Try living in Sunderland for three years
Animosity, poison, vitriol – three words that shouldn’t be used to describe a football match, yet these terms have become all too frequent in the language of the Newcastle v Sunderland derby in recent years.
I’m not a Geordie but I have been a Newcastle supporter since I was 5, plus I have also had the ‘pleasure’ of living in Sunderland for three years.
The rivalry, born long ago out of Newcastle’s allegiance to the crown and Sunderland’s republican leanings is accentuated by the similarities between the people of the two cities and their geographical position in the northern heartlands.
With the cities just 10 miles apart almost everybody has friends or colleagues from across the divide. Thousands commute in each direction every day and places like South Shields which lie in between, are firmly spilt between the two teams.
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I have got many friends of both persuasions and there is nothing in football that can compare to the build up to derby week in the North East. Memories of Thomas Sorensen’s penalty save against Alan Shearer and Shola Ameobi’s ‘Mackem slaying’ are fondly rekindled each year and a sense of excitement mixed with trepidation reaches fever pitch as the weekend draws closer.
But as a Newcastle fan living in Sunderland I’ve experienced some of the animosity that comes with supporting the wrong football team.
When cheering a Shola Ameobi goal in a near deserted Sunderland pub, a few of us were threatened by the locals, and when making the short walk home from the metro station in Sunderland whilst wearing a (barely visible) Newcastle scarf I’ve had insults thrown my way. I’m sure Mackems exiled in Newcastle will have similar stories.
Which bring us to this ‘A Derby To Be Proud’ of campaign. A host of supporter groups from both sides have signed up to the idea which aims to cut out some of the poison from the atmosphere which has overstepped the mark in recent years, with songs about Jimmy Saville and death threats to Steven Taylor.
With clubs across the globe commemorating the World War One Truce last week and the charitable donations from Sunderland fans following the death of Newcastle fans John Alder and Liam Sweeney, this derby is a fitting time to remember that football can be a force for good.
Should the general public be fearful for their own safety on derby day? Should grown men need police separation to go to a football match? Should 10 year old children be spewing a tirade of hate at people they’ve never met?
The answer to all these questions is of course no and without the camaraderie and banter between the two sets of supporters all year round, the game would have no meaningful context.
Today the atmosphere will be as turbo charged as ever and there will doubtless be a few tasteless chants, but we can only hope that lessons have been learned and fans can balance passion with self control in the country’s greatest derby.
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