Sam Allardyce was keen to make a sharp exit on Friday morning. The Sunderland manager had just been asked to confirm or deny whether he had the sort of “break clause” in his contract which Rafael Benitez has at Newcastle United.
“None of your business,” Allardyce said, heading for the door. “I’m not going to tell you that.”
Allardyce was smiling as he spoke but the question is a serious one. They have been staging this North-east derby since 1888, when the home team today were known as Newcastle East End, but there have been claims that this, the 151st meeting, is the biggest yet. The futures of the two managers are part of that claim.
The anxious feeling on both Tyneside and Wearside is that should there be a victor this afternoon, the loser will be relegated in May.
There is a general acceptance that one of the North-east pair will drop, which begs the question whether Benitez or Allardyce will stay in such circumstances? Break clauses suggest not.
For either club that would mean a third manager in 12 months, and would the likes of Newcastle’s Gini Wijnaldum or Sunderland’s Yann M’Vila play in the Championship?
What about the economics of missing next season in the Premier League? Allardyce spoke of the chaos of possible redundancies among non-playing staff at a club where the chief executive, Margaret Byrne, has just resigned and a now former player, Adam Johnson, will probably receive a prison sentence next week.
Given that each club will have eight League games left to save themselves after today, this can seem like a frenzy of extrapolation, but Newcastle and Sunderland are averaging less than a point per game and anxiety rules.
“It’s always a disaster if you lose, but especially on Sunday it will be more difficult,” said Benitez, though his tone was not as dramatic as the word disaster implied. “I don’t think that will happen so I stay positive. But we have to be sure that we are ready for the next one if something goes wrong.”
We must keep control of our emotions. Forget trying to be Roy of the Rovers
It’s been going wrong for some time at St James’ Park. Benitez is nine days into the job but he has already witnessed a 1-0 defeat at Leicester. It was a fourth consecutive Newcastle loss, during which time they have scored two goals and conceded 10. Over the last 38 league games, Newcastle have 28 points. They could do with Papiss Cissé back, and he may be. Then there is the derby record – Sunderland have won the last six.
Benitez said he is undecided as to whether he will go on the pitch to receive a club welcome before what will be his first home game. His style is more restrained, he said. He also said he is yet to meet owner Mike Ashley.
Yet such an introduction would aid the “wall of noise” Benitez has requested from home fans, and should that materialise it will contrast with the barrage of resentment that Steve McClaren would have felt.
Allardyce experienced some of that during his eight months at St James’ in 2007 and he said his team’s first aim today will be to neutralise the home crowd.
“My job is to keep the Newcastle fans as quiet as I possibly can,” he said. “Our level of performance can control the atmosphere.
“Players react to atmosphere, they’re emotional. It can be good, as long as you keep control. [But] you can lose emotional control and tear around like a lunatic, take a corner then try to head it in like Roy of the Rovers. Forget Roy of the Rovers.”
“Strange” was Benitez’s overall assessment of the two clubs’ ongoing underachievement. By stressing tactical awareness, emotional coolness and downplaying their previous personal rivalry, he and Allardyce have done their best to suck the air from a North-east derby-day balloon everyone else is pumping up.