If you saw the memorabilia outside St James’ Park laid in memory of the two fans, who were on their way to Newcastle’s pre-season tour of New Zealand, it would be predominantly black and white, but with a good measure of red and white too.
The intense rivalry between the two sets of fans was put to one side over the weekend when a hastily-organised whipround on Sunderland supporters’ site Ready To Go, set up to raise £100 for a simple floral tribute, ended up pulling in more than £25,000 in online donations.
For some, that was surprising. How can supporters hand over money so willingly to a fund set up in memory of two fans of their most-loathed adversaries?
In truth, it is not that surprising. There is –of course – a deep rivalry between the two cities, a rivalry that dates back longer than football, but when it comes to the twice-yearly meetings between Newcastle and Sunderland, the vast majority of supporters are actually focused on their own team, rather than the wish to beat seven shades of brickdust out of fans of the other.
Banter – a word all too often horrifically misused in modern parlance – is the main dialogue between the opposing sides. There’s a bit of needle, and an idiot minority often seek to take this further than just rhetoric, but in the main there is more uniting the two sets of fans than there is dividing it.
Both Sunderland and Newcastle are one-club cities. Football is a big part of what we do in the North-East, and other than the colour of a football shirt, the hardcore fans support their team home and away, on these shores or abroad. It’s an unconditional love and devotion to their duty of being a fan.
John Alder and Liam Sweeney were hardcore fans. While some may have been surprised that the pair would so readily hop on a plane bound for practice matches on the other side of the earth, Newcastle fans understood; Sunderland fans understood too.
There will be a healthy squad of supporters heading for Portugal next week as Sunderland embark on their own pre-season tour, and a large chunk of the fanbase will travel to all 38 Premier League games this season, regardless of the cost. And that’s just normal.
To Sunderland fans, John and Liam were not ‘two of them’. They were two of us, as well.
In light of this mutual respect between the two clubs, could this begin to put an end to the matchday hostilities?
There was already evidence that times were changing. When Northumbria Police suggested that Sunderland fans should be transported to the fixture last season in what was termed a ‘bubble trip’ – as in the fans had to go from the bus to the ground and nothing in between – Newcastle fans were present in a meeting to protest against the decision. Joint press statements were issued. One voice was heard.
In the wake of that, and Northumbria Police’s subsequent abandonment of such a strategy, both clubs were in agreement that the Tyne-Wear derby has been done a disservice.
Both sets of fans have been corralled to the fixture, kept back for 20 minutes after the game, held in separate groups while riot police wait for ‘something to kick off’. Usually, if you find yourself backed into a corner by a large amount of armour-clad police, some people’s reactions aren’t always going to be co-operative. But violence is expected, because it’s the Tyne-Wear derby. This is what happens.
The games usually kick-off at noon, in a move to reduce the amount of alcohol taken before kick-off. In truth, pubs open earlier. A number of hostelries in Sunderland opened at 8am ahead of the last game at St James’ Park, despite advice from the constabulary to the contrary.
An idiot minority will treat this game as an opportunity to stick one on their rivals. But that’s all it is, a minority. The majority of supporters are good, law-abiding people. All they want to do is see their own club play football.
Believe it or not, the nation wants to see that game of football too. The police’s insistence that it kicks off at 12pm, usually a decision taken after Sky and BT Sport have made their broadcast selections, means the game is seldom televised. More fans go to the pubs to watch the fixture on a dodgy satellite feed, where more alcohol would be consumed than if they were sat at home watching it on their televisions.
On a derby day, the game between the two sides should be the biggest football story in the country. The view that it is the best football fixture in English football is not born out of parochialism, it’s a fact.
While there is little chance of the derby being a game completely trouble-free, this weekend’s actions from Sunderland supporters have shown that they can love thy neighbour in the wake of such tragic events.
They know that Newcastle fans would do the same if it were two Sunderland supporters killed.
Maybe some day the authorities will appreciate that there is more to the two clubs than hate and tribalism, and start treating the games between the two with a little more respect.