SUNDERLAND losing the League Cup final at Wembley was by far Boro’s best result of the season so far.
And that is not just a sad, small-minded Schadenfreude. It’s not twisting the knife.
It’s just pointing out that the result leaves Boro still well placed in the delicate balance of power that is the Tyne-Tees bantersphere.
Let’s be clear, I’m not revelling in the pain of our near neighbours. I wasn’t sat all night rewinding and replaying the anguished reactions of a crushed crowd or laughing cruelly at the tear-tracks in the toddlers’ face paint.
Yes, I wanted them to lose – I was hoping we would need an abacus to keep count – but I wasn’t willing them to suffer en masse in public in pursuit of some warped collective punishment for stinging semi-derby defeats down the years.
I was accused on twitter of being “bitter,” “jealous” and “a so called journalist” (and having “extra digits”) but I’m not from the militant wing of the Teesside terrace taliban. I’m not part of that faction hat festers with historic hatred over past battles, active combatants in the on-going war of words . It wasn’t one of the ones who hoped not only that they were humiliated but that it rained on them leaving along Wembley Way and their coaches broke down as they returned heart-broken and empty handed.
In fact I think you’ve got to have some sympathy with our Mackem mates who were put through the mangle. Some. A little, surely? Come on, don’t be so stone hearted. After all, we’ve been there many times over the past few decades and know only too well the emotional pain of the historic enamel-shattering size nine in the gnashers.
And Sunderland is a ‘real’ club; a Northern, working class vehicle for the cultural identity of an hard working industrial town and whose short spells of success and longer ones of failure echo through and shape the daily lives of its passionate supporters.
It is a club very much like Boro. There has to be an element of empathy with people whose supporting experience and total engagement with their club is so similar to or own. So I certainly don’t ‘hate’ them. That would be ridiculous.
And, it has to be said, in the wider terms of football’s social and economic landscape, had it been any other middling/struggling Premier League club bar Our Friends In The North then I would have been roaring them on to ” do a Wigan” and beat money bags City.
The bloated Etihad vanity project is an insidious megapetrocash fuelled juggernaut that has shattered the status quo, dramatically raised the financial bar to levels unattainable for all but the oligarchy and further distorted the badly dented notion of competitive balance in the English game. It is a bad thing.
But sometimes the immediate needs at the sharp end of parochial politics over-shadow the intangibles of big picture principles. Like now.
I think most Boro fans would have welcomed the Wearsider’s Wembley woe. It’s not bitterness. It’s nothing personal. It’s just pragmatism.
In terms of the regional real-politik over the banter barricades, Sunderland’s stutter was a massive strategic victory for Boro.
Sunderland lost. They made decent a fist of it but ultimately no-one will remember that. They didn’t win the trophy. But Boro did. We won. We lifted the League Cup.
It may be a decade ago but the bottom line is that we remain the current cup kings of the North-east. It’s official. No one can take that away from us.
Boro supporters can say proudly that, whatever the bleak slither into the mire have been forced to endure in recent years, that “when Gate went up, to lift the Carling Cup, WE were there.” And that’s important.
Most fans – apart from the plastic glory-hunters who refer to remote giant pocket-money hoovers as “we” – spend their supporting lives dealing with a purgatory of failure and mediocrity so the few brief and rare moments of delicious glory are to be savoured.
It is a collective cultural experience that energises the community and boosts the flagging emotional batteries of supporters. They are the pay-off for the thankless thousands of miles and pounds and hours watching dismal goalless draws with Doncaster or frustrating 1-0 defeats at Sheffield Wednesday.
Victories are validation for the club choice imposed on you by geography, history and family. They are a visible symbol of success, a tangible mark in history for all to see. And in a world where increasingly the silverware is carved up by a cartel, they are rare.
Rarer than they have been in the “hotbed of football” for a barren generation and longer.
And that precious success at Cardiff gives Boro supporters a vital and undeniable edge over their bigger, richer, better supported and – currently – higher placed rivals.
Most Boro fans have seen their side lift a trophy. In colour. And that is important.
We’ve got the t-shirt, the tattoos, the ticket framed on the wall; we can watch the DVD without flinching and – calendar conspiracies aside – can celebrate the anniversaries through reliving a wonderful and fulfilling personal experience.
That transcendental triumph can insulate supporters through dark ages of failure.
Grainy cuttings and folk tales handed down are no substitute. And whatever footage is available in the Pathe News archives of twenties or thirties title winning open trammed victory parades through the cobbled streets of Sunderland and Newcastle, it would be a very select band of ageing stalwarts to have tasted that in the flesh.
Sunderland’s last trophy triumph was the FA Cup in 1973, over 40 years ago and only a small minority of their active supporters will have been there for that.
Newcastle’s last trophy was the Fairs Cup in 1969, an invitation trophy of dubious pedigree and prestige – although you can’t blame them for elevating it in status because for years Boro fans gloried in a victory over two legs (courtesy of an own goal) over mighty McFulham in the Anglo-Scottish Cup and reaching the final of the ZDS Cup, a meaningless competition completely contrived to create top flight fixtures while English clubs were banned from Europe.
The Magpies last domestic cup win was in 1955. How old do you have to be to have that seen that? No matter how impressive the historic role of honour, very few among the current crowd will have known the joy of seeing their team actually winning something.
That’s why Boro fans sing: “Have you ever seen a Geordie with a cup?” And that’s why the ‘Trophy Virgins’ banner cut to the quick when it was unfurled at the Newcastle game.
Because it points to a painful and unavoidable central truth: winning cups counts.
That the offended Magpies spluttered indignantly over that banner and fulminated about a cabinet full of titles won in the twenties missed the point: that it is about personal experience. It is about consummation.
The trophy triumph at Cardiff gives us a glow that has kept us warm through the current ice age of ineptitude. It meant that whatever their current lowly status, Boro fans can stroll with a swagger through the highly charged minefield of regional rivalry.
Every time our stripe-shirted rivals (either colour or monochrome) go on a frenzy of seat-counting or point to the league table, Boro fans can smile and point to the names engraved on the three handled cup.
To be fair, the region hasn’t got much to be smug about. We boast about a hot-bed and talk of giant clubs – one of them apparently among the biggest in the world – yet there has been one domestic trophy won in 40 years.
And Boro won it. It was great. And we were there.
Sunderland’s failure means Boro retain that historic trump card. Which is fantastic news for us. Petty and parochial? Maybe. But these things are the everyday currency among fans in the factories and offices, pubs and clubs along the football fault-lines of the region. And anyone who seriously thinks that mischief making fans from north or south of Wheezekeezeshire’s cultural borders will not be gleefully using Sunday’s result to taunt their rivals is touchingly naive.
At a time when they are emotionally raw the poor Mackems will be absolutely slaughtered over it. That’s football. That’s part of the cut-and-thrust. It’s cruel but not only will they have to deal with a crushing defeat just when they had ‘dared to dream’ but they will have to do it to a soundtrack of work-place laughter.
Not least from relieved Newcastle fans who will have been TERRIFIED at the thought that the evil twin other half in their vitriolic embrace may taunt them with silverware. That was their nightmare scenario. It was bad enough that little Boro – a peripheral figure in their cultural universe – were able to laugh at them. The prospect of Sunderland opening up a second front would be unbearable.
Boro fans were already a little bit miffed before the game as the gushing media out-pouring about the Mackem success in reaching the final – achieved by winning the worst penalty shoot-out EVER! – revealed exactly what their pecking order is.
In some quarters the Mackem trophy quest was being portrayed as the greatest sporting event in the region since 1973 … so that puts actually winning the bloody thing AND reaching the UEFA Cup final into perspective.
Some in the regional media lost all sense of perspective and gushed over what appeared to be a unique and earth -shattering achievement and Boro fans rightly got a bit uppity that their own record since football was invented in 1992 (three League Cup finals, one FA Cup final and one UEFA Cup final) appeared to have been airbrushed from history. Newcastle fans weren’t happy that their own two FA Cup finals hadn’t happened either.
That may well be part and parcel of football’s shrinking collective memory span – which now seems to extend back about a month – but it still stings.
Still, Boro fans can now allow themselves a smirk at the shape changing nature of the League Cup. In the space of a few short weeks it has been elevated from a worthless Mickey Mouse Tin Pot trophy that was barely worth clearing cabinet space for this Collosus of domestic knockout silverware.
Suddenly from being a minor event it was a credible and prestigious trophy. At half-time on Sunday it was briefly on par with the Champions League.
Alas, City won, so now it is just the third most important trophy again – and even then trails finishing fourth in the Premier League (and 17th for some clubs).
But at least Boro have won it.