Michael Walker: Geordies now joyful as winds of change blow cold

Sunderland’s woes bring much pleasure to the Newcastle faithful in topsy-turvy rivalry

On May 11th this year, Sunderland hosted Everton at the Stadium of Light and beat them 3-0. It was a decisive victory in more than scoreline. The three points Sunderland gained meant that the club stayed in the Premier League for a tenth consecutive season, their most consistent top-flight period since 1958.

So there was a good deal of singing and clapping. And there was a four-letter word: glee.

This was because in staying up, Sunderland ensured that Newcastle United went down. Parochialism matters greatly on such nights. It would have been the same had the story been reversed.

Wearside laughed, pointed fingers, and laughed some more. Newcastle’s plight entertained them, but within that was also the hope and belief that after so many years of narrow escapes, Sunderland had bottomed out. There were reasons to be cheerful. So it seemed.

In just seven months Sam Allardyce had moulded a formidable team from the aimlessness inherited from Dick Advocaat and an erratic hierarchy. Sunderland could look forward.

And Newcastle were relegated.

Ultimately only one place had separated the north-east rivals, but the difference between 17th and 18th in the Premier League is vast and expensive.

Finishing 17th meant Sunderland thought ahead to Allardyce adding to a growing, coherent team with a firm identity: big, durable, hard, counter-attacking and fast. They even trained on Roker beach, like the old days.

Four days before Everton, Chelsea had also been beaten at the Stadium of Light. In the ten league games of 2016 Sunderland's home record was W4 D4 L2. There was the prospect of them at last making Wearside uncomfortable for visitors again. No wonder there was buoyancy.

Meanwhile, over on Tyneside, they fretted. Would Rafa Benitez stay now that the club, under its own erratic hierarchy, had been relegated? Why would he? Surely there would be offers? Could Rafa really manage Everton? Clubs in Germany?

There was one last game at St. James' Park. It was memorable and not just for the scoreline: Newcastle United 5 Tottenham Hotspur 1. There was a display of public affection for Benitez that may not have affected the cerebral Spaniard, but which, notably, touched his daughters.

“My heart is telling me yes,” Benitez said of staying. “The brain has to say: ‘We will analyse.’”

By May 26th Rafa’s analysis was that he had negotiated himself a position of huge strength at a weakened club. He would be staying.

On Tyneside the reaction was as strong as it had been a fortnight earlier on Wearside. The relief was palpable because had Benitez chosen to walk away, Newcastle United would have been a fire hazard. He became the club’s comfort blanket.

Then things changed again. One month on, in the south of France, England lost 2-1 to Iceland.

Allardyce, already voicing impatience at a lack of Sunderland signings, pricked his ears. Within a fortnight England’s FA were speaking into them.

Suddenly it was Sunderland, not Newcastle, losing the manager who might fix them.

In the space of six weeks the mood at the two clubs had switched. Glum replaced glee on Wearside; Newcastle were in the second division, but Rafa Benitez, a football man, was in charge.

And, largely, that is how it remains. Sunderland may have appointed a serious, accomplished manager in David Moyes, but there has been no lift from the disappointment of Allardyce's leaving.

Since May 11th Sunderland have played nine league games, won none and lost six. They are 20th in the Premier League, bottom, and smacked by a rash of injuries and player departures which meant that only three of the side that started against Everton in May began last Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Stoke.

Now, once again, one place below, are Newcastle United. They are 21st in the pyramid.

On Tuesday night the 'Rafalution' rolled into Barnsley. In front of 6,000 travelling Geordies and 2,000 at a beamback at St. James' Park, Newcastle won 2-0 to go top of the Championship for the first time.

It was a fourth consecutive win. Small, weekly triumphs are mounting up on the pitch. Off it, another is that Mike Ashley is a name barely mentioned.

At the training ground yesterday Benitez said how flattered he is by comparisons to Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson. He downplayed those, but Benitez has understood the place the club represents as Keegan and Robson did.

“I could feel the club had a city behind it,” Benitez said, “and it’s, how do you say, buzzing?”

Benitez’s Spanish pronunciation made this come out as ‘boothing’. But no-one will query that. No-one queries Rafa at the minute.

Across on Wearside, despite being a rich division higher, the questions are hourly and pained. Where did May 11th go?

In the circumstances Moyes was upbeat. He began by reading a list of the injured and then had to deal with Jermaine Defoe’s midweek opinion that “from where we were last season, towards the end, I feel we’ve gone backwards a little bit.”

Moyes acknowledged this, though felt Defoe was taken out of context.

A win – and Sunderland are at West Ham today – would stem the bleeding. But in five months that is where the club is, bleeding. Moyes did well to squeeze out the line: “The plan is first of all to make everybody realise that there is a long-term plan.”

Uncertainty is swirling and there is the possibility that owner Ellis Short may have had enough. Moyes said he spoke to Short on Thursday night. A "takeover" wasn't mentioned, Moyes said.

Such stories have received official denials but after nine years of ladling his own money into Sunderland – tens of millions upon tens of millions – who could blame Short if frustration has overwhelmed enthusiasm?

Having bought out the Irish consortium, Drumaville, for around £20m, Short is now estimated to be around £200m down on his investment. He won’t be recouping that.

A billionaire who has sold a bank in South Korea is not, well, short of money, but at some stage he will decree that enough is enough. With each Premier League defeat inching Sunderland closer to the Championship, Short's asset decreases in value.

There is puzzlement on Tyneside that Short’s running of the club has not attracted the local anger that Ashley has at Newcastle. Perhaps that is because, deep down, Sunderland fans know they would be a Championship club of several years standing without Short’s money.

The puzzlement on Wearside is that, here we are just five months on from Everton, discussing the Championship.

Wasn’t that supposed to be Newcastle United’s topic?