On Monday evening St James' Park is the backdrop for Newcastle and Middlesbrough fight for Premier League survival. With both clubs locked in the final three points below Hull City a victory could provide them the needed spur in the "great escape".
To call the campaign "difficult" for both sides is a grand understatement to say the least, ranking with those reports in early 2008 that referred to the worlds financial fortune "slowing". Few would have expected Newcastle's fortune to have fallen so fast and the same should be said of 'Boro, led by the superb young manager Gareth Southgate. However as these things often go, fortunes have turned and both clubs are faced with very dark days without a victory.
For Newcastle, the hazy lazy days of August brought a quick start but as the clubs financial underpinnings began to shake the spiral down accelerated. The loss of James Milner to Aston Villa heralded the on-going problems and soon Kevin Keegan handed his resignation. Whilst demonstrations waged on by supporters in the fall of 2008, few recognized the collapsing asset value of owner Mike Ashley that was later acknowledged six months later. Though the owner bellowed of selling the club, truth be told the debauchery in the worlds financial markets derailed these efforts as the underlying value, like the play, spiraled down. With every home encounter looking as a setting for a mutiny Joe Kinnear was summoned to calm the storm. The fiery Irishman did a solid job instilling a siege mentality but without the financial resources the club was unable to make the necessary moves during the January transfer window effectively forcing them to simply reshuffle the deck for the last half of the campaign. Time, this dreaded foe that awaits us all, played a nasty turn on the former Wimbledon leader and as heart grew weak, it was time to adjourn his managerial role. Stumbling through the caretaker leadership of Chris Hughton, Newcastle made one last-ditch effort with number 9 riding-in from the horizon as the sun went down.
It has been a rough ride for Mr Shearer as he has learned that Newcastle's cupboard is bare and as much as it pains me to say it, the grit and determination that he played with is a rare breed in today's world. Now after five weeks in his presence, with three match-days remaining in the campaign, somehow the Magpies must dig within their hearts, play above themselves or should I say, play how number 9 did for over three-hundred times for Newcastle.
There are naturally ups and downs of this installment of the Tyne-Tees derby with players lost to injury and suspension but make no mistake, this is a battle that will be won on the measure of claret. A battle where injuries must be shook off and every blade of grass is fought for and no ball left unchallenged.