There's no love lost...
...between the fans or the managers
If your typical Premier League season can be likened to a titanic fist-fight between four massive gorillas, this one is more like a Royal Rumble for penguins. Gone are the punishing, hairy-fisted thumps to the solar plexus of every club below 5th place. Instead the only sound to be heard is a flurry of damp slaps and squawks, and the occasional startled whimper.
But, in the season where even the tiniest creature can gnaw greedily on the bones of dinosaurs, these new rules seem not to have found their way to the North East of England.
Heading into Sunday’s typically spittle-flecked Tyne-Wear derby, Newcastle United sit in 19th place while Sunderland are 17th. Between them, they have won just 12 games all season.
Ordinarily, we could be forgiven for dismissing the circumstances of this derby as two bad teams who have been dodging much-deserved relegation for a number of seasons. And yet, tickled by the mischievous fingers of a deeply sarcastic football deity, the arrival of one man has suddenly made this fixture utterly compelling.
A Raf Relationship
Rafa Benitez, fresh from being sneered out of Real Madrid by underwhelmed players and a flaky president, has taken on the once enticing job at St James Park. His opponent this weekend is Sam Allardyce, a man who is so far under Benitez’s skin he might as well be playing ping-pong on his pancreas.
The two men have been engaged in a tiff so long, personal and spluttering it makes Mourinho versus Wenger look like a puppy yapping at a rainbow.
And now these two managers – whose low opinions of each other are only matched by their high opinions of themselves – face off in what Sky Sports would frothily describe as a last-man-standing fight for survival. And, in reality, only one of these two clubs is likely to stay up.
Running Out Of Tyne
On current form and mood, that appears almost certainly not to be Newcastle. Benitez finds himself at a club that have lost 4 times on the trot and have picked up just 7 points in the last 10 games. If we take last season’s survival benchmark of 38 points, they need an average of 1.55 points from each of their remaining 9 games. Worryingly, in the last ten years they’ve only managed such a Premier League points average once – when Alan Pardew smug-boated them to 5th in the table.
Allardyce’s situation is marginally brighter – in the way that finding a dog poo in your pocket is marginally better than finding a human poo on your chest. Taking over in October, with a side that had yet to win in their first 9 league fixtures, Sam won 3 of his first 6 games in charge – including a 3-0 groin-punch to a Newcastle side already paralysed by the McClaren Droop.
Yet, in his 21 games in charge Allardyce has earned just 22 points – an average that, if sustained, would still not be enough to take them to that 38-point threshold. Perhaps if Allardyce had not had such a disastrous December – 5 games, 5 losses – it’s likely that they’d be mentally hiring pedalos and guzzling fishbowl cocktails by now.
So the small matter of survival – not to mention bathing in next season’s TV deal trillions, like a hot tub filled with oversized cheques and glittering booty – falls to two men who would probably much rather engage in a flabby, wheezing bout of Streetfighter 2.
Despite what they think and say about each other’s abilities, their records throw up a few revealing comparisons. Sam, despite a grumbling end to his time at West Ham and an increasingly hasty-looking sacking from Newcastle, has built a career on dependable, semi-success – in the process fuelling his own myth as a gravy-stained lump of relegation kryptonite.
Rafa meanwhile, despite remarkable success at Valencia in the early 2000s, has spent the subsequent 12 years of his career dealing in highs, lows and a burgeoning reputation for prickliness. For the entirely unexpected European trophy wins at Liverpool and Chelsea there have also been brief and deeply underwhelming spells at Real Madrid and Inter. In his final year at Napoli they stumbled to a poor 5th place finish – this season, the Naples club are so close to a fabulous Juventus side, they could hurl ravioli at their necks.
It feels churlish for Newcastle fans to hope for better than a manager with so many major trophies to waggle around – but yet there is the sniff of doubt that, rather than a poor man’s Mourinho, this vintage of Benitez is closer to a Marks & Spencer’s McClaren.
Perhaps though, Rafa’s honours list will be just about enough to stifle the yawns and shrugs of an infuriatingly dozy Newcastle team, and he’ll manage to keep them up. But to do so they’ll need to overhaul a Sunderland team that, while still pretty horrible, has never really plumbed the same pitiful depths as their neighbours this season.
The game itself might be a grinding slog – more showy scuffles and subdued gobbiness than actual, purposeful passion. But if it doesn’t end with a huge bear-like man tugging furiously at a Spaniard’s tiny beard, then perhaps the football gods aren’t quite as generous as we’d hoped.