As we look forward to what the future holds for the black and white, it's important to look back and remember some of the more significant days in the team's recent history. Today we remember a rather famous derby triumph.
On this day two years ago, Newcastle United defeated Sunderland 5-1 at St James' Park. The victory vaulted Newcastle to 7th place and temporarily put to rest rumors that Chris Hughton was in danger of losing his job. This derby is one of the most memorable in recent years, and it's not just because of the scoreline or Kevin Nolan's hat trick (the first of its kind since 1984).
No, this was a statement game. Newcastle were coming off of their Championship year, and for once in their history, Sunderland held all of the bragging rights. The Toon's first season back was already a bit of a mixed bag. Predictable losses to superior opponents were mixed in with a 6-0 victory over Aston Villa and a last second draw-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-defeat with Wigan. They were mid-table, but nobody knew what to make of them. Their reinforcements were in trouble, too. Hughton's quest for survival led him to purchase 5 players over the summer of 2010: Hatem Ben Arfa, Sol Campbell, Dan Gosling, James Perch, and Cheik Tiote. Gosling was a no show. Reports of Campbell's waning fitness (and desire?) dominated the headlines early that season, almost as much as the emergence of Ben Arfa as a creative force, but his leg had already been surgically repaired for a month by the time the mackems came to SJP. Perch was almost immediately labeled a flop - when he replaced the injured Danny Simpson, his play was mixed, to be kind, and a high-profile own goal did him no favors. Only Tiote was living up to his promise. How could a team that lost so many of its top flight players and had effectively gained only one since expect to compete with the likes of Sunderland, who were flying high while Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan banged in goal after goal? Even Titus Bramble had folks around England whispering about a place in the national team.
As it turned out, Newcastle had Bramble to thank for a good portion of their success two years ago today. Neither he nor Simon Mignolet had an answer for the Toon's frantic, aerial attack. Sunderland had a chance early when Danny Welbeck picked up a Tiote turnover, but for some reason he chose to attack the goal himself rather than hit the streaking Bent. It would be their best chance until Bent scored the consolation goal in second half stoppage.
Kevin Nolan opened his account in the 26th minute, cleverly flicking a ball over his head following a deflection on a Joey Barton corner. They pressed the attack, and Nolan scored another just 8 minutes later. Shola Ameobi's penalty, converted after Nedum Onouha ran over Jonas Gutierrez in the box, gave the hosts a 3-0 lead heading into halftime. The second half was basically an excuse for the Geordies to reappropriate "Sleepy Jean" at the expense of Steve Bruce, but it was not without incident. A frustrated Bramble took down Andy Carroll with what we can kindly call a "professional foul" and was sent off for his troubles in the 53rd minute. The highlight of the match for me was Shola Ameobi's goal, the fourth of the day. Danny Simpson's cross to Andy Carroll (who was covered by two men) ended up on the crossbar, but Ameobi was on the edge of the box to drive home the rebound. It was a clinical finish after both of the other men did some fantastic work. Most of all, it was the result of aggressive play, a characteristic of the Hughton era that the current team sometimes lacks. Nolan then finished his hat trick (and did his ridiculous chicken dance) when he headed in another Barton corner, helped by a Shola deflection. Bent added his goal just under the buzzer, thanks to some shoddy marking on a corner, but it was just about the only aerial battle the mackems managed to win that day.
What stuck out to me as I watched highlights and read old match reports is just how dominant Newcastle were on set pieces and through the air. The Barton-Carroll combination was truly a sensational weapon. The Toon came ready to play against Sunderland that day, and for whatever reason (perhaps overconfidence?) The Unwashed didn't feel they needed to show up. These two teams have met four times since, with Newcastle winning once and the sides playing to a draw three times (each with an equalizer coming in the waning moments). There has been little doubt, however, about which team has been the superior side over the last two years. It all started with a rout on Halloween at St James' Park.