Sporting a red-and-white loom wristband made for him by his grandson Ollie, Sam Allardyce looks forward to his first home match, and first derby, as Sunderland manager and says: “It’s not just another game, far from it, for me.”
All week Wearside and Tyneside have tried to compare the managers of Sunderland and Newcastle United, and Allardyce does have shared history with Steve McClaren.
With both Sunderland and Newcastle in the bottom three of the Premier League, it is worth remembering that McClaren is the only man alive who knows what it is like to lead a North-east team to a major trophy.
And when McClaren’s Middlesbrough won the 2004 League Cup, they beat Allardyce’s Bolton in the final. “I’m over it now,” jokes Allardyce.
Both men have also been keen to downplay being the final pair in the running for the England job two years later, when McClaren got it and Allardyce didn’t. “I would never joke with Sam about that,” laughs McClaren.
But there has been a contrast listening to McClaren on Thursday and Allardyce on Friday, and it is of tone. If a derby is like a high jump, Allardyce is charging towards it, McClaren is sizing it up.
At one stage, McClaren says “it’s just another game”, in the sense that victory would bring the same three points as last Sunday’s win over Norwich City. McClaren questions why players should give more in a derby than any other weekend. There is logic to his approach.
Allardyce, however, is blunt. “It’s one nobody wants to be on the wrong side of,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that. It can have a more damning effect on you, losing this game than any other, can’t it?”
This is true. As a former Newcastle manager, Allardyce knew the impact of defeat to Sunderland had on Ruud Gullit, Joe Kinnear and Alan Pardew.
As Sunderland’s sixth manager in four years, Allardyce should be afforded patience a fortnight into the job, yet he also knows that Sunderland’s relegation zone floundering – now into a fourth season – has coincided with a string of victories over Newcastle. Three predecessors, Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet and Dick Advocaat, defeated Newcastle in their second game in charge, having lost their first. After last Saturday’s 1-0 loss at West Bromwich, Allardyce is in the same situation. “Pressure’s on,” he smiles.
While the fixture means an understandable focus on the two clubs’ positions in the table, it brings much-needed anticipation. It will be loud and intense.
Whereas McClaren sees the Wearside atmosphere as something his players will need to control – “We can’t let that affect us or get carried away by that” – Allardyce sees the potential inspiration, though he mentions the downside too.
“It’s only measurable by experience,” Allardyce says of a derby-day atmosphere. “I don’t think anyone can scientifically measure it. The fact that we can’t afford to have empty seats shows that players play better with atmosphere.
“It’s unique – sometimes the more hostile it is away from home, the better a player plays. Yet when it’s hostile at home he wilts under that pressure. Atmosphere is everything on the day.”
Given Sunderland are the only one of the 92 clubs not to have won a League game this season, and Newcastle scored six last Sunday, it looks loaded in favour of McClaren. But Sunderland have that recent history and as Allardyce will doubtless inform his players, Newcastle have scored only once away from home this season – in the 6-1 defeat at Manchester City.
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