Cats lack men for the big occasion
WHAT was merely a bit of fun came within seconds of being an appropriate starting point for an afternoon that looked like being another to forget for those of a red and white persuasion. Two giant mascot Black Cats, which go by the name of Samson and Delilah, charged around in an attempt to frighten a lone magpie that had braved it on to the Stadium of Light pitch. But in the end, even after the black and white bird had reappeared for much of the second half as Newcastle were on track for a victory over their staunchest North- East rivals, Sunderland were not subjected to another day of sorrow. After losing to the Nottingham-based Magpies last week in the FA Cup, failing to control a pitch intruder by the same name then falling behind to the Tyneside black and whites yesterday, Sunderland will be relieved to end a bad week with a point. Asamoah Gyan's equaliser, which seemed simply to bounce off him and land in the net after Steve Harper's save in the fourth minute of injury-time, prevented a second defeat in 77 days to their rivals. It is a result that means Newcastle remain five points behind Sunderland in the Premier League, although both remain firmly in the top ten and in with a shout of finishing in a European place. This is a big month for both. With the transfer window open for a further 14 days, yesterday's occasion also acted to highlight that work needs to be done on the recruitment front. Neither club can claim to be complete. When Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, wearing a huge black and white scarf, and his managing director Derek Llambias shook hands with counterparts, Ellis Short and Niall Quinn, in the directors' box, it was all smiles. On one hand Ashley could reflect on the Halloween massacre at St James' Park, while Quinn and Short can look to the Premier League table for comfort. But which regime wants Europe the most Five points separated the two before kick-off and, despite plenty of purpose and drive, there are still five points separating them this morning. Sunderland, even if Newcastle finally caved in during the late stages, remain three places ahead and boast a game in hand. The frenetic nature of a Wear-Tyne derby always makes it difficult to pass complete judgement on the ability of the players involved. It can, though, provide a severe test of their strength of character. Having looked second best in both, even if results don't necessarily reflect as much, Sunderland manager Steve Bruce will know he needs a different type of player in his squad. For all Sunderland have pace and talent, Bruce would be right to question whether or not he has the young men possessing the mentality for the biggest of occasions. Newcastle, on the other hand, may have struggled to overcome the likes of Blackpool, Stoke, Wigan, Blackburn and Fulham. But Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, even Fabricio Coloccini, have the mindset to cope on afternoons when it comes down to desire as much as talent. Neither club are expecting to make too many alterations to their playing staff before January 31, but this could be the year that one of the region's two Premier League teams can spring a surprise in Europe. Sunderland were missing Lee Cattermole, David Meyler, Danny Welbeck, Michael Turner, John Mensah and Fraizer Campbell. Newcastle could point to key figures Cheik Tiote and Andy Carroll among their absentees. In truth, both could do with new faces. Sunderland, albeit through injuries, had a serious lack of options on the bench to change things at 1-1, and perhaps Quinn should consider gambling on freeing up some of the cash that Bruce is thinking of spending £12m on one player in the summer. Bruce aims to add more experience to a squad that is the youngest in the Premier League, while Newcastle are looking in other directions, with the likes of Jay Bothroyd, Max Gradel, Jason Puncheon mentioned. If European football arrives on the banks of the Wear or Tyne next season, this month is likely to be pivotal. What's certain, is that Sunderland would prefer stray magpies to stay away.
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