If you grow up in the North East, there is a very good chance that your family will be spread around the region so that aunties, uncles, siblings, cousins and the rest end up supporting different football teams.
So it was – and remains – in my own family. My sister has lived most of her life in Middlesbrough; there was a football-related murder close to her home in 1980, when she was living near Ayresome Park and Nottingham Forest “supporters” attacked a 17-year-old local lad (roughly how I remember it, but the detail is taken from an ITV web page about the old Tyne Tees programme Shoot).
So sister notionally supports Boro, as – with rather more passion in some cases – do her sons and daughters, all now adults.
A cousin who has lived only in Tynemouth and Whitley Bay is a lifelong Newcastle United supporter. Aunts and uncles, long dead, from Wallsend and Byker had similar Toon leanings if they cared at all. And a Ryhope connection in the family goes back so far that a certain Uncle Peter could have been shouting for Sunderland when we beat Newcastle United 9-1 at St James’ Park in 1908 (though I am not sure how many Sunderland fans were allowed by police to gain admission).
One of my oldest friends, Darlington-born of Irish parentage showed no interest in football at all when we were young, then popped up in his 30s as a Newcastle supporter before changing allegiance to Boro, an attachment that has held. Despite fondness he also expresses for Sunderland, especially with the Irish connections of recent years, I fully expect him to be at Riverside tonight, yelling himself hoarse for the home team.
For all these conflicts of family loyalty, I never wavered in my own allegiance. At a very young age, I did go through a phase of liking Peterborough a lot, but that was just a brief fling, a spot of Midland League gloryseeking (what glamour!). Sunderland was in County Durham and so was I, and SAFC was the county team the same as Durham was the county cricket team. I didn’t even invoke old Uncle Peter, not least because I was unaware he had existed.
I can never forget that Kate Adie quote from one of my interviews with her for ALS or Wear Down South, about the slight feeling of snootiness she felt as a proper Sunderland lass when walking to Roker Park on matchdays:
I remember thinking how curious it was as you got nearer the ground to see all these rather ancient buses full of supporters from Tow Law or Spennymoor or Crook.
They seemed such far-off places. The small towns and pit villages were somehow seen as separate from Sunderland, and the one time that the divide was breached was at the match.
But never, in Shildon or later when I lived up in Stanley (the one near Consett) or Newton Aycliffe, did I have cause to question the certainty of my Sunderland support, the earliest origins of which I trace to being taken by my dad to the Boro-SAFC match in which Brian Clough scored our winner. If that makes me sound ancient, there could be a good reason for it.
As far as regional rivalries are concerned, these are rightly lived with passion, though I draw the line long before the ferocity shown by so many.
And I loved this, from yesterday’s Boro “Who are You?” volunteer Iain Lazenby:
Living outside the area and having lived abroad it’s easier to see what unites us rather than what divides us. I think the rivalry with Sunderland – so strong – and to a lesser extent Newcastle is so strong because we are brothers and sisters who suffer from similar problems and who have a similar outlook. A strong North East is a challenge to the Cockerneys, Scousers and Mancs and that can’t be bad even if we have to swallow the baleful influence of Black and White TV broadcasting from the Tyne. I would settle for Boro and Sunderland doing well with the Geordies doomed to an eternal struggle against relegation.
For me, my brother and parents the moment of truth was the FA Cup final of 1973. Who did we hate most? Sunderland or Leeds? We started the match wanting both to lose but when Ian Porterfield scored, we are all on our feet. It made our promotion the next season even sweeter though.
Newcastle fans would disagree, of course, but I think that says it all for a good proportion of us, whether born or adopted northerners (my parents were Londoners who moved to Co Durham when I was a few months old). I’d love to see the three big clubs in the Premier, with Sunderland regaining top dog statu of course, and I’d be delighted to have Hartlepool in the Championship, Darlington in League 1 and Shildon top of the Conference.
A start to this dream can be made after tonight, when I naturally hope we turn in a great performance to maintain the O’Neill momentum, with Boro sufficiently emboldened by honourable defeat to go on and confirm a place in the playoffs.
And whoever got the ‘ell out of Newcastle, very briefly making it Newcaste in the headline as originally posted, has been shot or fired.