Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough will be relieved to see the back of 2017 after difficult finishes to the year. A glance at both the Premier League and Championship tables on 1st January 2018 showed that all 3 sides were somewhat underachieving. Newcastle in 13th with 2 wins in their last 12, Middlesbrough languishing in 8th outside of the play off places and Sunderland 2nd from bottom, on course for back to back relegations.
November in brief:
Sunderland – Played 4, Won 1, Drawn 1, Lost 2
In their first game after Grayson’s departure, Sunderland lost by a goal at local rivals Middlesbrough. This was followed up by a resilient 2-all draw with Millwall. Caretaker manager Robbie Stockdale able to avoid defeat but claiming the unwanted stat of becoming the first team in English football history to fail to win in 20 successive home games in all competitions. The month finished with a narrow defeat at Aston Villa in Chris Coleman’s first game in charge and a 2-0 win at Burton thanks to 2 late goals.
Middlesbrough – Played 4, Won 2, Lost 2
Middlesbrough were unable to follow up their win over Sunderland when they visited Elland Road. Boro succumbed to a 2-1 defeat. They bounced back 3 days later easing to a comfortable win over Birmingham. A 3-0 defeat to Derby County in front of their own fans saw Boro drop out of the playoff places and end the month in disappointing fashion.
Newcastle – Played 4, Drawn 1, Lost 3
Steven Cook’s late header earned Bournemouth all 3 points when they made the trip to St James’. Although Dwight Gayle claimed his first goal of the season to put Newcastle in front at Old Trafford, Man United notched four unanswered goals to run out comfortable winners. Watford then condemned Newcastle to a fourth straight defeat as they ran out 3-0 winners at St James’ Park. 2-nil down and heading for another defeat, Benitez’s side managed to find 2 goals to earn a point off relegation rivals West Bromwich Albion.
December in focus:
Going into December, Sunderland hadn’t won a game in the calendar year in front of their fans. Back to back home games against Fulham and Birmingham gave the Black Cats the chance to avoid this unwanted record. But, before these games, came two tough looking trips to Reading and Wolves. Three second half goals from the Royals was enough for all 3 points. Coleman’s men could keep a clean sheet away at league leaders Wolves though. The nil-all draw was followed up by a timely first home win of 2017 thanks to Josh Maja’s header. In their next game, Lewis Grabban’s equaliser cancelled out Sam Gallagher’s opener for Birmingham, but Sunderland were unable to find a winner.
Josh Maja of Sunderland scores the opening goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Sunderland and Fulham at Stadium of Light on December 16, 2017 in Sunderland, England.
After 3 games undefeated, Sunderland had a tough Boxing Day at Sheffield United. The Blades registered their first win in seven. 4 days later, Sunderland were able to move out of the bottom three for the first time in a long time with a precious away win. Aiden McGeady’s goal edging out Nottingham Forest and an impressive defensive display from Coleman’s side.
New Year’s Day signalled a return to the bottom three for Sunderland. Another home defeat – this time to Barnsley who earned their first win in 11.
December’s been a month of upheaval for Middlesbrough. By the 16th December and after their third game of the month, the pressure was increasing on Garry Monk. Away defeats at Bristol City and Millwall albeit with a win at home over Ipswich in between, left Middlesbrough in 10th and 5 points off the playoffs.
A Yorkshire Derby at Hillsborough with Sheffield Wednesday was a great chance for Boro to get back to winning ways. It looked unlikely when they fell behind. 2 second half goals turned it around, providing a timely boost for Garry Monk. In the near aftermath of the game however, Monk was duly sacked. A somewhat surprising decision given the timing and given the team were now only 3 points off the playoffs.
In their first game since Monk’s departure, Boro beat Bolton 2-0 with new manager Tony Pulis watching on from the stands. The front two of Martin Braithwaite and Britt Assombalonga each notched a goal. Three days later, it was another three points dropped for Boro at home to Aston Villa. A result symptomatic of their up and down season so far. The arrival of 2018 brought bring a return to winning ways. The dramatic 3-2 win over Preston puts Middlesbrough up to eighth and now leaves them just 2 points off the play off places.
Newcastle have had a December of 2 halves. The first half was a struggle. Corners of fans starting to question Rafa’s tactics – too negative at home, rotation not working. The small matter of a potential takeover constantly in the background and on everyone’s lips at press conferences particularly with the January transfer window imminent and investment in the squad required to ease relegation fears.
Expected defeats in the capital to Chelsea and Arsenal came either side of 2 very disappointing and tense home defeats to Leicester and Everton. When Newcastle travelled down to the London Stadium to face West Ham on the 23rd December they had just one point in their last nine games and had dropped into the relegation zone. What came that afternoon was just what was required. A stunning display of counter attacking football coupled with resilient defensive rear-guard action ensured that the Magpies held on to claim all 3 points.
The Magpies had to dust themselves down quickly for a 6 pointer at home to Brighton three days later. Although Jamaal Lascelles and Karl Darlow impressed to secure a clean sheet, this was a performance void of any potency and flair going forward. A sluggish display saw a game lacking quality end goalless.
Benitez made 6 changes for the New Year’s Day game under 48 hours later at Stoke. A couple of match winning saves from Karl Darlow after Ayoze Perez’s breakaway goal ensured that Newcastle returned to Tyneside with all three points. That win moves them up to 13th on 22 points.
Words: Caspar de Wesselow