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Scott Wilson Column: Why the need for a derby win is greater on Wearside
IT is a game that means more than any other, reawakening a rivalry that has endured through the years. It is a match that defines a season, perhaps even a career, creating heroes on one side of the Wear-Tyne divide and villains on the other. It is a regional skirmish with far-reaching ramifications.
The derby game between Sunderland and Newcastle is invariably a maelstrom of emotions, evoking joy, despair and every conceivable feeling in between.
For the supporters of the two clubs involved, it is the first instalment in a double-header that casts the rest of the campaign into shadow. Win the other 36 games and that's fantastic – lose the two against 'that lot from up or down the road', and everything else becomes largely irrelevant.
In this part of the world, it is the be all and end all, yet as the 146th derby draws near, it is possible to draw a distinction between the two sides involved.
All derbies are equal, but some are more equal than others. This time around, it feels as though the need for a win is greater on Wearside than it is on the banks of the Tyne.
It almost feels like heresy to suggest that Sunderland supporters will place greater stock in the events that unfold on Sunday lunch-time, but recent history dictates that to be the case.
That is not to suggest that the black-and-white pain will be in any way diminished if the hosts prevail in two days time, but when it comes to the derby-day balance sheet, Newcastle kick off with plentiful deposits in the bank.
Sunderland's recent record, on the other hand, is wretched. The Black Cats have won just one of the last 15 derby matches, and while memories of Kieran Richardson's free-kick winner in 2008 remain vivid, they are insufficient to ward off accusations of regional inferiority.
One in 15. It is a statistic that chills a red-and-white heart. The current Sunderland squad does not contain a single player that has been involved in a victory over Newcastle. Phil Bardsley was an unused substitute four seasons ago, but on the other side of the divide, ten of the 11 Newcastle players who kicked off last August's Stadium of Light success are still at the club.
Sunderland supporters have had to become accustomed to derby deflation, but familiarity does not breed content. Every disappointment hurts just as much as the last, indeed some have been so painful they have changed the course of the club's history.
The derby certainly did for Steve Bruce, with two days in particular helping to hasten his demise by making his position as manager untenable.
The Halloween humiliation in 2010 was a humbling experience for all involved, but it was particularly painful for Bruce, whose Northumberland roots and boyhood affinity towards Newcastle were always going to make his first match against the Magpies an emotionally-heightened affair.
He vowed there would be no repeat of the embarrassment, and rather than playing down the significance of the occasion, opted to crank things up further ahead of last August's renewal at the Stadium of Light.
There was talk of Sunderland reclaiming regional bragging rights, of a special song that would be played to mark the victory. Ryan Taylor's free-kick winner meant it went unheard, and Bruce's reputation lay in tatters.
The current Hull boss has subsequently claimed his black-and-white roots meant he was never given a chance on Wearside. That is nonsense, but by attempting to use the derby to dispel any hint of lingering affinity to Newcastle, Bruce was effectively hung by his own petard. You dice with the derby at your peril.
All of which leads us to Martin O'Neill ahead of this weekend. There is no question of split loyalties with the Northern Irishman, who used to sneak a transistor radio into bed in order to listen to the commentary on Sunderland matches, but there is still the potential for the derby to cause untold damage.
Ten months into O'Neill's reign and the jury is still out. He started like a house on fire, and his side have only suffered one defeat all season. Yet a tally of one league win since March is alarming, and there have been murmurings about Sunderland's functionality in the opening three months of the campaign.
It would be overplaying things slightly to suggest Sunday's game will be a defining moment for O'Neill, but there is no doubt that a maiden derby victory would enhance his status at a stroke and guarantee his saintly status in the eyes of the Sunderland fans.
Defeat? It's hard to know what the ramifications might be, but it took the Black Cats the best part of four months to shake off last season's home reverse so a repeat could potentially destabilise a campaign that could still go either of two ways.
A poor result could prove similarly unsettling to Newcastle, but it would not fuel quite the same narrative of underachievement.
Wearside is worried, Tyneside tense. Let the nail-biting begin.
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