WHEN Loic Remy was dismissed for his altercation with Norwich City midfielder Bradley Johnson on Tuesday night, the first thought that ran through most Sunderland supporters’ heads was, ‘That’s great – he’s out of the derby’. Closely followed by, ‘Oh no – that probably means they’ll start with Shola Ameobi’.
Few names strike as much fear into the heart of Stadium of Light regulars as that of Newcastle’s naturalised Nigerian. He might not be as celebrated as his fellow Geordie striker Alan Shearer, but when, as looks likely, he leaves St James’ Park at the end of the season, Ameobi will have etched his name into Tyneside folklore. Largely thanks to his derby heroics.
The players involved in the two squads for today’s Tyne-Wear gathering boast a total of 11 derby goals between them. Ameobi accounts for seven of them, and three of the other four came in this season’s first meeting at the Stadium of Light.
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No one can touch the 32-year-old when it comes to influencing the biggest game of the season here in the North-East, so while Remy’s absence through suspension represents a considerable blow to Newcastle, his replacement, with Luuk de Jong short of match practice, has a proven pedigree for shattering Sunderland’s ambitions.
“If I’m asked to step in, I’ll relish the chance,” said Ameobi, who will almost certainly make his final derby appearance this lunch-time given that his current contract is due to expire in the summer and he is unlikely to be offered another. “It’s a derby and I think everyone on this side of the divide understands that it’s going to be a battle and it’s going to be a war.
“In a game like this, whoever imposes their will on the game generally wins. We’ve had two disappointing results the last couple of times we’ve played them, so obviously there’s that extra impetus for us as players.
“It’s disappointing we’ve lost Loic, but that certainly won’t stop us winning the game. We have plenty of goals and attacking threat up our sleeve.”
With Yoan Gouffran also unavailable because of injury, there will be a considerable onus on Ameobi to fire Newcastle to victory even though he has not scored a senior goal since converting from the penalty spot against Metalist Kharkiv last February.
Gouffran’s injury is an untimely blow, but it is the absence of another Frenchman that has dominated the news agenda in the North-East this week.
Yohan Cabaye’s £20m departure to Paris St Germain was hardly a surprise, but Newcastle’s failure to replace the Frenchman ahead of last night’s transfer deadline reawakened the simmering resentment among supporters that had died down slightly as a result of the club’s strong start to the season.
Suddenly, anger at Mike Ashley’s stewardship of the club is as vocal and passionate as ever, but while it has been possible to detect a growing sense of crisis from outside Newcastle’s inner sanctum this week, within the dressing room, the mood remains defiant.
According to Ameobi, events such as Cabaye’s exit are always blown out of proportion, and after almost a decade-and-a-half of service to the Magpies, the veteran striker has seen enough highs and lows to take any sort of crisis talk with more than a pinch of salt. “There’s never been a question about the spirit in the group,” he said. “For us as players, it hasn’t been a difficult week at all. We’ve just got on with it like we always do.
“Players come and players go – I’ve been at Newcastle long enough to know that’s just the way of things. Things happen, and you just get on with it.
“We’ve managed to add to the squad (with de Jong), which is great for us as a team. The players within the dressing room know how hard we’ve worked this season to get to the position we’re in – we’re not going to throw it all away now.
“There’s no reason why we can’t keep moving forwards. Yes, it’s going to be a blow losing someone like that (Cabaye), but life goes on and the players who are here step up and hopefully fill their boots and move onwards and upwards.”
One of the players to have immediately benefited from Cabaye’s departure is Ameobi’s younger brother, Sammy, who stepped up to make his first start of the season at Norwich four days ago.
The 21-year-old proved extremely effective on the left-hand side, and will hope to retain his place to ensure both Ameobi brothers start a derby together for the first time.
“It’s been a long time coming for him,” said Shola. “He’s had to wait a long time for his chance, and I’m sure there have been frustrating periods for him. But you could see on Tuesday that he really wanted to show what he could do.
“I’m just pleased for him because he’s worked very hard without too many opportunities. He’s had to keep his head down and he did that. He got his reward with a start at Norwich, and produced a fantastic performance which he can be proud of. Hopefully, he can build on it because he needs games and, when you see him play like that, you never know how far he could go.”