IS THE Sunderland game a derby? Only if we win.
A victory either way will prompt metaphorical jubilant hand-gestures from an aural open topped bus parade on the Three Legends on one side and furiously feigned indifference on the other. If either team take the three points it will spark either bouts of gleeful triumphalism or a series of history and geography lessons proving conclusively the result is irrelevant. We all know the script; the scoreline just determines who plays which role.
Of course it this a derby. Denial of that by ideologues on both sides is just the dark arts of soccer spin doctors trying to distance themselves from the glaringly obvious fact: 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 all have derbies. Those games still have the power to divide communities and still stand for local pride, intense passion and high-profile policing.
By those strict criteria Boro are from a one team town and have never had a true derby – unless you count a few Victorian skirmishes with the mighty Ironopolis. Yet we all know there are teams it matters more we should win against. Or at least not lose.
When I was a kid it was Leeds. With Boro in division two coach loads of Teessiders headed south wearing their smiley badge sock tags every other week, the glory hunting Man United fans of their day. Playground pride demanded we beat them above all.
Of course, that was when Middlesbrough was still very much politically and culturally part of Yorkshire. As we know the entire town was moved several miles north in 1968 in an act of bureaucratic feng shui to become part of a different entity and so new rivalries have been created.
Some may argue Boro have only ever played eight real league derby games, against Darlington in 1925-26, 26-27, 66-67 and 1986-87 (won seven, drawn one). These football 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 ancient 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 Midlands derbies, South Coast derbies, M62 derbies – and most definitely North-east derbies.
While the strict local element has faded the other ingredients have increased in inverse proportion, especially the intense passion, the cost in social status of failure and the high-profile policing – and there is no question that the trip to Sunderland means that. You don’t need helicoptors, mounted police and paramilitary crowd control for just another match.
Now derbies are about shared accents, shared workplaces and shared transmitters. It is no co-incidence 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 schoolboy banter of the regional playground of Three Legends.
There are other considerations of course, mainly whether Newcastle are also in the mix. When the Geordies are in the same division there is no doubt that Our Friends In The North concentrate their emotional fire on each other and we are just a troublesome Southern second front – but that doesn’t make the Boro irrelevent. If either get battered by their hated reflection then the Boro game becomes a face-saving avenue to regain some local credibility, although the stakes are high and defeat leaves them in deep angst and rock bottom in the hotbed pecking order.
With Sunderland spending so much time in lower divisions in recent years the Mackems have simmered. And for all their talk of being a big club with a big stadium, big crowds, big dug-outs and big dreams they have clocked up a string of new record Premiership points lows while Boro have enjoyed Carling Cup triumph and basked in UEFA Cup glory. How dare the Yorkshire upstarts do that! Boro have been a more successful side in recent seasons and that has got to sting.
No matter how much they talk about this game not being a derby they are desperate to win to claw back some credibility and build up the balance of banter points after that N-n-n-nineteen debacle and the F-f-f-fifteen foul-up. When it comes to the traditional flux of workplace score settling and local pride – especially in the frontier towns like Billingham, Hartlepool and Sedgefield – this game matters.
If we lost to Leeds now we wouldn’t hear a peep, unless possibly we wandered into the no-mans land of Whitby or Thirsk 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 massive price of public humiliation, baiting and banter to be endured and harsh new political realities to adjust to. 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 is dragged out for weeks – years – by the mischievous or maliciously 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 tool that invalidates every other achievement for the foreseeable future.
Unless we lose of course. Then it is just another game…
WATCHING YOU watching us…. when the derby crowds are being pushed around by tooled up bobbies in and around the Stadium of Light and when the cameras start to click and whirr it won’t just be Boro supporters that are being filmed.
Members of the Football Supporters Federation are warning the police that this year they will be under close scrutiny this time. At the last meeting of the two teams on Wearside there was a public outcry as even respectable supporters like magistrates and coucillors were left shocked by the aggressive policing.
Boro fans complained that they were herded in designated pubs whether they wanted to go or not, were held back in the stadium after the game and prevented from even using toilets and were marched in convoy back towards the railway station no matter where they had left their cars. Some even said there were shades of the confrontational methods used in Rome by the carabinieri.
“This time we are watching them, watching us,” said FSF regional committee member and Boro fan Tony Bing. “Supporters from all the region’s clubs have raised concerns about the way derby matches are policed and believe that some of the methods of crowd control used have added to the problems.
“After a lot of complaints last season we are urging supporters to use their camera phones to record any unneccessarily heavy handed behaviour and we will be handing out leaflets advising people how to complain if they believe they have been treated unfairly. Fans are citizens and they have rights.”
Of course, we know that the fixture has in the past been marred by unjustifiable sickening violence and that sensible, pro-active policing is neccessary in order to ensure that the day passes off peacefully. It is to the benefit of all supporters that the meatheads on all sides need to be monitored, isolated and controlled and that any prospect of disorder is dealt with swiftly and effectively.
But equally we know though that the mass of ordinary law-abiding supporters have no involvement in any trouble nor are they likely to be and that detaining them and treating then in a confrontational manner is unneccessary and counter-productive, not to mention a throwback to the 70s. The atmosphere is far less strained and there is next to no trouble at the Riverside amid more relaxed policing. That should be a lesson. Fans should not need to surrended their civil liberties if they travel away. After all, it’s not a derby.