As we continue to worry and fight over our club’s very name, it’s gratifying to be able to use Premier League football as a distraction as well as the usual source of hedonistic weekend activity, and there are few better away trips in the game than a jaunt to St James’ Park.
The lunchtime strippers in child-friendly pubs, the ludicrous vertigo, palpitation and cramp inducing quantity of stairs to the away end, the enjoyable confusion over whether the Toon’s chronic lack of honours entitles them to the “big club” status they and others claim, all contribute to a fine footballing day. And now we have a Northumberland son in charge, a man turned down by his boyhood club as a youth and forced to go to Gillingham instead, ready to take on this latest challenge.
Steve Bruce has much time for Newcastle United, a reason why Sunderland fans didn’t especially take to him even when things slightly further south than tomorrow’s venue were going well for him. He’s always been conscious of keeping his Geordie accent and mannerisms and never tires of detailing how he used to sneak into St James’ Park as a kid and dreamed of playing for them while kicking centre forwards in the air for the famous Wallsend Boys Club.
So this occasion will be a mega one for him. It is for City too, as we’ve yet to get a point or even a goal on the road, but so far we’ve only been to Chelsea and Manchester City, where defeat was expected and we got away with pride and only minor damage to the goal difference.
Newcastle, despite their excellence two seasons ago that got them to fifth, are only just recovering from a year that festered like a sore, with in-fighting, injuries, a distracting European campaign and the sale to Chelsea of their best centre forward all nearly getting them relegated last season. They have since also re-appointed Joe Kinnear, a man who boasted about his contacts book and the signings he could get as a result, prior to acquiring no permanent signings at all. Then they had to do without their most gifted player as his commitment was questioned while Arsenal declared an interest. Things seemed to be sinking towards a depth that would drown lesser clubs, but finally the put-upon manager Alan Pardew claims to have everyone fit whom he needs, and they were tremendous in winning at Aston Villa last week.
City go into the game needing to make changes. They are enforced, thanks to Robert Koren’s sickeningly-timed broken foot and a compassionate period of absence afforded to Maynor Figueroa. Presumably a long-awaited return for Joe Dudgeon as a like-for-like replacement for the Honduran is in the offing, as none of the current back-up defenders can play at left back, but replacing Koren represents more of a dilemma. George Boyd will feel like he has a claim to stake, having looked sharp in his substitute appearances, but Stephen Quinn was really good against Cardiff City last week and may be the safer option for a difficult away game. Then there’s Yannick Sagbo, back after his three-match ban, and his involvement will hinge on how forgiving Bruce is and how attacking he wants his side to be.
The omens are good, should you believe in them. There have been only three League games between the two at St James’ Park since World War II, and City have won two of them, including the last one in September 2008 courtesy of Marlon King’s brace and Newcastle fans’ emphasis that day on protesting to their owners rather than cheering on their team. Mind you, their team was dreadful – and Kinnear was in charge of it.
Bookies have 5/6 on a home win and City’s odds of getting all three points are at 10/3, with the draw at 5/2. It is the kind of game which will give City a truly clear indication of how up for the challenge they are.