IS THE Newcastle game a derby? Only if Boro win.
Victory either way will spark passionate open top bus paradesque gloating on the Three Legends and in workplaces region wide from one side and that will be met by furiously feigned indifference and a series of history and geography lessons proving conclusively that the result is irrelevent on the other. You know the script; the scoreline just determines who plays which part.
Of course it is a derby. The fierce denial of that by terrace ideologues on both sides is just soccer spin doctors trying to distance themselves from the glaringly obvious fact that this is a match of paramount parochial importance. It is pre-emptive damage limitation aimed at reducing the pain should the unthinkable happen.
Derbies are not about distance, not now anyway. Historically it was always taken to mean games within the same city: Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol, Milan, Rome, Glasgow. Those games still have the power to divide communities and can stand for local pride, intense passion and high-profile policing.
By strict geographic criteria Boro are from a one team town and have never had a true derby – yet we all know that there have always been teams it matter more that we should win against. Or at least not lose. When I was a kid it was Leeds that was the chief rival and with Boro in the second division there were coach loads of Teessiders heading south every other week, the glory hunting Man U fans of their day so playground pride demanded we beat them. Of course, that was when Middlesbrough was still very much politically and culturally part of Yorkshire but as we know the entire town was moved north in 1968 to become part of a different entity and so new rivals have been created.
Relaxing the city rule and stretching it by ten miles or so there are people who would argue that Boro have only ever played two real league derby games, in the old third division against Darlington in 1986-87: won 1-0 away (Stephens), drew 1-1 at home (Slaven). These fundamentalists are backward Luddites who need a sharp dose of the new reality.
The world is bigger now, our horizons wider and social mobility and transport links have blurred loyalties that were once sharply defined by the city boundary. The concept of the derby game has been broadened. We have Thames Valley derbies, East Anglian derbies, South Coast derbies, East Midlands derbies, West Midlands derbies, M62 derbies and North-east derbies and while the local element has faded the other ingredients have increased in inverse proportion, especially the intense passion and the high-profile policing.
Now derbies are about shared accents, shared culture and shared radio and television transmitters. The Tyne-Tees derbies are named after the TV station that defines the area.
Our current mental universe has been shaped by Kenneth Wolstenholme on Shoot, Roger Tames late night commentaries of the Rioch revival and by the inane chatter and schoolboy banter of the regional juggernaut that is the Three Legends.
If we lost to Leeds now we would never hear a peep, unless possibly we wandered into the no-mans land of Northallerton or Scarborough wearing a Boro top. There would be no price to pay, no squirming and no need to listen to smug former Elland Road legends gloating about it for the rest of the season.
But lose to Newcastle or Sunderland and there is a very public humiliation that must be endured at the hands of idiots through a variety of mediums. Every game is added to the common body of knowledge that determines the local pecking order, that informs the arguments in pubs and workplaces and underpins the banter, the chanting and the folklore of a region fired by football.
That is what makes these games derbies. They are public property shared with other people who also believe that they really matter. The sting of defeat is more painful than with other teams and it is dragged out for weeks by malciously minded neighbours. It is inescapable because the victors are in our orbit and in our face, rubbing it in and using it as a weapon to beat us and a wonder tool that invalidates every other achievement for the foreseeable future.