The build-up to Wear-tyne and tyne-Wear derbies – says Monsieur Salut, pettily using lower case to diminish Jimmy Nail’s Big River (half-decent song, actually) – should start at least as early as the approach to any other game. This one is horribly important to us. Steven Fletcher boosted his confidence no end with his hat-trick for Scotland, but can he do to the Mags what he did to Gibraltar? While covering the inquest into the deaths of the IRA’s would-be bombers killed by the SAS on The Rock, M Salut befriended a court official who happened to have played badminton for Gibraltar at the Commonwealth Games. A match was arranged and ended in a draw, each winning one game. M Salut is, and was not even then, an especially fit man. Is that the measure of Fletch’s otherwise commendable achievement?
While we ponder such weighty questions, it seems a good idea to run a few blasts from the past. Here, as a start, is my cousin David Athey, whose outstanding piece, first published here a few seasons ago, sums up what I think should be the true nature of a rivalry that divides families, friends, schoolfriends and workmates …
Premier League placings:
Champions: Newcastle United
Yes, I accept that this is an unlikely scenario, but I am allowed my pipe dream, am I not?
You will gather from my order of preference that my loyalties lie fairly and squarely at St James’ Park (not to be confused with Ashley’s Sports Direct Arena – “ASDA” for short). You will also gather however that I am not a vitriolic opponent of the Black Cats or the Smoggies (David had Boro third, Smoggie may wish to note, but it depended on them being in the Premier in the first place – ed )
The first football match my father took me to was circa 1955 at St James’ Park and I was hooked.
Most supporters begin and maintain a lifetime of club loyalty in this way. You can’t subsequently change that loyalty. It is part of your identity. It also explains why I and tens of thousands of other misguided souls continue to support the Toon, despite a conspicuous lack of success over the years. The passage of time prevents me from continuing to boast about our Fairs Cup success in 1969 (and the most ardent supporter can’t boast about the 2006 Intertoto Cup).
Sunderland of course has a much more recent history of success, winning the FA Cup as recently as 1973! It is almost yesterday (well 2004) that the Boro won the League Cup.
Set against this background of mainly abject failure on the part of all three clubs, I have, for the past four decades and more, been amazed and dismayed at the level of hostility oft demonstrated by their respective supporters towards the other two clubs.
In the late fifties and early sixties (I was only a schoolboy then of course) I would often go to Roker Park when Newcastle were playing away and I would support Sunderland wholeheartedly. Why wouldn’t you support a North East team, especially one graced by the likes of Charlie Hurley (totally dominant mountain of a man), George Herd (incredible skill on the ball), Stan Anderson (an attacking wing-half of the highest calibre), and one of the best, if unsung, outside-lefts (as they called them in those days) I have ever seen in George Mulhall (speed, balance, ball control, ferocious shot, heading ability and work-rate)? Half a century on, I can still name the entire Sunderland team of that era. However lest you think that I had swapped my black stripes for red ones, let me assure you that when it game to derby games, I could be heard roundly booing the same players who only the previous week I had been roaring on!
I attended school in North Shields. My school year was evenly divided between supporters of both Newcastle and Sunderland (I believe that there may be historical reasons and am aware that north of the Tyne and in Northumberland there remain even to this day large pockets of Sunderland support in places which you might think would be diehard black and white).
When the Magpies (we didn’t call them the Toon in those days did we?) played Sunderland at Roker Park, we would hire a bus and the 50 of us, both Newcastle and Sunderland supporters, would not only travel to the game together but we would also stand together in the Fulwell end, sporting our respective colours and cheering ourselves hoarse. On one occasion, a pal of mine even “borrowed” the school bell, which he painted red and white and rang enthusiastically throughout the match. Why didn’t I get there first? Naturally there was plenty of good humoured banter, but the rivalry never descended into the naked hostility that is all too apparent today.
Having already singled out some Sunderland players of yesteryear for special mention, let me redress the balance by recalling the likes of Jim Iley (a most cultured wing-half), John McGrath (almost as good, if not as totemic, as Charlie Hurley), Wyn “the Leap” Davies (renowned for his fearless ability to tackle with his head!) and importantly Stan Anderson. This is the same Stan Anderson who I mentioned above as a Sunderland player and is one of a select few to make the transition from one North East club to another. He also became the first player to captain all three North East teams and was and admired and respected by all. I am too young (yes really) to recall the signing by Middlesbrough in 1905 of Alf Common from Sunderland for a British record of £1,000, but can recall the more recent example of Bob Moncur moving from Newcastle to Sunderland.
Although subsequently a frequent attender at St James’ Park over the years, I had not seen much of Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. However a couple of seasons ago a friend from Manchester asked me to get tickets for City’s game at Sunderland. I did so and went along with him thinking I would be happy just to see a good game of football, whoever won.
How wrong can you be? Any objectivity went out of the window as my old affection for the Red ‘n Whites resurfaced within the first five minutes. The crowning glory came when Carlos Tevez missed an open goal from a yard out, allowing Sunderland to run out 1-0 winners.
I was positively upset last weekend when Sunderland’s excellent progress under Martin (“the Messiah”) O’Neil stuttered at West Brom. I also took it personally when only 26,042 turned up recently to see Sunderland beat Arsenal in the Cup. Having said all that, I still rejoice over “our” demolition of Sunderland at home last season, and will be looking for a repeat performance at St James’ this weekend!
So yes, local rivalry is good and stimulating, but when it degenerates into pointless tribalism of the worst sort, then it just shows North East football support to be parochial and rather pathetic. Why not buck the trend by demonstrating respect and sportsmanship particularly towards our local rivals?
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful boost for the North East as a whole if my pipe dream came true? In your dreams!
* David Athey on David Athey:
I am content to own up to being your cousin. I am recently retired and, like you, love football. My ability was in inverse proportion to my affection for the game. Played left back at Uni (when I had decent pace and fitness). Moved to central defence when pace and fitness diminished (responsibilities of work, family etc). Continued playing (latterly in the Sunderland and District Over 40s League) until I was 62. Most of my football was played south of the Tyne, as the odd “scrape” was inevitable and perhaps not to be recommended in “my own back yard”. Ultimately decided (or was it my team mates?) that the future of the team did not lie with a 62-year-old. An operation for a detached retina hastened the decision. Continue to be involved as team secretary (not the same as playing). The Over 40s league is, I understand, the biggest of its sort in the country, ahead of similar leagues in Liverpool and London. Teams stretch from Blyth down to Richmond. There are 73 teams in five divisions. Great crowd of lads whoever they support.
** In a similar vein (published just before we eased past Boro in the FA Cup):https://safc.blog/2012/02/beat-boro-overhaul-newcaste-but-cling-to-regional-common-ground/