SUNDERLAND'S home defeat to Newcastle in August proved to be a defining moment in the club's season and Martin O'Neill believes the outcome of tomorrow's Tyne-Wear derby will have a big influence on how his side perform in the run in.
The 1-0 defeat in the second game of the season triggered off a difficult few months for the Wearsiders, which ultimately cost Steve Bruce his job.
A few months down the line and the resurgent Black Cats have enjoyed considerable success under O'Neill, who has managed his side to seven wins in the Premier League and a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
Defeat at St James' Park tomorrow could hamper their push for a top eight finish, but on the other hand a win could provide a further push towards emulating last season's tenth-placed finish.
To do that though, Sunderland must overcome a hideous record on Tyneside, where they haven't won for over a decade and O'Neill admits the result could play a big part in the remainder of the season.
"The first derby did shape the season, I don't disagree with that at all," O'Neill said.
"They picked up great confidence from winning that and it was considered a really poor result here by the fans and led to a topsy turvy time.
"If Newcastle trace their season back to that game, I wouldn't disagree with that. I'm usually one to talk about defining moments, and maybe at the end of the season we can look at it more as a defining moment.
"We've 12 games left and we need more points on the board, Newcastle are going for Europe and need more points. We've lost two straight in the league so it's important we get something on the board."
Despite growing up as a Sunderland supporter, O'Neill admits he has never been to a Tyne-Wear derby.
But, having spent five years in charge at Celtic the Northern Irishman is well equipped to deal with the hostile environment of a derby.
O'Neill guided Celtic to a 6-2 win in his first Old Firm derby, but having been on the receiving end of defeats at Ibrox, the Sunderland boss says he won't have a problem with the treatment he expects to get from Newcastle fans.
He said: "I never looked behind me at Ibrox. You felt everybody was just ready to gouge your eyes out so I stayed focused with what was in front, even when the ball went behind me so I never went to retrieve it.
"Those derbies were great preparation for this. This is a very big game itself so I think that if you've been involved in these games it can help in terms of trying to settle you and conveying that to the players, but that might be something else.
"I didn't grow up with all the hype and furore around the place, if I'd lived here I'd have understood it more. I was reasonably young, 11-plus and I can't really remember as much but then I probably didn't regard Newcastle a being the massive foe as they were.
"I hate to stay this, but it might have been to do with geography as
well in a sense that at 11 I knew where Siberia was but I wasn't sure where Hetton-le-Hole was.
"I know exactly where it is now, though. It's a really passionate area the North-East, it used to be the hotbed of football, some of the best players that have ever played the game have emerged from here."
Sunderland's international players returned to training yesterday morning, but Stephane Sessegnon wasn't expected back on Wearside until today.
That could be a deciding factor in whether O'Neill starts the Benin international, who has endured an 8000-mile round trip to play in an African Cup of Nations qualifier with Ethiopia.
Phil Bardsley remains a doubt to play at St James' Park after he pulled out of Scotland's friendly against Slovenia with a calf injury, but Frazier Campbell is expected to play after what has been a whirlwind week for the striker.
Having spent 18 months out with a knee injury, Campbell earned his first cap for England in Wednesday night's defeat to Holland, while girlfriend Emma gave birth to daughter Isla Rose at the same time.
It was a dramatic day for the former Manchester United trainee, who had to make the difficult decision to miss the birth of his first child, but the striker hopes the good news will continue tomorrow.
"I am gutted to have missed the birth of my first child but at the same time if I'd have left she might have been born the day afterwards and I'd have been gutted not to have got the chance to play for England," he said.
"I have had 18 months of missing football through injury and I will always be there for my daughter. I could get injured and never have the chance to play for England again and that would have been playing on my mind.
"Everyone keeps telling me that these things come along in threes, so hopefully tomorrow can be the third one.
"I've never played in a derby so I'm looking forward to it and I know all the other lads are as well.
"I've missed three derbies through injury during my time here so I'm looking forward to my first one. It's been tough watching them from the sidelines."