I contend that there is no such thing as ‘the North-East’ as a coherent entity. Like most lines on maps drawn in London, the geographical location has little relationship with the tribal boundaries on the ground and, more importantly in the hearts and accents of the people.
Ever since the third round draw of the Emirates FA Cup was made there has been a hubbub of mischief and almost unbelievable but true gossip about painting the Stadium of Light black and white, of paying £650 for a plate of noodles and five bottles of lager and resourcing our police and coach companies not going to Blackpool to get me and 6000 other Newcastle United fans the 14 miles or so to Sunderland in comfort and safety; the assumption being that riots and criminal disorder would inevitably break out if this was not successfully accomplished.
That assumption is to my mind absolutely correct. If there had been a shrug of the Chief Constable’s shoulders and all carried on as a ‘normal Saturday’, people would have been seriously hurt, even killed. I know.
I remember the 1992 derby at Roker Park, walking along one of the terraced streets leading to Archibald Leitch’s venerably designed ground, (referenced to this day by the cross hatchings in the new Roker End at the Stadium of Light), thinking of the many thousands who’d walked before me and then, suddenly getting punched from the side and set upon by three or four angry men. Once I’d got myself upon my feet then fended them off as assistance arrived, then thanking the kind Sunderland householder who enquired as to my welfare, all I thought about was that I was so lucky not to be stabbed or kicked dead.
In some people’s views, those who often blame rape victims, I’d made myself vulnerable to this assault by wearing an identifiable NUFC jacket; no motivation other than this was necessary and once Liam O’Brien scored the winner for NUFC I didn’t care anyway, but if anyone thinks that this is a sporting occasion then they’re wide of the mark.
In the 2003 derby, I remember being a corporate guest of a long forgotten Japanese telecoms company, who’d sponsored the previous World Cup and all was earnest, but when Nobby Solano scored the winning penalty, the box next door full of bank managers descended into a mini riot as an executive therein had his jaw broken and dislocated, an ambulance and many police arrived and maintained a ‘peace-line’ for the second half.
A barricade between bank managers…No doubt a career or two never recovered and just, so you understand, that from the streets outside to the poshest hospitality available, there is no guarantee of peace at this match, there is outright hostility and the foulest calumnies are uttered by the most serious of person. Butter will not melt but propaganda, lies and political spin have nothing on what people are prepared to attribute to the supporters of the other team. No one is innocent, no credit is given to anyone for their guilt or innocence, I’ve seen stones thrown at police at St. James, seen pitch invasions in 1990 at Newcastle, and everyone saw that feller punch the horse, or try to anyway, I was in the bar by then.
By the way, off topic, once sanity returns to life and politics it should be the demand of every citizen that Northumbria Police Horses are re-homed back at their former Jesmond Dene House stables so they can commute to work by galloping across the Town Moor rather than being trucked in from Lumley Castle. Our horses who protect the democratic right to protest at Grey’s Monument and stand at the match having their pictures taken with beaming kids deserve better.
Football matches affect behaviour
This football match has the ability to affect the behaviour of ordinary decent people (mostly men but some women participate), so that they find themselves arrested or hurt facing recovery, physiotherapy, court, prison, fines, records, disgrace and disgust, for what? A game; a football match that should be a leisure pursuit where people from all walks of life could enjoy a bit of sharp-edged banter and loose off a bit of New Year steam. But this isn’t like that. All over England teams away fans in their thousands attended games – Bristol City took 9,000 to West Ham, Leeds took 4,000 to Peterborough, Liverpool took 7,000 to Arsenal and doubtless some people got drunk, swore, threatened, peed in the streets and annoyed decent folk. Millwall went to Leicester, two of the blue-nosed hooligan hard core and, aside from disgusting performative nonsense from Millwall fans, nothing much seemed to happen.
Here, I’m told only ten arrests were made. Why? Because the police did their job well, the clubs communicated a bit and Newcastle United funded the coaches and police necessary and then they kept us well apart.
A friend of mine has a CBE. He is a retired civil servant of sufficient seniority to have dealt with Ministers and Prime Ministers. He helped implement the £15 pw Family Allowance in 1997; Gordon Brown used to phone him at 7am, he’s a serious bloke…he says that when the infrequent subject of the ‘North-East’ of England intruded upon government affairs (and this was in a Labour Government) we were referred to as “those squabbling children”.
When you observe the events of Saturday it’s difficult to argue that they were right, at least in part, and we have a fundamental problem of regional governance that cannot be adequately dealt with under the arrangements that we have now and especially in the North East Mayoralty to come in six months time. There are going to be arguments about the funding of everything from the funding of bus stops in Northumberland to the presence of a mayoral office. Will there be a ‘capital’ in Newcastle, Durham, Sunderland, Alnwick, or should s/he get a bus and float around?
I guarantee that the politics of preoccupation will dominate the headlines no matter what sort of policies are necessary for progress. The mayorality isn’t the despotism sometimes portrayed, it is a voice on a committee of eight where nothing can be done against the will of the relevant borough, county or city. Democracy will look at it, shudder and hope for mid-table obscurity whilst social media outrage will build headlines with false outrage and more dopes will get elected and discover that protest is easy but the hard yards are done with no one watching.
The game isn’t just on the pitch
As to Saturday, for me on the day as a Newcastle United fan, it was very, very pleasant and got better as the day went on. 6,000 assembled at St. James Park from 8.30am and formed a rapidly moving queue from The Strawberry up past the ticket office and main entrance then down the stairs to the buses. We got a free scarf, a sachet of water and a breakfast bar and sat in our seats.
The empty cans and bottles showing that many had refused to contemplate an absolutely sober trip were piled up on top of full bins in a kind of beer-jenga bevvy pile and carrier bags were left full rather than cans being just chucked away. Let’s praise where it’s due, we’re at least better behaved about litter these days.
Our buses drove in convoy with motorcycle outriders and police car escort through red lights as traffic was held back for us “ganning along the Scotswood Road”, past the new barbed wire on the remnants of the Armstrong Factories, over the river, past the Metro Centre, down the A1, past the Angel and into the debateable lands of Washington where, next to Nissan the buses stopped to allow many to empty their bladders. This was a half hour stop allowing Northumbria Police the opportunity to seize and secure the pedestrian bridges over Wessington Way and deploy to any likely high ground frustrating the potential to hurl missiles onto the 80 bus convoy. Despite the last derby being eight years ago, they’d clearly done their homework.
We parked up in the lower end of the Stadium of Light’s carpark, where the signs of poor maintenance were clear in the mossy, lumpy tarmac and faded paint. Then, as we walked towards our destination at around 11.15am, an hour and a half before kick-off, we saw the first Sunderland fans of the day. They stood assembled, hemmed in behind fences with riot police watching, shouting abuse… “Scum, Scum, Scum…” and other stuff that I didn’t get which received a bemused but insulting reaction from the people around me. Fortunately, the fundamental was that they were static, and we were moving towards the gates and into the ground, so the ‘confrontation’ was minimal.
The fact remains that these people, them and us, are not mindless, unemployable thugs but citizens, workers and responsible adults who allow themselves to behave like this in public in front of their kids, the cameras and police on a Saturday morning; what was it going to be like after the match?
My seat in the ground was high up but right behind the goal which was magnificent in the second half as I had a perfect view of our second and third goals, but also allowed me to witness the Sunderland crowd coming in. I appreciate that I’m not exactly an impartial observer although I promise I’m trying to remain objective, so maybe it is true that every home match sees a similar display of something spelling out ‘Wearside’ in the long stand facing the owners, although we didn’t have a clue what it said from where we were. Similarly, in the land of the befuddled and ill-informed where I was, I couldn’t hear the stadium announcer who shouted out the names of the Sunderland team like a Brian Johnson impersonator (the Geordie AC/DC lead singer who is absolutely NUFC) and only succeeded in sounding a bit hysterical rather than impressive and, as he didn’t read out the NUFC team to my hearing, we recognised our own players and didn’t recognise Sunderland’s. The whiff of sulphur was duly delivered by flaming pyre things that emitted red and white smoke and, before the smell had cleared, the kickoff took place, Newcastle took the ball off them and nearly scored within 90 seconds.
This set the pattern for the match which witnessed a gulf in ability and organisation which was no surprise to the form book but reassured me, a student of footballing calamity. After all, Luton town with a similar gulf in budget had clobbered Newcastle only a fortnight ago, but this was something else. That note of evident pre-match home-team hysteria manifested itself in psychological shock and tantrums from players on the pitch, supporters off the pitch and has been evident subsequently in fans dealing with getting beaten.
One of Durham’s finest men, Sir Bobby Robson once said that “some people around here need to learn how to lose”. Listening to Marco Gabiadini on Radio Newcastle’s Total Sport tonight condemning Newcastle United for having the nerve to take a victory photograph in front of their 6,000 fans holding up the black’n’white scarves as if some ancient footballing taboo had been transgressed, shows that lesson still needs to be learned. Defeat can be a good provided that change occurs, even if it’s “don’t try that again”.
I reckon the actual game was won by Newcastle even before the first goal went in, the Sunderland players were shocked by the power, skill and pace of their much more expensive and better organised opponents so the real contest became the chanting in the stands. This was a rare opportunity to actually confront the enemy with your worst insults and then, of course watch him shrug his shoulders and ignore you. Thus the Newcastle fans offended against fan-karma by assuming victory too early, chanting things like “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when”, and generally adopting a superior attitude.
Sunderland went for the geopolitical insults, saying “no noise from the Saudi Boys” and Newcastle retorted in kind saying “2-0 to the Saudi Boys” which is not, by the way some kind of adoption of Wahabist mentalities in the Gallowgate End or an acceptance of overlordship from Riyadh, it’s just saying that we won’t be told who we are by the ignorant or the malicious and that the “insult us and be damned” instinct is as strong here as ever.
I won’t be told by Guardian makems, by Trotskyite hypocrites, by fakes and by enemies what my team, club and people are. If you want to have a go, blame football, blame international capitalism, blame men in power, blame politics, war, religion and corruption, but if you don’t fancy that, blame Bobby from Byker and comfort yourself with your own moral superiority, maybe look at yourself admiringly in the mirror too…The competition that we were in, that Newcastle United are still in, is called The Emirates FA Cup. Emirates an airline that is wholly owned by the Investment Corporation of Dubai, a political entity that seems to share all of the ‘attributes’ of Saudi Arabia, or a good employer that pays high wages and flies from Newcastle Airport connecting us to vital overseas markets and middle eastern locations where education and commerce protect and enhance our regional economy.
If we’re discussing sportswashing, no problem, but let’s be accurate and let us acknowledge that Newcastle as a community is about as Wahabist as it is teetotal. In other news Blackrock Fund Managers have sacked many of their ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) people, the part that used to be called “ethical investment” as there’s either less demand or they’re not that bothered. Whatever the Saudis seek here it isn’t money or power, compliance or sporting attention, they can get that from F1, boxing and golf, it just might be community and friendship, to let that small flame of hope grow.
Another pal of mine was in a meeting with them and they impress him as decent people trying to change their country; so are we. Just because we haven’t exactly delivered good governance in the UK doesn’t invalidate our efforts or theirs. We all hope for a better future.
Anyway, after the match, when the Sunderland fans had stopped calling us Saudis and Newcastle fans had stopped called them paedophile apologists and seagull shaggers, we processed homewards; this time around a table on the upper deck we saw a small handful of Sunderland fans glare at us from the odd pub car park and got back home to the Tyneside Irish Centre earlier than expected. For some, the drink beckoned and Newcastle celebrated in a medium desultory way, for others, a long day dictated another bus and tea at home.
I had people contact me remembering the family members no longer with us, who taught us how to be good citizens and decent men, on both sides of the footballing tribal divide. A famous politician spy once said that you should be “defiant in defeat and magnanimous in victory”, although his defeats were opportunities for his rest and earning money not the maiming pain or bereavement of his victims. There’s no such thing here, the ‘Celebration Police’ will analyse, categorise and marmelise any suggestions of improper celebrations suggesting that such people reveal a lack of ‘class’ or morality and judgement. Many of these conversations take place at work and here we have the problem and it’s one of trust. How can we trust the people that we share a region with, even a fake one?
The lines on our map say that we have a Regional Mayorality of the LA7 councils which includes Berwick and Stanhope, Hexham and Seaham and, fatally for its future, Newcastle and Sunderland. It has become a part of media snobbery to term a Sunderland vs Newcastle match, the “Wear Tyne derby”. That is, of course totally wrong as the football match, whichever ground it’s played at (barring Wembley, which would be a strain on the Met), takes place in the County of Tyne and Wear. This entity still exists, it might be a zombie, its HQ is being repurposed as flats, it might have no council or anything but a Lord Lieutenant, (who is from Sunderland) , but it still exists.
The BBC is always careful with their ceremonial information but here, their safe centrist Kremlinology comforts the furious complainers from Sunderland who are sickened about the order of the very words “Tyne and Wear” and continue to argue with fury and logic that the rates of Sunderland funded the initially Tyneside only Metro. The fate of Tyne and Wear should be a warning to those who wish to unite that which should be forever divided as it is obvious to me that Sunderland will never do what Newcastle wishes and Newcastle will always ignore Sunderland as, unless you have a family or occupational reason there is little reason to go to Sunderland for any reason except for football.
This is a great pity, Sunderland has some exceptional buildings, the 1715 Trinity Church, the Regency Terraces and the kind of neighbourhood vintage feel that will see its reputation rise as it’s discovered by the same types who ‘love’ The Ouseburn and Tynemouth cafes. However, it’s murder to get there and park and it has reputational issues that makes Shields Road seem affluent, and that’s unfair to both locations. The Newcastle fans who bask in our beautiful city’s classical centre and who pretend metropolitan sophistication are as irritating as the Sunderland fans affecting proletarian authenticity as they both live on the same suburban ring road.
The airport situation (“You’ve got to fly from Newcastle to get to Spain” as NUFC fans chant) alone dictates that Sunderland people cannot ignore Newcastle although some of their publicity conscious fans and a councillor have, with unconscious hilarity, suggested that it should be called Sunderland Airport and I remember asking the LEP CEO (Sunderland) where the regional capital of the North-East was then saying that it was the nearest central business district to the only international airport and that it wasn’t bloody Spennymoor was it?
The simple truth is we have a tribal boundary that everyone who has knowledge of the people of the region knows about, yet is unmarked and unacknowledged in academic, political and economic circles. No doubt it’s seen to be too divisive and populist for a Labour Party that badly needs the discipline and taste of simultaneous local, regional and national power and doesn’t want to start arguments it doesn’t understand but unless it gets this under control, expect the rise of the Newcastle Independents and the Sunderland Home Rulers on the councils.
Political loyalty is not anywhere near as ingrained as footballing loyalty here and the proof is that no politician can put 50,000 people in a stadium paying £30 or more for the privilege. What would happen if you could vote for your football team’s candidate? Or against them? It’s already happened, my Sunderland friend who voted against the NE Regional Assembly in 2004 didn’t listen to the issues; he voted against John Hall NUFC owner, it wasn’t just the malign genius of Dominic Cummings, it was because half the region hated the main proponent of it because of football and because it was football, the regional political analysts missed it, possibly deliberately and still do not wish to talk about it in public.
Kim McGuiness handled the derby well. Weeks ago, she helped organise the 6,000 tickets for NUFC and presumably handled some of the thorough and slick policing operation as well as representing a unified campaign for the reduction of knife crime with both clubs respective Foundations. Jamie Driscoll opposed the ‘bubble’ trip and I can understand his aspirations to trusting his fellow human being, but every match has seen trouble except this one, it just wasn’t well reported until that feller punched a horse! Bluntly, it’s a political nightmare, and the decreptitude of Sunderland and the lack of derbys in the last seven years is a boon to any local politician who has other fish to fry.
I remember Rob Clay when he was MP for Sunderland North (which included Roker Park) asking my dad if he could “come along to the match” when we said we’d be in the Roker End with the Newcastle fans. We told him that he would lose his seat if he was discovered with us despite his huge majority. He looked at us with disbelieving blankness, that same blank stare that Labour MPs in Scotland had when all but one got shifted out by nationalism. They learned a lesson, or they should have done anyway.
We have been defined by others for too long; “The North-East”, whether it’s a TV Region, a subset of identity politics that won’t fit the silly clichés or a new Mayorality is inadequate as a political and community entity. We’d be better off going back to Northumberland and Durham or better still Bernicia with Northumberland and Tyneside down to the southern edge of the Leam Lane Estate and the Boldon “Beetroot Line” (See Dan Jackson’s The Northumbrians for details) and Diera.
Failing that we need some strong political leaders who can be trusted to be careful with their footballing community politics and maybe to be able to remind the people who support their teams that in future there should be more important policing priorities than facilitating hatred, ignorance, drunkenness just to avoid mass violence. The same supporters attending a women’s game seem to require none of these particular stimulants and are showing their value as an example for the men’s game. It’s possible that the next Newcastle United vs Sunderland derby will be played by the women’s teams, if the same security measures, alcohol bans and preparation is needed than maybe we have no hope; if it is an exhibition of football, community value and sporting endeavour then men will have some explaining to do. I hope that’s in a kinder, better North of England where its separate communities around Newcastle and Sunderland can develop into better cities. Like people who can be good friends who don’t need to see each other very much. We can meet at Durham Big Meeting in the summer and enquire into each other’s health, that’ll do.