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Eddie Howe not feeling the derby day heat as Newcastle prepare to lock horns with oldest rivals

NEWCASTLE: In 2010, the late, great Sir Bobby Robson perfectly encapsulated exactly what it means to emerge victorious from a Tyne-Wear derby: “It is the result of the region.”

On Saturday, for the first time in nearly eight years, famous old foes Newcastle United and Sunderland, just 16 kilometers apart but separated by cultural and historical fault lines, will finally go toe-to-toe once again, at the Stadium of Light, with much more at stake than just a place in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

These are two of the most decorated clubs in English football, albeit both have been somewhat overshadowed in the modern era. And this local derby is about pride, passion, feelings, emotion and nerves, all bundled into one. It is the game every fan of each team has long been yearning for but will barely be able to watch, through the cracks in their fingers.

Football is more than a game around these parts. On derby day in particular, it is a way of life. In fact, it consumes everything, every waking moment, every move, every conversation. A soccer civil war, if you will, built on more than 100 years of stories, goals and drama.

Eddie Howe is getting his first taste of this North East of England rivalry but says he knows exactly what lies in store for his out-of-form Magpies.

“I think it’s been a good week for us since the Liverpool game,” said the head coach, referring to the 4-2 defeat at Anfield on New Year’s Day.

“The lads have trained well. The feeling around the group has been good. I’m expecting a good performance from us. We know the importance of the fixture, we know what it means to everybody. We’re ready and hopefully we can give the best account of ourselves.

“When the draw was made we made reference to the draw and I gave a couple of the Geordies an opportunity to speak about the fixtures — this was some way back — just to set the scene.”

He added: “I think the players know everything they need to know about the fixture and they know what it means to everybody. Sometimes you can overkill that, so I think it’s then a case of how we’re going to play and what we’re going to do and how we’re going to execute our play. It’s been very formulated that way.”

United’s recent form has been poor; they’ve lost seven of their last eight games in all competitions. Howe’s record in the FA Cup as Newcastle boss is nothing to shout about, either. His side lost in the third round, their first hurdle, to lower league opposition on both previous occasions, first to League One side Cambridge United, and then to Sheffield Wednesday, also a third-tier team at the time. Will Sunderland, currently in the Championship, present a similar problem?

“Our next game is the next opportunity to turn our form around,” said Howe. “That, of course, is how we have to look at it. We’re absolutely keen to do that so, yes, we’re focusing very much on our performance and trying to deliver the best we can.

“I’m well aware of my record here (in the FA Cup) — it’s not been good. The two games we’ve had have been really disappointing, I can’t shy away from that. I have to hit that head-on and try and make up for it in this game.

“It’s our opportunity to progress in a cup competition we want to do well in. We want the extra games, as I’ve said previously in the other competitions. Every part of us wants to progress and do well.”

The downturn in Newcastle’s fortunes this season has resulted, for the first time, in significant criticism of the head coach. His tactics, substitutions, general approach and more besides have all been in the firing line. He confirmed, however, that there is no additional pressure coming from the owners of the club.

“We communicate all the time,” he said. “I certainly don’t need daily reassurances. I feel comfortable in the fact that we are working as hard as we can to improve performances and improve results.

“Obviously I know it’s a results-based business, all the usual things you’d expect me to say, but I do feel the support from the club and that’s really important in this moment.”

If Howe is not feeling the pressure of a slide to ninth place in the Premier League, and exits from both the Carabao Cup and the Champions League in heartbreaking fashion, what about the pressure that accompanies the North East derby itself?

“The nerves? Well it’s no different to any other game in the sense of how you feel,” he said. “The players will all feel slightly different, I’m sure. But for me, you sort of have a mixture of emotions going into a game. Of course there’s nerves in there but it’s mainly excitement about what we can deliver. I want to see my team express themselves and play in a way that I know we can.”