Craig Gordon eased himself into a quiet corner of Sunderland's training ground the other day and smiled politely; not long after, Obafemi Martins eased himself into a Lamborghini at Newcastle United's and zoomed off. These were not symbolic differences of the two clubs as they prepare for the 139th Tyne-Wear derby at St James' Park this afternoon, just images of thetwo men who could decide it. Gordon was in his tracksuit, Martins sported more bling than a Friday-night WAG.
"If we keep playing like we have in our last five games, we could play in the Champions' League," Martins said. "We could rival the top four. Maybe next season. We are that close."
"I think we are harder and better than we were when we played Newcastle last time," Gordon said. "There has been a progression at the club throughout the season." And so the contrasts continued, yet these two players have had comparable seasons at clubs who have experienced their share of anxiety.
Some of the tension may have been removed from today's game, and Martins insisted: "I never thought about relegation, not at all. I looked at the players we have here and would not even think about it."
Gordon, as you may have guessed, was rather more restrained: "We are still not safe and we need some more points on the board. There is no better way than to get them in a derby against Newcastle. Last week's home defeat to Manchester City was disappointing, but we have bounced back from adversity fairly well this season and I am sure the manager will have us back on our toes for [today] and for the rest of the season."
"Bouncing back" is one phrase to use when contemplating Gordon's season. The big 25-year-old Scotland goalkeeper arrived in August from Hearts for a club-record £9 million, though that is based on attainment and appear-ances and could end up as £7m. He said then and said again that the price is "nothing to do with me", but having started with a clean sheet on the opening day against Spurs, Gordon did not have another until mid-January.
Along the way there was November's 7-1 humiliation at Everton, and raised eyebrows at Gordon's part in Stewart Downing's goal for Middlesbrough at the Riverside and James Milner's equaliser for Newcastle at the Stadium of Light. Everton came the week after Newcastle, and Gordon was then dropped.
He had been in a similar situation with Hearts during the political infighting at Tynecastle, but now a manager, Roy Keane, was leaving Gordon out for purely sporting reasons.
"It hurt, of course it did," Gordon said. "It wasn't nice. It is something I haven't been used to in my career. That was a new experience and one I wouldn't like to repeat. The only way to look at it is you have to convince the manager that you should be back in the team. The manager explained to me why he had left me out. He gave me his reasons, but that didn't make it any easier.That was the lowest point of the season for me but I have come a long way since then."
So have Sunderland, who were second-bottom after Boxing Day. Newcastle, by then, were 11th. That looks respectable, but Sam Allardyce's grip on his players was in doubt and that day, when losing at Wigan, the fans turned and began singing, "We're shit and we're sick of it".
No manager comes back from that, and although Allardyce stumbled on for another 10 days, he was gone and Kevin Keegan was in. Martins, at the African Nations Cup with Nigeria, was bemused. He had been in and out under Allardyce but at least he knew who Allardyce was. Martins had to look at YouTube to find out who Keegan was.
But then he is 23, and as he said: "I was in Nigeria. I came to Europe in 2000 and hadn't heard about him. I was very impressed when I read about him. He was a very good player. He's still just like a player to us. We are seriouswhen we train... He's a good man and I'm looking forward to continuing with him next season."
Martins' strike partner, Michael Owen, will have his progress monitored today by Franco Baldini, the right-hand man to England's coach, Fabio Capello. Meanwhile Martins, who cost Newcastle £10m from Internazionale, was happy to reiterate his desire to remain on Tyneside: "If things are going very well players want to stay for 10 or 15 years." He was happy to discuss his goals for Inter in Milan derbies and will be happiest of all if chatting later today about a winner put past Gordon. Even Gordon's equanimity might be disturbed at that.Reuse content