I hate derby day. I hate the build-up and I hate the game itself. I’m not sure what this says about me but every time it looms on the horizon I’d happily scrub it from the fixture list and accept a draw. I realise that for a lot of people the very reasons I give for dreading the game are the same reasons they love it. My fear of defeat might be your fizz-popping excitement at the thought of winning. The heart-in-mouth agony and pessimism I go through during the game itself may well translate as fired-up venomous passion for you.
I see it as something of a personal Achilles Heel. I am, after all, a statistician. A comprehensive geek with a brain fuelled by numbers. When I watch us play I constantly have a collection of league table permutations jostling for position depending on how all of that day’s games are going. I don’t do this on purpose, you understand. It’s just the way my brain is wired. So, in theory, I should be able to apply a bit of logic to an impending derby game and accept that, in league table terms, it’s just another three points to play for.
Yet supporting a team is an emotional process and it becomes so tribal and all-encompassing that it’s hard to apply any logic. There are plenty of other teams out there that I truly hate. Liverpool, for example. I can’t ever imagine supporting them. On reflection, cocaine would probably help. That inflated sense of importance based on the square root of fuck all would come in handy. Chuck in a bit of petulance, some rampant paranoia and it’s job done.
I’m not overly keen on Chelsea either. Or West Ham. Or Manchester City, Everton, Villa.. it’s a long old list when I stop to think about it. Yet when we come to play these teams, once the game kicks off it’s all about NUFC. I pay very little attention to them or their fans.
However, when we take on Sunderland it’s different. I accept it’s not one of the “big” world-recognised derbies that some people up here would like to think. I expect most of the rest of the country views our little local squabble in the same way we might look at a non-entity of a fixture such as Birmingham v Villa or Liverpool v Everton. No trophies ever hinge on these dire games nowadays. However when you’re looking at two clubs who, between them, have won NOTHING for 40 long years, the sheer importance of local bragging rights is there for all to see. Our rivalry, at times, feels like all we have!
Yes, for spells in the last 20 years or so we’ve occasionally tarted ourselves up a bit, competed with the big boys, swanned around Europe, while Sunderland played their spurned lover role to perfection. Shrieking like bairns while we had the nerve to look beyond the confines of the North East and attempted to win a real trophy. Not the fabled “North East Top Dogs Trophy” that has a Halley’s Comet-like existence, appearing only on the rare occasions Sunderland finish above us. But there’s no denying we are now both very much back in 80s mode. Two teams with no prospect of winning anything preparing to lock horns like a pair of three-legged elderly stags. And that’s not a metaphor I use lightly. Or often.
Anyway, I digress. I apologise. Here I am wittering on about Newcastle and Sunderland when this was supposed to be an in-depth session of psychological self-analysis.
I decided to address my hatred and fear of the derby game. I need to use logic and rock-solid statistical proof to reassure myself that this fixture is not to be dreaded.
On paper we are better than them all over the pitch. We’re scoring goals and we’ve got some excellent attacking players in good form. They’ve got an incredibly slow defence (I’d be tempted to compare them to a collection of three-legged elderly stags if I hadn’t used that metaphor already) in terrible form that would appear to be there for the taking.
Recent history is very much on our side. We’ve won 12 of the last 25 derby games. They’ve won 4. The fact that they won the last one means that they’ve had their blip/fluke for the time being and another one isn’t due for a good 2 or 3 years.
They have a new manager in place. As we discovered back in April the “new manager bounce” is something to be wary of. However, given that Gus Poyet literally lost his previous job for (allegedly) shitting in the opposition dressing room I’d be surprised if they experience another such “bounce”. Would anyone in their right mind seriously encourage any bounce-related behaviour from someone when there’s such an obvious risk of, for want of a better term, “splatter impact”?
On a similarly distasteful note, we have the prospect of the home fans to consider here. The “cauldron of noise”. The fervent atmosphere whipped up by Sunderland fans could intimidate our fragrant, delicate continental players and put them off their game. In fact, they have a set of fans so dispirited by their dismal start to the season that there are still tickets available for the game. This is usually their only sell-out of any season so we’re clearly looking at a deep despair here. When we arrived in similar circumstances and cuffed them 4-1 in 2006, the speed with which they collectively gave up and walked out suggests we’re only an early goal away from silencing them on Sunday, allowing us to enjoy the atmosphere of a home game as our fans make all the noise.
All of the statistics are in our favour. There should be nothing to fear and yet I’m still dreading it. Which probably demonstrates that you can never prove anything with statistics. I should know. I’m a statistician.
Author: Paul McIntosh
Follow Paul on Twitter @mcintoshpaul
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