The north-east of England. At one time a haven of mining and manufacturing. The names Nissan and Swan Hunter generally are only heard with a Geordie accent. It used to have the romantic notion that people used to whistle down a mining pit and a ready made footballer would come to the surface and sort it all out. More often than not, it tended to happen. If you asked random Joe where the most fervent football area of the British Isles was most knowledgeable answers should direct you to a toss up between Glasgow, Liverpool and the north-east. And that would be right. It’s a moot point after that but I do stand in admiration at the crowds the clubs in the north-east attract irrespective of success. The fanaticism of the fans there does not need success to drive it. Football is the religion and it begins and ends there.
I have had experience of Sunderland and Newcastle away crowds and they are first and foremost at the front of the queue when it comes to reasons why British football matches are an event and not a fixture. Hard North Sea winds seem to set them apart.
I was conscious of all this both in the eighties and in 2017 when I visited the Stadium of Light. You can feel it in the air, you can see it in their faces. But let’s go back to 1984 and my first visit to St. James’ Park.
It was a Sunday afternoon fixture which was still a rare enough event in those days. One team towns have their own aura. No doubt the likes of Portsmouth, Norwich and Plymouth amongst others are equally proud but hours before kick off in match-day Newcastle is like a call to kneel to the black and white Allah. It seems only natural that the ground is situated pretty much in the city centre. Heartbeat of the metropolis, cultural nourishment to its citizens. At various points in the city, for example when you drive to Freeman’s hospital it stands omnipotent as the gateway to the people. The Tower of Babel can only dream.
Champions of Europe and England, Liverpool were the visitors on a grim, rainy mid-November meeting. The teams were defined by the Liverpool back four that had remained pretty much unchanged for several years – Neal, Alan Kennedy, Lawrenson and Hansen and also that twin Celtic dagger of Rush and Dalglish. Newcastle had the trickery and guile of Waddle and Beardsley up front and not much else. Not much of the match stays in my memory. Scottish midfield heroes Steve Nicol and John Wark scored in a routine 2-0 but it was the Gallowgate end, the legends of Milburn and Macdonald etc…that ran through my head. I must return there soon.
A visit to Sunderland in March of 2017 was fascinating in a different way. The city to a visitor seems less glossy than Newcastle but this intensified my fascination. The team at the time was having a horrendous time and was to be relegated that season and indeed the following one too. David Moyes was the incumbent manager. The short walk from the centre to the ground was interesting. Off the main drag, under a bridge, open air activity and beer stands. I walked round the ground. The statue of Bob Stokoe, mid 1973 Wembley trot, struck hard as that FA Cup victory was one of the football stories of that decade. I watched the Manchester City coach arrive amidst much hoopla.
Strangely, I ended up sitting beside a bloke from Andersonstown who had left Belfast in 1983 – not to watch Sunderland I may add but he was a solid Makem alright. It was a routine 2-0 win with goals from Aguero and Sane. I was struck by the speed of Sane who really was like lightening. I think he and Omagh and Hibs’ Ivan Sproule are probably the two fastest footballers I have ever seen. An unlikely duo I grant you. I also have rarely seen as busy a player as Sebastian Larsson. He simply never stopped doing hard, unglamorous work for his team. As you can imagine it wasn’t a day or time of the season to catch Sunderland fans at their best, beaten down as they were by the years of grim. Nevertheless, they are a big part of British football fabric and they need and should be at higher altitude.
If you follow British football they really are grounds to visit as their DNA is in a way more ‘community’, rather than trophies if you follow me. History and players certainly, but more often than not any proper documentary about these two clubs always has the fan and social hinterland involved to a greater degree than many other clubs. I find that interesting. It certainly also is prevalent in coverage of clubs from Glasgow and Liverpool but football success in those areas sometimes masks the human imprint. Geordies and Makems would have a stroke if you said they had things in common, but to the likes of me who visit, red and white or black and white stripes framed by the North Sea in the background have my great respect.