When Two Tribes Go To Wear…
Sunderland. Derby Day.
It’s not even 10am on a Sunday morning, and yet the city centre looks more like 11pm on a Friday. Sky Sports may have moved kick off to an hour not generally associated with getting hammered and singing songs about the demise of Steven Taylor, but this hasn’t stopped the locals from giving it their best shot. The red and white masses have not only filled every bar available (the first opening at 8am), but spilled onto the streets in huge numbers. I thought arriving at this time would mean a few hours of waiting around for the atmosphere to build, but it turned out I was extremely late to the party.
I work my way to the bar in Gatsby, the bar with the earliest opening time in town. Just as I reach the front, the televisions dotted around the bar show one of Kevin Phillip’s many goals against Newcastle. The place absolutely erupts, a goal from a decade ago on a DVD player greeted with a louder roar than many of the weekends goals across the Premier League would have received inside the stadium. I knew that Sunderland and Newcastle hated each other, but it quickly became apparent that I had vastly underestimated the ferociousness of the Tyne Wear derby. It’s hatred on a scale unimaginable pretty much anywhere else in England, and things were only just getting started.
Despite the fact that Sunderland went into this game with just one point and rock bottom of the league, this seemed to annoy them far less than the fact that Steven Taylor was still alive. “Steven Taylor, we wish you were dead” and “We’re all gonna have a party…when Steven Taylor dies” are two of the most popular chants in the build up to the game, along with “Have you ever seen a Mackem punch a horse?” and suggestions as to where Alan Pardew and the Toon Army should go.
The statue of FA Cup winning manager Bob Stokoe is the focus point for Sunderland fans outside the ground, with the majority of fans that passed by stopping to pat his boots for good luck. One elderly fan, who would almost certainly have been at the game when they defeated Leeds in 1973, pauses for a moment. WIth a tear forming in his eye, he says “If you’re watching today Bob, we could really do with your help mate.” The statue of Stokoe had a strange impact on the crowd, with every fan that passed by falling silent, if only for a moment. Sunderland’s glory days may seem like a distant memory on current form, but if nothing else, the frozen in time image of Stokoe’s celebration allowed them to dream once more. As it was to turn out by full time, sometimes dreams do come true.
Having met a friend from Twitter who had arranged my ticket, we made our way into the ground with around 40 minutes to go before kickoff. Such is my disdain for the current state of English football, it is very rare that I even bother to watch a Premier League game on TV. It quickly became clear that Sunderland vs. Newcastle was not your usual mundane sanitised English fixture, with an atmosphere comparable to anything I experienced at the world famous Milan derby or with the Galatasaray Ultras. A section of the concourse had been turned into a Sunderland AFC moshpit, with beer, bodies and limbs flying through the air as the Mackems got ready for their hated rivals in their own unique style.
The history of the fixture was remembered in detail, with songs about Kevin Phillips (positive) and Alan Shearer (not so positive) both featuring extensively in the home fans repertoire. This derby can make or break a career, and a winning performance can see you go down in local folklore. With kickoff rapidly approaching, it was time to find out who would feature in the drunken songs of the next generation.
Just as with my visit to Feyenoord (incidentally, there is a friendship between these two clubs, with a Feyenoord flag being displayed at the front of the stand at the Stadium of Light), I was located in a different part of the stadium to those who invited me, but they were able to get me into the heart of the atmosphere with little bother. In fact, there were roughly three people to every seat in this part of the stadium, with fans packed in and creating a tremendous atmosphere. It was further proof that there is a real need for safe standing in England, if only on a small scale to start with.
The teams enter the field, with Sunderland receiving the tremendous support you would expect in a derby match, with Newcastle receiving the traditional abuse, whistles and boos that come with being an away team entering a cauldron of hate. If this was all pretty standard, what came next certainly wasn’t. I have witnessed club anthems at Inter, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund to name just a few, and this was just as loud as the noise produced by 100,000 inside the Camp Nou. Liverpool are (rightly) world famous for their rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, but when they sing it like this, Sunderland and Wise Men Say should certainly be mentioned in the same breath as The Kop.
The game kicks off and the atmosphere somehow goes up yet another notch, the Sunderland fans behind the goal waving large flags which were similar to those employed by European Ultras, it was extremely refreshing to see a club whose supporters are more imaginative when it comes to flags. I think we have all seen enough England flags with the club initials and ‘Big Baz on tour’ in the top corner to last a lifetime, and Sunderland are certainly ahead of the game in this aspect of their support.
Sunderland drive forward in the early stages, inspired by the support their terrifically loyal supporters are offering them. They win a corner on the left side, which is whipped in by Adam Johnson. The marking from Newcastle is poor, allowing the ball to reach the head of Steven Fletcher. From such close range there was only ever going to be one outcome, and the ball flies past Krul and into the back of the net. There is a split second of silence while the stadium takes in what has just happened, before an eruption of joy explodes around the ground. People fly through the air, a sprawling mass of humanity spilling across several rows of seats. The friend who got my ticket disappears into a sea of bodies, as people fall all over the place, seats shatter and wallets, phones and keys are lost forever.
One Sunderland fan in my row celebrates so wildly and is so overcome with emotion that he runs down the stairs to be sick, narrowly making it in time and avoiding a ‘no puke no party’ situation developing in the absence of pyro. ‘Random’ searches had been conducted before the game, with the stewards picking me out of the crowd to look for smokebombs or flares. It’s good to know that the stewards at the Stadium of Light are fans of the website, at least.
The players celebrate just as wildly as the fans, with Fletcher shown a yellow card for entering the crowd. It’s a stupid rule, especially in a game with this much at stake and so much passion on show. After scoring a goal in this fixture a player could be forgiven for running naked to the Newcastle end, before indicating that he had done unpleasant things to the mothers of everyone in the away section. The celebrations go on for some time, as the Sunderland fans try to find their missing friends or personal items, while bruised and bleeding shins are compared after smashing into seats and various other solid items. I didn’t see it personally, but a message on a Sunderland forum reports that someone cracked a rib celebrating the goal and didn’t go to hospital until after the game. It’s not difficult to believe.
Sunderland are dominant in these glorious opening moments, pouring the pressure on the visitors and looking more like a side towards the top of the table than the one which was rock bottom. Despite the spectacular noise and the best efforts of the players, the second goal does not arrive, and Newcastle begin to work their way back into the game as the clock ticks on towards the thirty minute mark. The tackles are flying in on both sides, with the referee sensibly keeping his card in his pocket on a number of occasions where it may usually have been brandished during a normal fixture. Only Yohan Cabaye joins Fletcher in the book, for a fairly horrendous challenge on Jack Colback.
On top for the first time in the game, Newcastle look to take advantage of the situation. They win a couple of corners and free kicks in threatening positions, but cannot convert the superiority into a goal. Ben Arfa and Williamson threaten on occasions, but in truth the Black and Whites have not performed. Half time arrives, greeted with a roar of approval which sounds more like Sunderland have won the game, never mind simply making it to the break with a 1 – 0 lead. The quality hasn’t been the highest on the pitch, but the support off of it has been unquestionable. You could forgive the supporters 15 minutes to sit down and relax with a pie, but they weren’t having any of it. The singing continues throughout the break, with flags waved in the air and drunken dances precariously performed on top of plastic seats.
The second half kicks off, and there is a new determination about Newcastle, both in the stands and on the field. For the first time the visitors could be clearly heard, with the team responding to the vocal support and buoyed by the introduction of Cisse for the ineffective Sissoko . The pressure built and built on Sunderland, who seemed to have lost all the confidence they showed in the first half. Ben Arfa almost scores the equaliser after 15 minutes of the second period, but has to settle for an assist instead. He finds Mathieu Debuchy, who makes no mistake and scores his first goal in English football, followed by a celebration that had clearly been planned on the training ground some time ago.
Paolo Di Canio’s knee slide provided the iconic image of the famous 0 – 3 victory earlier this year, and it was one which had obviously stuck in the mind of the Newcastle players, as they sprinted to the dugouts and performed knee slides of their own. The away end goes absolutely bonkers, with the top tier of the stand visibly shaking as the shirtless Geordies celebrate wildly, while a number of undercover away fans in a corporate box are discovered after breaking their cover and celebrating the goal. Sunderland fans surge up the stand to have a quiet word with the intruders, with the police rapidly stepping in to ensure a serious incident doesn’t develop.
Having finally got back on level terms, Newcastle were looking to inflict yet another defeat on their hated foes. Cabaye and Santon both have two opportunities to give the visitors the lead, as Sunderland start to lose their heads and make mistakes. Poyet makes substitutions to attempt to change the tide of the game, Cattermole replaced by Ki and Fabio Borini coming on for Adam Johnson. Fabio Borini. Remember that name…
Newcastle also make a change, and it is one to strike fear into the hearts of Sunderland. Shola Ameobi has scored numerous goals in derby matches, and his appearance in place of Loic Remy drew a number of groans from the home supporters. It seemed inevitable that Ameobi would pop up to score a winner and heap the pressure on Sunderland further still, as a number of attempts for the Magpies fly narrowly wide or just can’t find the touch which would turn the ball into the net and seal the victory.
Less than ten minutes remain now, and Sunderland are hanging on for dear life. The fans continue to believe in their side despite a Newcastle goal appearing closer and closer, as they cheer every tackle and roar with appreciation at every clearance. The clock is ticking down and it appears as though the spoils will be shared, leaving Sunderland bottom of the league and going in to November without a Premier League victory. But sometimes, the Gods of football decide that a team has suffered for too long, and decides that a reward is needed for the wasted weekends and the disappointing journeys home after yet another defeat. With minutes to go, Sunderland produced one of the most magic moments of all.
Sunderland have the ball some way out from the goal after Newcastle waste possession. It is played forward to American forward Jozy Altidore, who controls the ball superbly and touches it into the path of Borini. The substitute takes a touch, before drilling an unstoppable shot from long range into the back of the net past the despairing dive of Tim Krul. The noise is like nothing I have ever heard in England before, as the Sunderland fans react with a mixture of joy, amazement and relief. Chaos reigns, as the celebrating masses let out their months of frustration in one euphoric moment. Several grown men around me are in tears, as bodies fall to the ground as far as the eye can see. A fan leaps from his seat in the row in front on top of me, with both of us falling backwards over a seat into the back row of the stadium. Bodies appear from all over the place, a pile of sheer Wearside joy.
Scenes of joy at Sunderland
There are just seconds left, but there is almost time for a cruel twist, as Newcastle are presented with a perfect chance to equalise. Football can be cruel, but not that cruel, and the Mackems survive. The full time whistle comes, bringing with it an extended celebration from both players and fans alike. All they had done on paper was move from 20th to 19th, but this fixture means so, so much more than three points. The defining moment of the celebration is a second rendition of Wise Men Say, sung with a passion that showed just what this game means in this part of the country. Sunderland’s fans have been magnificent throughout, and the fact that they were provided with a moment of pure ecstasy shows that sometimes, just sometimes, supporters get exactly what they crave and what they deserve.
Heading out of the ground, the silent reverence which had been present around the Stokoe statue before the game has been replaced with jubilant scenes of victory. Supporters have scaled the statue, sitting on the shoulders of their former hero while saluting the exploits of their new icons. On the day that Lou Reed passed away, Sunderland fans had their very own perfect day.
This is what it means. (Picture courtesy of Twitter user @Frsgrd)