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A Different League

Twelve Stops on the Metro

By Matty LongPublished 5 months ago Updated 5 months ago 8 min read

My research into sporting rivalries the world over isn’t great, and I’m sure many of you will point out many similar cases throughout both the UK and the world (the Old Firm for one), but Newcastle and Sunderland is one of those rivalries that massively transcends the football world. I believe it goes back to the English Civil War, where Royalist Newcastle had an advantage over parliamentary Sunderland. Some things never change. All my friends who don’t have any remote interest in football will still retch at the sound of a Mackem accent and are fully committed to the belief that it is a land of web-footed scum. But those people don’t have a platform to fuel their hatred, and I highly doubt are going into the streets to punch Mackems. Football, one might argue, provides that platform, but what does this rivalry look like in the world today, and is there something different to the North East derby than other derbies out there?

I had a bit of a gift of content just as I began to compile my research into this question, when Newcastle drew Sunderland in the FA cup, leading to the first North East derby in seven years. What followed the next week gave quite an insight into the very nature of this derby. Sunderland, now majority-owned by 26 year-old Swiss-French businessman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, (described by one person I surveyed as a “child playing with a toy”), in a bizarre sequence of moves, first gave Newcastle supporters full allocation of their North stand, before preceding to redecorate the iconic ‘Black Cats bar’ with Newcastle United memorabilia, changing their ‘Haway the lads’ sign to the Newcastle ‘Howay the lads,’ and, the one that really got me, putting a sign behind the bar saying “cheer up Peter Reid,” in a mocking tone about their best manager of recent times.

Social media obviously had a ball, as did Newcastle supporters everywhere. The media widely reported that the club, in the absence of derbies for seven years, clearly had no understanding of quite how much Sunderland hated their Tyneside neighbours. The decorations were swiftly removed, and the below sorry statement was released:

I mean, that just made it even funnier, of course. And then came the game itself, where the Championship side, after a widely-slated Tifo made from foil that cost £17,000, met a 3-0 defeat at home to the mags. Quite brutally, Newcastle’s first was an own goal. Second of the week for Sunderland after whoever it was who decided the decorations were a good idea (a mystery as I write this, would love to get the full details on that). The final nail in this coffin was Newcastle’s Assistant Manager Jason Tindall deciding to take the winning team photo, not in the dressing room, but in front of the North stand, still filled with black and white bodies. I won’t lie, if they’d done that to us I’d be absolutely fuming.

And if it wasn’t bad enough, to top it all off, this inched Newcastle into the position of most derby wins, as entering the game not only were the clubs even, but Sunderland had had an excellent record in derbies over the last decade. My outstanding research did suffer a bit that day though, with one reply to a survey from a Sunderland fan simply stating “Get fucked.” Fair … I guess in a way that does quite accurately gauge his feelings. Another was a little more forthcoming with “Am I fuck doing anything for a mag after that.” I took the hint.

But let’s rewind the clock to when I started writing this section, which was before we had even drawn Sunderland in the cup, when Mackems all over twitter/X were in meltdown not over their displays, ownership redecorating their bars, or losing 3-0, but about a comment made by Geordie duo Ant and Dec on I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here, where they described the outback as ‘barren, deeply hostile environment that is barely fit for human habitation’, saying ‘imagine Sunderland…but hotter!’

Ofcom was flooded with complaints because Mackems, as we all know, can’t take a joke. Now, I’m only taking the piss of course. It’s #NotAllMackems. But this is the world of the internet, and it is one of the places where I think football rivalries show themselves at their most intense. More so, arguably, than in the days where hooliganism was at its height. And there have been some pretty notorious clashes between hooligan firms the Newcastle “Gremlins” and Seaburn “Casuals,” such as in April 2003 during an England qualifier held in Sunderland (no uniting over supporting a common team here), and a “showdown” at the North Shields ferry terminal in March 2002 was described by the BBC as “some of the worst football related fighting ever witnessed in the United Kingdom.”

But, like I say, I think this is not as strong an indication of hatred as that we see in the Twittersphere, or whatever we’re to call it now. I personally think hooliganism has always been more of a fringe movement than you think, perpetuated by establishment media who look down on the working class fans of the sport, and by ridiculous movies like “Green street” and “The Football Factory.”

Entire accounts are set up to laugh at the stupidity of rival fanbases, and they’re very entertaining. I enjoy the never-ending circle of pointing out something hypocritical a rival fan says on social media, as if they’re not going to reply with something else terrible about their rival and agree. But football rivalries can get vicious. I wrote only recently about the horrific treatment of Sunderland by a Sheffield Wednesday fan (since given a stadium ban) for mocking the death of Bradley Lowery. It wasn’t a Newcastle fan, but I’m not going to pretend they don’t exist. It wasn’t long after that, after we beat Man United in the cup, that a reprobate from our club started mocking the Munich Air Disaster.

I wasn’t around in the hooligan days, but I feel that there was a class of people who would sooner batter your head in than they would mock the dead in such a way. But when a rivalry doesn’t have an out, and it becomes very online, this comes to the fore. It is as much a fringe, I think, as the hooliganism was, but like the mainstream media amplified awareness of that kind of fan, social media amplifies this kind of fan. And that’s when the real bitterness comes through. And recently, there is a very bitter online version of the Tyne-Wear derby now, mostly centred around Newcastle’s ownership. Now, the Saudi ownership of Newcastle is something I myself have mixed feelings about, and something I will discuss in a later piece, but both fanbases get very nasty online about something that, in reality, is just an out for their hatred rather than any strongly held political or moral views. Nothing wrong with our fanbases hating each other, may it never change, but I long for it to return to the pitch more regularly. A Sunderland fan mocked Gary Speed’s death following the recent derby, and he was widely condemned by their fanbase. These people have always been a fringe, but it was nice to see that that’s not what fans want the rivalry to be.

I for one agree with Newcastle defender Dan Burn, who stated after the recent game that he would welcome the more regularly return of the derbies. It seems several other fans do secretly agree, too:

“The feeling of beating them was euphoric and the feeling of getting beat by them was stomach-churningly awful. Have I enjoyed their catastrophic descent into irrelevance in League one the last few years? Absolutely. But do I want them to return to the top-flight? Yes, I do.”

Some even admitted they did feel sympathy and missed the “great derby days” even admitting they had “irrational deep-rooted hatred for many years, but with their recent demise I have a tiny bit of sympathy for them.”

Sunderland fans (the ones who got back to me before the draw…) were also more honest in their opinions I found, most critical of their own ownerships’ recent decisions around the derby, calling it “tone deaf,” and admitting that any negativity towards the takeover is primarily along the lines of “it’s going be tough watching Newcastle get so good.” Another stated that he felt “jealous, as I think most Sunderland fans would be lying if they said they wouldn't want a big money takeover.” I think, in conclusion, we can say both sets of fans want to play each other, and it will satisfy both fanbases more when this is at the same level in the league.

I mean it is possible, FFP could theoretically go wrong for Newcastle and we end up in the same position as Everton this season, and then get relegated with deducted points. Many fans have already written this season off anyway due to FFP difficulties and an injury crisis that hasn’t helped.

I won’t entertain the ludicrous idea that Sunderland could get promoted. But, no, I’m joking, as most people know they are really. The cup was the first derby I’ve watched properly since I turned 18. I watched it in The Strawberry, in the shadow of St James’ Park, and it was the closest I’ve ever felt to being at a match when I was in fact in a pub. I’d love to do that again soon, and despite everything they went through, I think a lot of Sunderland fans are very hungry for revenge.

I want to bring back the days when we’re playing each other all the time and there is no room for sympathy from anyone, so things come full circle and the desire for their relegation (or liquidation…) ironically becomes more prominent because we’re playing them more. Like this one steadfast fan’s concluding opinion:

“I have always been into the rivalry, but my feelings of dislike increased massively when we went down in 2016 and had to endure their gloating. I'm not one of those that wants them to get promoted so we can have the derby again, I would have happily seen them languish in League One for all eternity (if I have had a few that becomes would happily see them get liquidated and end up playing Shildon in front of 300 people in the Northern League).”

Many similar things I heard in The Strawberry the other week, to be honest, after many more than a few.

I think we miss it, and when people aren’t behind their keyboard, it’s a rivalry equally as intense, but not as, well, unhealthy. One fan I surveyed mentioned that the question of the rivalry made him think of his Grandad:

"He would always say that North East clubs should acknowledge that they have more in common than that which divides us. Similarities of geography, yes, but also economics, job prospects, backgrounds, and undying loyalty to their teams. 'Not like them bloody Cockneys. Shite.'"

I think if anything, it's just a demonstration as to how different it was to other generations, while still being a rivalry. My own great grandfather apparently supported both clubs, but I probably best not mention that. Because I believe that rivalry is very healthy. We all need it. It’s part of that culture and that release of all your problems into something that simultaneously means everything and nothing. It is, after all, only 12 miles.

And if the coming together around someone like Bradley Lowery’s cause proves anything, it’s that, in the case of the North East, football transcends any hatred that exists any hatred that comes without it, something that we saw after he passed and again before the recent derby .

That, and the fact that neither of us care about Middlesbrough.


About the Creator

Matty Long

Jack of all trades, master of watching movies. Also particularly fond of pizza, country music, watching football, travelling, and tea.

X: @eardstapa_

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock5 months ago

    Interesting article. Much different than the rivalries I've experienced here on the other side of the pond.

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