Belfast Telegraph

Bragging rights vital to Martin O'Neill as Sunderland face Newcastle

By Martin Hardy

On Martin O'Neill's CV is five years' worth of dealing with Rangers-Celtic and everything that particular fixture brings with it.

It does not guarantee anything ahead of the first Newcastle-Sunderland fixture he has ever attended, but it will not hurt. The ground rules in these tribal affairs are fairly generic.

"I never looked behind me [at Ibrox]," he said. "You felt everybody was just ready to gouge your eyes out so I stayed focused with what was in front, even when the ball went behind me so I never went to retrieve it.

"It's nearly upon us [the north-east derby] and it's a big game, there's no getting away from that but I genuinely feel the same about most matches. I get very concerned about them beforehand, which is a euphemism about being very nervous. It's a big game we're in for.

"I don't think you really can downplay it to the players. They're well aware of it, no matter how much you say it's another game, it isn't another game. We've 12 games left and we need more points on the board, Newcastle are going for Europe and need more points. We've lost two straight in the league so it's important we get something on the board."

He knows the importance that a win can bring, about the momentum it can give a football club. Sunderland lost 5-1 to Newcastle at St James' Park last season and the result is still important. In O'Neill's first derby north of the border Celtic beat Rangers 6-2.

"It shaped the season despite the fact that in the following derby we were well beaten by Rangers but because we'd finished 20 points behind the previous year it gave us a lot of confidence and belief and even when they beat us in the second game it didn't affect us in a negative sense.

"Those derbies were great preparation for this. This is a very big game itself so I think that if you've been involved in these games it can help in terms of trying to settle you and conveying that to the players, but that might be something else.

"Newcastle have done very well this season and when you look at their players, we really shouldn't be wildly surprised about that. They have some very fine players. We've obviously had our own trials and tribulations this season and we're trying to fight back and would obviously like to be as strong as them and hopefully in time we will be."

O'Neill grew up as a Sunderland fan but he was in Northern Ireland. The peculiarities of a regional rivalry have only become apparent with a greater grasp of the north-east.

"I didn't grow up with all the hype and furore around the place. If I'd lived here I'd have understood it more," he added. "I was reasonably young, 11-plus time and I can't really remember as much but then I probably didn't regard Newcastle as being the massive foe that they were.

"I hate to stay this, but it might have been to do with geography as well in a sense that at 11 I knew where Siberia was but I wasn't sure where Hetton-le-Hole was. I know exactly where it is now, though.

"It's a really passionate area the north-east, it used to be the hotbed of football, some of the best players that have ever played the game have emerged from here."

Belfast Telegraph


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