Ex-Newcastle winger Alan Thompson on the Â£100m derby, Rafa Benitez and Old Firm fixtures
Newcastle and Sunderland meet at St James’s Park with more than £100million at stake.
The two clubs are battling to stay in the Premier League.
And next season each top-flight club in the division can expect to net that figure.
Former Newcastle winger Thompson – who went on to play for Celtic in numerous Old Firm derbies – doesn’t think there have been too many more significant meetings between the North East’s two great rivals.
United are second-bottom of the league, while 17th-placed Sunderland have a point more than them.
“I think even four or five weeks ago people were talking about it being a big derby not knowing the circumstances they’d both be in at the present moment,” said Thompson, who was speaking at this week’s Konect Derby Cup, which pitted former players from both clubs against each other at Ramside Hall Golf Club.
“It’s just got bigger and bigger as the weeks have gone by. It’s the biggest one I can remember.
“There won’t be many goals. It’ll be blood and thunder. Because of where both teams are, it’ll be tight. There won’t be many chances.”
Sunderland, looking for a seventh successive derby win, have made an habit of making managerial changes before derbies in recent seasons. However, this time, the roles have been reversed, with United having replaced Steve McClaren with Rafa Benitez after a troubled few months on the pitch.
The derby will only be Benitez’s second game in charge, with the 55-year-old’s first game as manager having been Monday night’s 1-0 defeat to league leaders Leicester City. Thompson saw a “spark” from the previously-lifeless team at the King Power Stadium.
And the 42-year-old feels the club have made an astute appointment.
“It’s a fantastic appointment, without a shadow of a doubt,” said the 42-year-old.
“I know people who’ve worked with him and they speak very, very highly of him. When people like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher say he’s the best they’ve worked under, it’s say a lot about the man.
“He’s come in and said confidence is a big issue.
“I’m sure he’ll be telling them all the right things, and you saw on Monday night there was a spark about them.”
Benitez’s biggest problem is up front, where United have struggled for goals all season. At the other end of the pitch, only basement club Aston Villa have conceded more goals than Newcastle.
“I thought it was a big improvement,” said Thompson. “I thought they had a decent shape about them and restricted Leicester.
“Second-half, they didn’t take the shackles off, but they opened up a little bit because they were 1-0 down.
“With a little bit more care in the final third, they might have nicked a goal.
“It was definitely an improvement, but they’re going to have to start keeping clean sheets and putting the ball in the back of the net, otherwise they’re not going to get enough points.
“You might have to look at set-plays and say to your centre-halves ‘someone’s going to have to chip in with goals’.
“They’re definitely going to have to try to shut the back door and not concede
“Maybe somehow, Jonjo Shelvey can nick a goal – he’s scored goals in the past – and someone’s going to have to step up to the plate quickly.”
Thompson – who started his coaching career under Kevin Keegan at Newcastle in 2008 and went on to serve on Neil Lennon’s backroom team at Celtic – feels the Old Firm derby is the fiercest rivalry in British football.
“I made my debut at Roker Park for the first team,” he said. “I’ve played in other derbies, the main one being the Old Firm one.
“Nothing compares to that because of the history and what goes with it, but this is a special fixture and I’d love to see them both stay in the Premier League.
“But unfortunately it’s looking like one of them is going to go.”