Is the Sunderland game a derby? Only if we win.
A victory either way will prompt metaphorical jubilant hand gestures from an open – topped banter bus parade along the A19 on one side and furiously feigned *meh* “just another game” 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 part.
Boro fans celebrate yet another famous win in the ‘Doesn’t Matter To Us’ Derby
Of course this game is a “derby” … even though the build-up to the fixture every time sees overly emotive message board denunciations with some of our our striped cousins insisting at great length and with well rehearsed rhetoric that “it divvent matter t’ wheez” and that it is just another game ‘like Hull’. Methinks they protesteth too much.
Denial 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 matters. To deny it so stridently is just 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 families and communities and work-mates and still stand for local pride, intense passion and high-profile policing and 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, coachloads 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 mental framework and municipal machinery of the town was moved several miles north in the 1960s in an act of bureaucratic feng shui to become part of a different entity and TV region and so new rivalries have been created. Or, at least, old ones have been recast and given added weight and intensity anyway.
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). Or the occasional outing against Hartlepool in the League Cup. These football fundamentalists with strict definitions are backward Luddites who need a sharp dose of modern 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. People no longer spend their entire lives in the street they were born, their horizons determined by the circulation area of the local paper.
Social and economic mobility has stretched the boundaries. It is not just on Teesside that people have upped sticks and moved for work or education or love. There are plenty of Mackem fans living within the orbit of Teesside attracted first by ICI and then by other industries. There are plenty of Teessiders living and working on Wearside and Tyneside.
The layers of loyalties in the region look like a Venn diagram.
The modern concept of the derby game has been broadened. We have Thames Valley derbies, East Midlands derbies, South Coast derbies, Old Farm derbies, Black Country derbies, M62, M66, M69 and A500 derbies – and most definitely North-east derbies.
While the strict local element of this highly-charged fixture 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. At Sunderland over the years we have seen tooled up robo-cops, helicopters, armed convoys in and out of town and fans being kettled behind portable steel walls normally seen in Belfast, Beirut and Baghdad.
You’re not telling me that is normal matchday procedure also used when Swansea or Watford are in town. That is special policing for special fixtures: derby matches.
Modern derbies are now about municiple boundaries they 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 and by the inane schoolboy banter of the regional playground on Three Legends, a shared experience for fans of all three clubs.
If we lost the semi-derby with Leeds now, it wouldn’t have too much cultural impact – unless you wandered into the no-man’s land of Whitby or Thirsk wearing a Boro top. For most fans there would be no long tail of taunting, no squirming and no need to listen to smug former Elland Road legends gloating about it on the Monday evening news.
But lose to Newcastle or Sunderland and there is a price of public humiliation, baiting and banter to be endured and harsh new political realities to adjust to. It’s a derby then.
Shirt swap scrappers Grant and Lee discuss demographics and semantics
The games have weight beyond the 90 minutes. 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 sniping over the banter barricades, the chanting, the cyber-squabbling. It feeds into the folklore of a region fired by football. Every key result is remembered and recycled and spun and shaped as a weapon.
That is what makes these games derbies. They are cultural public property shared with other people who also believe that they really matter. The sting of defeat is more painful than with other teams of similar status and the pain is dragged out for weeks – years – by the mischievous or maliciously minded neighbours.
It is inescapable because the victors live and work 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.