By ITV Tyne Tees Sport Correspondent Simon O'Rourke
North East Football rarely does Happy New Years. It's just not in our footballing DNA.
Newcastle United are past masters of Festive foul-ups. Middlesbrough had a nice Christmas in 2019, but a fat lot of good it did them. Sunderland have left no New Year stone unturned in their search for rock bottom.
2021 is no different in footballing terms, but of course, it's very different in every other respect. The coronavirus has infected all conversations, all sports and every fixture list.
Newcastle lost a game before Christmas because of the virus, they lost players over the whole Festive Period due to the outbreak at their North Tyneside Training Ground, and the after-effects linger on. Allan Saint-Maximin for example, one of the Magpies most effective attacking fire-starters, is still laid low with the remnants of Covid 19.
Middlesbrough lost their game against Rotherham because the South Yorkshire Team were dealing with an outbreak.
Sunderland had their own outbreak and the Black Cats virtually lost the whole Festive programme. That's now one of the storylines of Sunderland's season. They'll be playing catch up for the rest of the campaign. But the Black Cat's headline story is about another new chapter. They have a new head coach. They'll have a new owner soon, as long as the EFL signs off on the bid led by the intriguingly young Kyril Louis-Dreyfus. It's another new beginning, which makes the Covid hold-ups all the more frustrating.
For better or worse, Sunderland need to get on with their new chapter now and become the version of the club they want to be. They still have time to return to the League 1 promotion race, but the fixture pile-up doesn't help, and the past couple of years has shown that there are no guarantees in League 1, even for a club of Sunderland's size.
Middlesbrough have come closest to a footballing Happy New Year. Neil Warnock is working his Championship alchemy on Teesside and, even in this era of fan-free football, it feels like everyone involved in the club - players, staff AND supporters - are pulling in the same direction. Warnock has a wonderful way of making everything seem simple and fun. He's encouraged his small squad to think big. Boro are in the promotion race and it looks like they're in it for the long haul this season.
At Newcastle United it's a case of meet the new year, same as the old year. They began 2020 with a home defeat against Leicester that dropped them to 13th place in the Premier League. The Magpies began 2021 with a home defeat against Leicester that left them in 15th place in the Premier League. Nothing much has actually changed, even though everything might have changed.
The meat in Newcastle's Leicester-home-defeat sandwich was almost a full year of takeover torture. The tease of a brighter, richer, Mike Ashley-free future. The rumours are still blowing in the wind, but the reality is the status quo still reigns at St James Park. Just enough is still more than enough at Ashley's Newcastle.
If there is a difference between this January and last, it's the volume of the Steve Bruce debate. The Geordie Head Coach has never been Tyneside's Mr Popular, but his approval ratings are at an all time low judging by social media. There is, as yet, no suggestion his position is under any real scrutiny though. It feels like nothing will change unless everything changes at Newcastle.
A quick word for Harrogate Town: The fairytale has been filled with light and shade. The North Yorkshire club's first season in the EFL started wonderfully, but it's got tougher since then. Ultimately, the most important part of Harrogate's first season in the Football League is making certain there's a second season.
So there we are. Happy New Year? Not so much. North East Football begins anew as a mixture of hope, fear, uncertainty and frustration. 'Twas ever thus. But in 2021, that's pretty much how we're all feeling.