0 Newcastle

Stan Cummins scored after poor defending from the visitors to give Ken Knighton's side their final derby victory at Roker Park as they gained promotion to the First Division.

Oct 1992: Sunderland 1-2 Newcastle

Liam O'Brien's 78th-minute free-kick claimed Newcastle's first victory on Wearside for 36 years as Kevin Keegan's side recorded an 11th straight league success from the start of the season.

Apr 2006: Sunderland 1-4 Newcastle

A landslide victory was tainted by a career-ending injury to Alan Shearer – forced off after putting Glenn Roeder's side ahead from the penalty spot.

Oct 2008: Sunderland 2-1 Newcastle

Djibril Cissé and Kieran Richardson gave the hosts a first home success in 28 years against a Newcastle side who were eventually relegated.

Sam Petherick