The new season – the time for optimism, hopes, expectation and – dare I say it – even dreams for football fans up and down the country. Well, almost.
Football is an essential part of life in the North East but it remains a region seemingly shrouded by a footballing curse. Middlesbrough’s 2004 League Cup success was yesterday compared to the last time either of the true powerhouses of the region tasted genuine success.
Sunderland and Newcastle have 10 First Division titles and 8 FA Cups between them and yet when Sunderland suffered their 7th consecutive Wembley heartache against Charlton in the 2019 League One play-off final, they moved second on the list of sides with the worst existing runs at Wembley, behind – well, have a guess…Newcastle United.
Newcastle Looking to Break Trophy Duck
Following the collapse of (another) supposed takeover bid and the realisation that Newcastle wouldn’t be signing Kylian Mbappe any time soon, an expected air of misery set in on Tyneside.
The signing of Jeff Hendrick appeared to suggest that free transfers and loans were to be the order of the day for the Magpies.
However, the arrival of a new striker in Callum Wilson has the potential to lift the gloom. The England international has an unquestionable goal record and an equally unquestionable injury record, making his acquisition an undoubted gamble for a side whose top scorer last season was Miguel Almiron with a measly eight.
Early signs are, well, mixed. As is so typical with all three clubs in the region, the next outpouring of anger and misery is always just around the corner. Success at West Ham and League Cup progression past Blackburn, was, naturally, followed by Bruce’s men finding themselves 2-0 down at home to Brighton inside 8 minutes of their second league game of the campaign.
The Brighton result aside, Newcastle’s two wins from four is good going from a side who must beat the teams around them if they are to make progress.
However, in a major break from the general pattern in English football, the league is arguably a secondary concern. The Toon find themselves in the quarter-finals of the League cup following draws against lower-league opposition, with a tie against Championship Brentford between them and the semi-finals.
Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup success over Leeds remains the last major trophy to come to either club. This represents a major chance to change that.
Middlesbrough Must Improve on Miserable Campaign
Much to their fury, the Teesiders are cast in the role of the boy who wants his older brothers to notice him, and this season smacks of another term of distinct indistinction for the Riverside club. Which, if football had ever been a game for realistic expectations, would probably be seen as acceptable.
There were times last season when it seemed what was then Jonathan Woodgate’s side were desperate to get to play Sunderland in League One. Survival came with the arrival of Neil Warnock at a cost of a return to the unsightly football the locals became so averse to during the Karanka era.
The impetus will be on getting the best out of inconsistent frontman Britt Assombalonga. The arrival of Chuba Akpom won’t excite many in spite of a debut goal against Barnsley, but Sam Morsy from crisis-club Wigan looks a decent bit of business, especially given the loss of a major leader in the form of club captain George Friend.
Warnock, in spite of the somewhat brutal nature of his approach, is a promotion specialist, but doubts have to remain over whether the Boro have the quality to compete with those likely to be setting the pace.
Sunderland Need More Guile to Escape League One Exile
As the club sets off on the third leg of its League One odyssey, the general pessimism is mixed with an understanding that this season has to be the year.
The introduction of a salary cap has been seriously problematic to the club and these restrictions will only become more punishing when existing players’ deals expire.
Phil Parkinson’s men have started well enough, with a frustrating 1-1 home draw with a poor Bristol Rovers side being followed by wins over perennial promotion challengers Oxford and Peterborough, in spite of some questionable performances allowing the eternal negativity at the club to continue to linger.
Ultimately, once again, the campaign likely rests on getting the best out of Will Grigg – the most obvious answer to the above problems. If Grigg is scoring goals, Sunderland are almost certain to go up. In spite of this, the Northern Irishman has been a fixture on the bench since that opening draw, but displays since have at least shown a sign of a way of playing that was so badly missing last term.
Sunderland have sat back and watched Luton and their marauding fullbacks and Coventry and their stifling midfield ‘box’ system claim titles since their relegation to the division. Simply, the quality at League One level is poor and the ability of coaches and their teams to adapt limited, so teams with a system thrive.
Sunderland have demonstrated a clear desire to whip balls into opposition boxes at the end of neat passing moves designed to overload opponents down the left-hand side, making use of the positivity and crossing capability of left-wing back Denver Hume.
At the other end, the Black Cats are undoubtedly hard to break down, having let in just 1 league goal all season – a penalty at that – so the campaign will live or die by what happens in the other box.
Overall, even if a conversation with the football lovers of the North East would not reveal it, there are reasons to have quiet optimism to conceal for all three this term. And besides, when things inevitably start going badly, someone else’s next bout of misfortune is always closer than you could ever imagine.
Image: Walt Jabsco via Creative Commons