‘No, no, no. This has to be a joke.’
Those were my first thoughts at 7am on Sunday morning when my alarm went off, seemingly minutes after I’d FINALLY fallen asleep.
Tortured by demonic visions of Lee Cattermole, Fabio Borini and a freakishly square-headed, gum-chewing monster, it’s fair to say the night before the derby never grants the most restful of slumbers. This one, though, was particularly painful. Hysterical nerves, Allardyce-Tourettes and insomnia actually kicked in a good 5 or 6 days before the build-up started in earnest. And that’s because this time, this most North-Eastern of traditions actually played into something greater than local bragging rights.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s always about bragging rights, and no black and white parish-goers need me to remind them how achingly long it has been since we could give it the proverbial biggun’ on that front. The derby will never not be massive for both sets of fans.
I accept that we’re not talking Man United v Liverpool here, and that south of the Wear, interest dwindles sharply. But where this match is concerned, I not only refuse to be drawn into the impotent and irritating discussions around ‘big’ clubs facing off and where these fixtures should rank in the wider English football framework, because in the heat of the day itself, it simply doesn’t matter. Our derby is better than yours, purely because it’s OURS.
The pre-match narrative was slightly different on this occasion, though.
I’ve worked in London for nearly 10 years and while most colleagues know to give me a wide berth during derby week (emotional outbursts: customary and uncontainable), none really have any cause for interest beyond winding me up by perhaps sharing a Jermaine Defoe gif here or there.
Football fans, and national mainstream sport media in general, predictably gave a lot more coverage to this particular clash, and constant headlines screaming of the dire consequences for the losers of the ‘£100m derby’ certainly didn’t do much to settle the nerves.
All of a sudden, Newcastle v Sunderland was the biggest 6-pointer of the season (for the poor sods in the bottom 6, anyway) and managers, players and fans alike were all too aware of something far greater than not being able to show your face in the Metro Centre being at stake.
This season of all seasons, relegation will have a potentially earth-shattering impact on those who nose-dive into the second tier, and either Newcastle or Sunderland – or both – could find themselves trapped in a similarly extended exile to the one endured by our dear friends on Teesside these last 7 years. The prospect of years in the wilderness, multiplied by the unconscionable concept of the Mackems inflicting the fatal wound as they extended their winning streak to 7 in a row, meant we simply HAD to win.
So, back to 7am on Sunday, and it’s no wonder I’ve had not a wink of kip and feel sicker than a loose goose. But mixed in there with the churning stomach and terrifying Di Canio-down-the-touchline flashbacks, there’s a fair amount of hope and uncontrollable excitement.
For an exiled Geordie, Newcastle on derby day is like Christmas Day. The sweet smell of Broon on the air, police on every corner, a sea of black and white in the Strawberry ‘beer garden’…but seriously, the atmosphere and the anticipation is simply unbeatable and there’s a twisted comfort in knowing that we’re all in it together. I wouldn’t swap it for anything.
Time seems to pass in dollops. It’s painfully slow when you’re queuing for another settler or waiting desperately for team news, and then, like anything that you’re dreading yet also relishing, it’s suddenly just time to do it and there’s no going back. Dread turns to hysteria to fury to fervour and back to dread so quickly, it will make your head spin.
And that’s just walking up the steps.
Then when you actually get into the stadium, that visceral rush of how much it all actually means and how badly you want it to be our turn is overwhelming. With a thunderous roar, battle begins, and all you can do now is watch, and hope.
It’s not enjoyable. The guttural booming and singing is, but each opposition touch forward and set piece conceded plumb new depths of unease, just as each stray pass or poor decision from our lot incites wild incredulity and towering rage.
Nails are bitten, the air is blue with swear words I don’t think even my Dad has heard, and the longer it goes on, the more intense it gets. Despite the presence of Rafa on the touchline and the renewed sense of belief that gave us, we just weren’t very good.
It felt like we’d frozen on this stage yet again, but that the paucity of our opponents might just leave the tiniest of tiny open windows for a great escape. Just as I start to slightly relax into the thought of my half-time bottle of warm lager, of course the unthinkable yet entirely predictable happens, and dastardly Defoe capitalises on chaos in the Newcastle box to sweep home in front of an appalled Gallowgate.
The weird, delayed echo of Mackem celebrations ringing through a silent St James’s contributes to a horrible sense of un-reality: there’s just no way that’s actually just happened, is there??
But happened it has, and the grim reality of the half-time terrace chatter was that it really had come down to 45 minutes to save not just our season, but in all likelihood, the next 4 or 5 seasons as well.
The next half an hour or so is a bit of a blur (we’re not built to drink from 9am, to be fair), but the crowd appeared too shell-shocked and edgy to muster that wall of noise that we’d delivered in the first 45. Just as Allardyce had dreamed it.
I don’t suppose either set of fans is ever really 100% happy with the referee in a derby, but genuinely, we got nowt. He fell for all of Fat Sam’s negative, pathetic trademarks and just as it was starting to feel like he’d masterminded our demise in our own backyard, there was that mad, beautiful Serbian at the back post to send SJP and the entire Geordie nation into absolute raptures. Priceless. Worth all of the anguish every single time. I was a blabbering wreck by this point and the overwhelming emotion was pure, pure relief.
Sadly, a winner wasn’t to be and how costly that will be to both teams remains to be seen. Rafa or no Rafa, it doesn’t look good. From feeling like I was made entirely of adrenalin all week and finally stepping off another black and white emotional roller-coaster as the final whistle signalled honours even, I suddenly felt more like I needed to sleep for 87 years and never willingly put myself through this torment again.
And that’s an oft-heard line in the aftermath, isn’t it. ‘Never again!’ ‘We can’t keep doing this!’ The tone immeasurably brighter and more ‘What are we like?!’ in nature following Mitro’s header on Sunday, compared to the deadly-solemn oath to never trudge up those hallowed steps for this fixture again following a certain convicted sex offender’s sickening winner the previous Christmas. Whatever the circumstances and the raw emotion post the final whistle aside, we’re all ultimately full of sh*t.
It’s hideous, it’s exhausting, but deep down, we know we wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s an undeniable part of the tapestry of our region and our proud clubs, and a Newcastle United or a Sunderland season is exponentially poorer without it.
The sad reality now appears to be that one of us will succumb this May, and both sets of fans will spend who-knows-how-long yearning for the next time we wake up feeling sick with dread and giddy with excitement knowing that the old enemy lie in wait.
The only thing worse than going through all that again? Not going through all that again.