MARTIN O’Neill insists the passion of the North East derby matches the more celebrated fervour of the Old Firm clash north of the border.
O’Neill is no stranger to the intensity of the most fierce derby battles after steering Celtic to 16 victories in 27 meetings with arch-rivals Rangers during his five-year managerial stint at Parkhead.
But O’Neill will sample a Wear-Tyne derby for the first time this weekend when Newcastle United visit the Stadium of Light.
“I felt the intensity of the game in March, but the person who really felt it was our first-team coach Steve Walford,” said the Sunderland boss.
“He said to me – almost as soon as the game had finished, if I remember rightly – that the game had been every bit as intense as the Rangers-Celtic games.
“Stevie has experienced a lot of those Old Firm games, and thought that nothing could match those, so for him to say that tells you something.
“And on reflection, when I thought about it afterwards, I think he wasn’t far wrong.
“It was hostile and intense, just as I was used to in the Rangers-Celtic games.
“It sends a shiver down your spine and in many ways that’s the exciting thing about these derby games.
“Of course, this time we will be the ones with home advantage and the crowd on our side. With us now having our supporters behind both ends, I think that will make a difference.
“It’s been a long build-up, but if you can look forward to these games, I’m looking forward to it.”
Sunderland’s five summer signings could all experience a Wear-Tyne clash for the first time and O’Neill says they will receive a steep learning curve about the stakes on offer for both sets of supporters.
O’Neill added: “I signed Chris Sutton, who obviously knew about the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers beforehand but had never experienced anything quite like it until he played in it. I think it’s the same here.
“I’m not so sure you have to be from the area to appreciate it. But once you’ve experienced it, then you know what it is all about.
“You might think you can take it in your stride because you’re not from the area, but believe me you soon find out what it means.”