For the second successive season running, Northern England’s two famous clubs – Newcastle United and Sunderland – are involved in a relegation dog fight. Swansea City have confirmed their safety after beating Liverpool 3-1 at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday lunch time. West Brom, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth are likely to stay up as well.
As it stands, it’s between Norwich City, Newcastle and Sunderland, the relegation battle will go down to the wire, and any two of them will move to the Championship along with Aston Villa.
Newcastle are an iconic club, and Premier League without them is simply unthinkable. However, a combination of poor administration, ridiculous transfer policy, and board members’ gradual distancing of themselves with the loyal fan base has created a claustrophobic atmosphere at Tyneside. Newcastle fans do not demand their team to fight for the title or qualify for the Champions League spot – they simply want their players to play with passion and do justice to the club’s iconic black and white shirt. Sadly, the players (and to a large extent the managers) have failed to meet this little-but-justified demand from the fans in the past few seasons.
For instance, Steve McClaren, had failed to provide any stability at the club during his stint as a manager earlier this season. The confidence within the team under him had hit rock bottom. At one of point, it felt like Newcastle’s fate had been sealed to the Championship. However, a few good results under Rafael Benitez have given the team and the fans a fresh new hope. The appointment of Rafa was a bit strange one. Just like the club itself, the Spaniard’s managerial career has dwindled from one extreme to another. After enjoying a successful spell with Liverpool, he went on to manage Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid, but hasn’t been able to influence his authority at any aforementioned clubs for a longer period.
The Tyne-Wear derby has been England’s one of the most prestigious rivalries, one that has shaped an identity of both Newcastle and Sunderland throughout their history. Newcastle have slightly dominated this fixture, but nowadays, the derby hardly adds any real significance to the league. It has now become a symbol of mere survival for the two clubs.
Sunderland, just like their derby rivals, have been going through a turbulent period at the club over the past few seasons. Money probably is not a factor, especially with rich sums pouring in due to increased TV rights, but poor administration has been largely responsible behind their stagnation. Since 2011/12, arguably their best season in recent years, five managers have been replaced with limited success and the club have narrowly survived relegation in each of their last three seasons.
Under Sam Allardyce, a marked improvement has taken place since the turn of the year. Where the Black Cats suffered seven defeats out of 10 matches during December-January, they have restricted it to three defeats only since February. The recent form has been impressive as well, with the Black Cats having lost only once in their last eight matches.
To be fair, this has become a common trait for Sunderland. They usually finish the season on a high. In 2011/12, they finished 13th in the league with 45 points. Since then, they have not been able to break the 40-points barrier. They had 39 in 2012/13, 38 in 2013/14 and 38 again in 2014/15. What has been surprising is they have always bounced back when it seemed like they are certain to go down. In 2014/15 they managed 2 wins and 3 draws in their last six matches, and the season before they had four wins and a draw in their last six games, as they successfully avoided the drop.
Sunderland have a great chance of staying up this season, should the average relegation point remains at or below 35. The same can’t be said about Newcastle.
The Magpies nearly qualified for Champions League in 2011/12 under Alan Pardew, after finishing 5th with 65 points, 20 points more than Sunderland. Since then, there has been a sharp decline. In 2012/13, they finished 16th with 41 points, two points above Sunderland! Talk of a drastic decline; probably you won’t get a better example than that. The 2013/14 season was an aberration, where they finished 10th, but old syndrome resurfaced as they finished 15th last season on 39 points, just one point and a place above Sunderland.
Quite opposite to their local rivals, Newcastle always seem to lose focus towards the end of the season. They somehow avoided relegation in 2012/13, when they defeated QPR 2-1 on the penultimate week. The following season, they suffered seven defeats in their last eight games. And in 2014/15, they had nine defeats out of their final 11 matches.
From that perspective, the Magpies have done reasonably well under Rafa. They are playing as a unit and the results have started to improve. Probably, it’s too late now. With two wins and two draws in their last four games, they are currently just above the relegation zone, but having played a game more than both Sunderland and Norwich their safety is far from guaranteed.
Newcastle face Aston Villa in their next match, a game they should pick up full three points. The Villans are relegated already and have lost 12 games in a row, following their 3-2 defeat against Watford on Saturday. The Magpies will end their 2015/16 campaign against Tottenham at home. If the Premier League title race rolls on to the last day (highly unlikely) then it should be a cracker of a game where anything can happen. However, if Leicester City are crowned Champions beforehand, Mauricio Pochettino may field a weaker team at St James’ Park, allowing Newcastle to pick up valuable points.
The two teams who are certain to play a crucial role in determining the fate of the relegation battle are Everton and Watford. Both Norwich and Sunderland will face them, and the outcomes of those matches will decide their futures.
It is almost certain that either of the two Northern clubs will go down at the end of the season, or if the luck runs out, both of them may find their fate in the second tier of English football in 2016/17.