Heart Of Football

Football derbies are tough enough without the threat of the drop

How is your stamina, and your appetite for English derby contests? There are back-to-back derbies on TV this evening, and the stakes could hardly be higher.

The Manchester clubs, City and United, meet in what the Red Devils' manager Louis van Gaal admits is do-or-die for his club in terms of league position.

Drawing is the poorest option for either of them. But win or lose, both clubs will spend hundreds of millions next season - City having already decided that Manuel Pellegrini will be replaced by Pep Guardiola as coach.

It really does come down to money, and a top-four finish, because the kind of players the Manchesters (and their overseas owners) want will only come if they are guaranteed Champions League exposure. So the stress levels at the Etihad Stadium have, if that is possible, even higher intensity than in the parochial bragging rights that began in 1881.

Yet, I'm going to go out on a limb here and put it to you that Manchester's set-to is quite normal, less important, than the collision that precedes it at Newcastle.

North-east folk live for the Tyne-Wear annual dogfights between their clubs. It always matters to people who are neighbours, but have no other team in their cities to follow. This time, it matters more... One or other, maybe even both, could end up going down, and with the new TV deal about to kick in, relegation will cost an extraordinary £120 million (S$236 million) per club, per season.

Take it from me, north-east folk live for the Tyne-Wear annual dogfights between their clubs. It always matters to people who are neighbours, but have no other team in their cities to follow.

This time, it matters more. "We are in massive danger of getting relegated," says Sam Allardyce, the Sunderland manager. "And it's the worst-ever season to do so."

One or other, maybe even both, could end up going down, and with the new TV deal about to kick in, relegation will cost an extraordinary £120 million (S$236 million) per club, per season.

How do you begin to replace that sum? How do the relegated clubs hold what players they have, let alone attract anyone better to play in the league below the EPL?

Allardyce, again: "Two sets of players and two clubs are fighting for their lives. We are fighting for our survival, and not just for ourselves, but everyone at our clubs. If we don't fight enough and we don't stay in this league, then we lose the employees here.

"We are trying to look after everybody who is employed by the football club."

Make that the clubs, plural.

Sunderland panicked and brought in Allardyce, a specialist in avoiding relegation, when they fired Dick Advocaat just eight games into this season.

Allardyce has rattled his sabre in the direction of a few laggards who thought they could play below full throttle for the Black Cats. But he hasn't, yet, saved their status and particularly away from home, Sunderland have leaked goals at an alarming rate.

When he gives out the message of scarping for survival, it can be a dangerous thing to direct towards Lee Cattermole whose red mist, red card, record has quietened a bit since he amassed seven dismissals in his career.

Cattermole mixing fire with fire against Jonjo Shelvey might be the English trait in opposing sides that, like all of them in the Premier League, are well-stocked with foreign players who possibly never knew what a white-hot derby atmosphere was like until they arrived in the north-east.

Newcastle hit the panic button only the week before last, strangely dismissing Steve McClaren only after the mid-winter transfer wheeling and dealing was done.

He wasn't really responsible for buying and selling, and that was half of the Magpies' problem. The owner, retail billionaire Mike Ashley, wanted to try a European-style running of the club in which the coach was simply that, the guy who made do with whoever the so-called sporting director bought for him.

Now that McClaren has paid the price for failing, if you like, the personality test of winning over new players, Rafa Benitez has taken the job.

The first thing he did was to call the players in for training on their day off. The second was to tell them that there will be no days off between now and the end of the season.

Benitez was sacked at Christmas by Real Madrid, some of whose players (like Cristiano Ronaldo) didn't like having their playing style or lifestyle shaped by others.

Former players, among them the mightily experienced Liverpudlian, Jamie Carragher, testify to Benitez as a trainer. He said this weekend that his old boss is "brilliant at stopping the opposition from playing".

He described Liverpool players as being like robots, every man knowing his function, every one accepting the high-concentration, low-fun efficiency demanded of them.

What Benitez lacks in charisma, he makes up for in knowledge, and dogma. He hasn't much of a record of saving teams at the wrong end of the table, largely because wherever he hunts, his quarry has been chasing titles.

Significantly, his Newcastle contract includes a get-out clause whereby if the Magpies sink, Benitez can fly to a club more worthy of him.

The Champions League carrot in Manchester, survival in Newcastle, makes for exhausting Sunday viewing.

MAN CITY V MAN UNITED
Singtel TV Ch102 & StarHub TV Ch227, tomorrow, midnight

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Derbies are tough enough without the threat of the drop'. Print Edition | Subscribe