Hope and expection in short supply for Newcastle fans on road to Sunderland

LAST TOON WINNER ... Ryan Taylor is mobbed after scoring in 2011.
LAST TOON WINNER ... Ryan Taylor is mobbed after scoring in 2011.

AT 2pm on Sunday, a long line of coaches will set off from Barrack Road, yards from St James’s Park.

The convoy will snake its way over the River Tyne and pass through Washington on its way to Wearside.

A fifth successive defeat is seemingly unthinkable, but Sunderland are favourites to inflict another loss on their fierce rivals, and the bookmakers rarely get it wrong.

While the coaches taking Newcastle United fans to the Stadium on Light will be full, they won’t be filled with much in the way of expectation.

The relatively short 13-mile journey between the region’s two biggest clubs invariably drags.

Passing through roundabout after roundabout, the convoy makes slow progress.

No doubt, by the time it reaches Wessington Way, there’ll be more than a few Sunderland fans lining the road waiting to remind those in black and white of their club’s recent successes, both on Tyneside and Wearside.

Derbies between Newcastle and Sunderland are invariably tense and edgy, punctuated by rare moments of joy.

But there’s been more pain than joy for United supporters in recent years.

It seems like yesterday I was sitting with Ryan Taylor on the away dugout at the Stadium of Light talking about his winning goal as the last away fans filed out of the ground on a bright August afternoon in 2011.

I asked him if he knew the significance of the goal for himself personally. He didn’t.

Taylor, still breathless from the derby, spoke articulately.

He had written himself into derby folklore with his right foot, yet the significance of the free-kick hadn’t sunk in as gusts of wind blew discarded crisp packets and sweet wrappers around a pitch on which all eyes in the North East had been on just half an hour earlier.

And three and a half years later, that goal is still talked about and chanted about.

There hasn’t been another Newcastle winner since that day.

A fifth successive defeat is seemingly unthinkable, but Sunderland are favourites to inflict another loss on their fierce rivals, and the bookmakers rarely get it wrong.

Speaking before the club’s game against Arsenal earlier this month, United head coach John Carver had joked that he didn’t have a selection headache.

He didn’t have enough players to give him a headache.

Carver has started going through the club’s injury list before his written Press conferences. It’s been a long list of late, and it can be a while before he fields his first question.

Two weeks later, not much has changed. Carver still doesn’t have enough players.

Carver, acutely aware that few fans want him to get the job on a full-time basis, knows a win would be an important step forward for himself personally. It wouldn’t change things overnight, but a derby win is a derby win.

Results, not performances, in these games are all-important, as Alan Pardew, his predecessor, found out to his cost.

Things aren’t any better on the other side of the Tyne-Wear divide. Sunderland themselves are in danger of being relegated from the Premier League.

United themselves are fourth from bottom of the Premier League’s six-game form table. Sunderland are rock bottom, and maybe it’s just as well the form book goes out of the window for derbies.

It’s hard to remember too many derby build-ups like it. It’s been quiet, too quiet. This is a game to be celebrated, yet few on either side feel celebrating the mediocrity they have watched at home and away this season.

Hope and expectation are in short supply.

Carver has few options, and much depends on the readiness of midfielder Mehid Abeid, available after a two-game absence, to play.

These games are invariably won or lost in midfield, and if Moussa Sissoko can get the better of Lee Cattermole, United will have a chance of taking all three points.

Up front, forward Ayoze Perez looked fresh against Arsenal. On his young shoulders rests a heavy responsibility – he is the one player who can make things happen in the final third of the pitch.

At the back, Newcastle’s makeshift defence will be tested by a team which has struggled for goals this season.

It’s hard to see either team keeping a clean sheet – Sunderland are missing Wes Brown – and punters without tribal loyalties will presumably fancy the draw.

That wouldn’t be a disaster for United, who simply must not lose.

Sunderland – who could be in the bottom three by kick-off time – simply must win.

And if Newcastle can upset the odds, the journey back to Tyneside will seem far shorter.