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Aug 8, 2014

Land of the sleeping giants

Alan Pardew and Gus Poyet shake hands during a derby last season -- Sunderland did the double.

When Sunderland supporters raised 22,000 pounds for the families of John Adler and Liam Sweeney, the two Newcastle United fans who were killed in the Malaysian Airlines crash, it brought a welcome respite to the poisonous hostility that has characterized the relationship between the two great north-east rivals. In the face of genuine tragedy, both sets of supporters put aside partisanship and acknowledged that -- on balance -- they have more in common than they had previously been willing to admit.

To the outsider that has always been starkly obvious. Leaving aside geographical proximity, both are traditional clubs with immense hardcore support (Newcastle had the third-highest average attendance in the Premier League last season, Sunderland the seventh) coupled with a bleak history of underachievement. In the past they have been described as "sleeping giants." Forty-plus years without a major trophy looks less like a snooze and more like a coma.

Yet until relatively recently, optimism levels at St James' Park remained so high visitors might have been forgiven for thinking somebody was putting Prozac in the beer. That has now changed. As one Geordie with 40 years' service to the cause told me at the start of the 2011-12 campaign, "This is the first season I actually don't expect us to win something." Nothing has happened since to change his feelings.

On Wearside the approach has been downbeat for longer. Sunderland have not threatened to breach the upper deck of the Premier League since the young Kevin Phillips was banging in goals following their move from the club's old home, Roker Park. Still, with a wonderful new stadium and resolute support, they might have anticipated something better than to spend season after season not so much flirting with relegation as rolling round on the floor kissing it.

For two sets of fans so starved for trophies that even the Intertoto Cup had started to look like a banquet, last season offered few crumbs of comfort. Gus Poyet's men redeemed themselves late on with a relegation escape that was almost as surprising as the fact that loanee Liverpool misfit Fabio Borini was the star of it, while Newcastle's form plummeted with eyeball-popping force after the sale of Yohan Cabaye to PSG.

The Magpies' grim finish -- they failed to score in 12 of their matches since the turn of the year -- was played out to city-centre protests against owner Mike Ashley, who has pulled off the apparently impossible task of making supporters pine for the good old days of Freddie "Geordie women are dogs" Shepherd.

Emmanuel Riviere in action for Newcastle during preseason against Huddersfield.

Newcastle are now the Premier League's most uncommunicative club, pursuing a policy of silence that makes a Trappist monk seem like Joey Barton. As a consequence, even the local press -- once the ownership's de facto mouthpiece -- have turned against the regime, offering support to rebel fans eager to stage an improbable buyout. Amid the frenzy, it's sometimes hard to remember that there's football going on at St James' Park. Alan Pardew may not be the favourite of some Newcastle fans, but his ability to focus on the job in such chaotic circumstances is surely worthy of respect.

A tip of the cap too to Newcastle's scouting network. Headed by Graham Carr, it has managed to uncover one gem after another. The summer has seen a number of intriguing signings: poodle-haired Monaco striker Emmanuel Riviere, attacking midfielder Remy Cabella from Montpellier, whose comment that he "hoped Newcastle would win a trophy" had a tinge of realism to it, and the Argentine forward Facundo Ferreyra. The latter has been brought in on loan from Shakhtar Donetsk, where he spent most of his time looking cold and forlorn. The 23-year-old is gifted, mobile and deft in possession, but his failure to force his way into the starting XI may not inspire confidence.

In a deal typical of business at St James' in recent years, Dutch international full-back Daryl Janmaat came in for 5 million pounds only after Mathieu Debuchy had been sold to Arsenal for 12 million pounds. Newcastle are a club where no player is "untouchable." Ashley is a retail king; the pitch is a shop window. Everyone in black-and-white is for sale at the right price.

Pardew has proclaimed himself pleased with the summer's business and happy that he now has more creative and attacking power. In the end, however, if Newcastle are to make progress on the field, it is peace and quiet off it that they desperately need. Given their recent history nobody would guarantee that.

Ten miles or so to the south-east, Sunderland supporters might be expected to be in a more positive state of mind than their black-and-white counterparts. For them last season began with the disaster of Paolo Di Canio -- whose combination of sartorial style and brutal man-management appeared to have been inspired by Christian Bale's performance in "American Psycho" -- and ended in that extraordinary Borini-inspired flourish.

Fabio Borini, who scored in both Premier League meetings last season, celebrates at the Stadium of Light.

When you have taken 13 points from your last five games, beating Chelsea and Manchester United along the way, you are entitled to approach the new campaign with an optimistic bounce. With Poyet now firmly in charge, the opportunity to create a team playing the sort of progressive, attacking football the Uruguayan masterminded at Brighton is surely a possibility.

The squad he inherited was a mess. The mercurial Di Canio had -- in a mere six months -- booted out 15 players and brought in 14 new ones. Of the latter, the majority failed to make more than half-a-dozen appearances, while Jozy Altidore scored a single Premier League goal in 30 outings, ending the season playing for the under-21 side.

Quick rebuilding seemed the priority, but the close season saw momentum slow to a pace Per Mertesacker would be comfortable with. Hero Borini stalled over making his move from Liverpool permanent, and the signing of another successful loanee, Argentine defender Santiago Vergini dragged on for weeks. The addition of left-back Patrick van Aanholt, who spent most of his five years at Chelsea elsewhere, 27-year-old full-back Billy Jones from West Brom and Jordi Gomez on a free from Wigan, meanwhile, were the sort of decaffeinated buys unlikely to set supporters' pulses racing.

By the end of July, Poyet was demanding action. New director of football Lee Congerton obliged by securing the services of former Everton wonder boy Jack Rodwell from Manchester City. The attacking midfielder is not the first England international to find his career hitting the buffers at the Etihad. At the Stadium of Light he can compare notes with another one: winger Adam Johnson. Assuming Rodwell can recapture the form of his Goodison days, he appears a solid investment.

Looking on from the stands will be Sunderland's owner, Irish-American Ellis Short. The London-based financier took total control in May 2009. At times his surname has appeared an adequate description of his patience levels. Poyet is the club's fourth manager during his reign, so pressure seems guaranteed. The Uruguayan, whose departure from Brighton after a successful spell was abrupt and shrouded in mystery, will need time. Whether he will get it is the big question.

Unfortunately, a lack of stability is another of things Newcastle and Sunderland have in common.

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