DERBIES aren’t for the faint-hearted.
Steve Caldwell was brought up on often-brutal Old Firm contests.
But the derbies played on Tyneside and Wearside are every bit as fierce as those contested at Celtic Park and Ibrox.
Caldwell, born north of the border in Stirling, left for England as a teenager to start a career as a footballer after being signed by Newcastle United.
And aged 20, he found himself pitched into a Tyne-Wear contest at St James’s Park.
The result was forgettable, yet it was still memorable introduction to England’s fiercest and northernmost footballing rivalry for Caldwell.
Newcastle, then managed by the late, great Sir Bobby Robson, were beaten 2-1 by Sunderland in November 2000, despite taking an early lead through a Gary Speed goal.
Caldwell, one of a select band of players to have represented both clubs, went on to play in three more derbies, two in the colours of Sunderland.
Now plying his trade across the Atlantic with Major League Soccer team Toronto FC, the 34-year-old defender still vividly remembers that day.
“I’ve only got great memories, even though I wasn’t on the winning side very often,” Caldwell told the Gazette.
I played 10 years in the North East. It’s a special and favourite area to play football, and I know how important it is to both sets of fans.Steve Caldwell
“It’s such a big, exciting game to play in.
“My first one at St James’s was very special. It was early in my career at Newcastle, and although the result was disastrous for us, it was an important game for me in the beginning of my career.
“These games were special for me.
“I played 10 years in the North East. It’s a special and favourite area to play football, and I know how important it is to both sets of fans.”
Optimism, however, is in short supply on each side of the Tyne-Wear divide.
Sunderland are deep in the relegation mire – the team could drop into the bottom three of the Premier League before Sunday’s meeting at the Stadium of Light – while many fans on Tyneside are feeling disillusioned and disenfranchised.
Newcastle have also lost their last four derbies.
A fifth defeat is unthinkable.
“Obviously, the result is always very, very important for both teams, but certainly for Sunderland just now in their fight against relegation,” said Caldwell, who played for Burnley, Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City after leaving the Stadium of Light in 2007.
“It’ll be a white-hot atmosphere. The fans will be right behind them, and it’ll be difficult for Newcastle at the beginning.
“But if they weather that early storm, I feel they can go on to win the game.
“Newcastle have been struggling in derbies over the last couple of years, so it’s very important they get a victory.”
Caldwell was brought through Newcastle’s youth system by John Carver, the club’s head coach until the end of the season.
Carver also had a spell in charge of Toronto, though the pair never crossed paths at BMO Field.
“I know JC (Carver) very well, and he’ll have them well up for it,” said Caldwell.
“It’ll be a huge game for him, and he’ll be making sure everybody who may not understand it will be ready for this game.
“Newcastle will be looking to right the wrongs of the last few derbies, and to put Sunderland in deeper trouble will be important to the Geordies playing in that game.”
While Carver still has to convince most supporters he is up to the job, Caldwell feels the 50-year-old can succeed at St James’s Park.
“I’m very pleased for him,” he said.
“He’s been a coach for a number of years – he started at the youth level – and in a sense we both moved up together.
“We’re still pretty close. We get to see each other once or twice a year.
“I hope he gets the job full-time and gets the opportunity to build and take Newcastle forward.
“He’s very well liked among the (Toronto) staff who worked with him. He’s a popular figure here.”
Sunderland’s dire form saw Gus Poyet sacked last month, and veteran coach Dick Advocaat – who managed Rangers in Old Firm derbies against Celtic – was put in charge for the rest of the season.
“I crossed paths with him at international level one time,” said former Scotland international Caldwell.
“I was on the bench for a huge play-off against Scotland, and I do remember him coming in the dressing room after the game and consoling us.
“I don’t know too much about him, I just know his track record is very successful.
“I feel like he’s a good man for Sunderland.
“Hopefully, the club can stay up and move forward, because I’ve got great memories of both clubs.”
Sadly, North East football, at the top level, is at a low ebb.
Survival, not silverware, is all-important, and high hopes have become low hopes.
Caldwell said: “I’m probably one of the unique people that hopes they both do well and are both very successful.
“I love football in the North East – I hope it becomes thriving and Boro go up, and we get back to the time when we had three successful teams.”