Civil war, Sisyphus and diphthongs : Why Newcastle vs Sunderland is more than a game

In July 2003, Jonathan Wilson and Paul Brown despair about the apparent gulf between recently relegated Sunderland and Champions League-chasing Newcastle...

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First, the Sunderland viewpoint, from Jonathan Wilson...

The first thing you see when you pull into Sunderland station is the city crest and beneath it the motto Nil desperandum, auspice deo – ‘Don’t despair, trust in God’.

It is an oddly depressing message, accepting that things will, as a matter of course, be bad. But in Sunderland they usually are.

The crest bears a sextant – a symbol of the city’s shipbuilding past. The last shipyard closed in 1988. The football club’s badge used to depict a ship; now industry is represented by a pit-wheel. The last mine closed in 1994. The club itself is one of only three PLCs that remain on Wearside, but relegation was followed by news of debts of £26.5 million. 

There’s a depression around the place. I’ve heard stories about productivity dropping and workers taking sickies. The club has an enormous impact on the life of the city

- Sunderland commercial director Jim Slater

“There’s a depression around the place,” says Jim Slater, Sunderland’s commercial director. “I’ve heard stories about productivity dropping and workers taking sickies. The club has an enormous impact on the life of the city.”

Indeed, a North East region public health survey revealed that death rates of football fans from stress-induced strokes and heart attacks are over twice the average among Sunderland supporters.

And what really sticks in the craw is that now, 14 miles up the road, Newcastle United, their mediocrity for so long a consolation on Wearside, are thriving in the Champions League, winning friends across Europe and reflecting the optimism that abounds in the city.

Alan Shearer Newcastle United

Alan Shearer is despondent after Newcastle are beaten on penalties by Partizan in Champions League qualifying

Earlier this year I interviewed Ajax’s South African wunderkind Steven Pienaar. He was born in the slums of Cape Town, but supports Newcastle because of the attacking football they play. Does nobody remember that the FA had to change the offside rule in 1925 because Newcastle had become so adept at the offside trap that it was killing the game?

If they do, it seems, nobody outside of Wearside holds it against them. Newcastle’s economy is booming, the American Tourist Board named it in the top 10 party cities in the world and it’s down to the last six to be named European Capital of Culture for 2008. Sunderland doesn’t even have a cinema.

Northern soul

The North East is only 50 miles long and 20 miles wide, even if you stretch the boundary to Ashington in the north and Teesside in the south. (Middlesbrough, incidentally, simply doesn’t count. Newcastle and Sunderland are the sixth and seventh most successful sides of all time in English football; Middlesbrough have never won anything. Boro are like a stone in your shoe – irritating, but of little consequence.)

Middlesbrough have never won anything. They are like a stone in your shoe – irritating, but of little consequence

To the north there is 100 miles of moorland before you reach Edinburgh, to the east the North Sea, to the west the wilderness of the Pennines, and to the south nothing until Leeds. Little wonder it has the most unique identity of any region of England (with the possible exception of the equally remote Cornwall).

When Sir John Hall speaks of the ‘Geordie Nation’, he is talking nonsense, but it is nonsense with a grain of truth. Unfortunately his nonsense also helps to propagate the fallacy that all people from the North East are Geordies. This is a major source of grief. There are three rivers in the North East.

If you’re from near the Tees, then you’re a Teessider, from Wearside a Mackem and from Tyneside a Geordie. Mackems say ‘mak’ when they mean ‘make’ (hence the name; Geordie sounds something like ‘myek’), but the easiest way to distinguish Sunderland from Newcastle accents is the diphthongs Mackems pronounce ‘school’ as ‘skewel’ to Geordie ‘skiil’, while ‘sweet’ sounds more like ‘swayt’ on Wearside.

Mackems sign

Mackems show pride at their identity

As Wren raiders will point out, there is good evidence that ‘swayt’ is how the word was pronounced in the 16th century, and they, therefore, are right. This is the kind of argument you hear a lot in the North East – petty, parochial and slightly absurd. The Theatre Royal in Newcastle may have an RSC residency every year, but we win because we have the Empire, which is haunted by the ghost of Sid James.

In his book The Far Corner, which gets as close to explaining the North East as anything, Harry Pearson recalls two men almost coming to blows on a train in an argument over whether Sunderland or Newcastle has the better shopping facilities.

Football crazy

Mostly, though, people argue about football. It is easy to mock the cliché of the North East as a hotbed of football, but no other English region has produced anything like as many great managers – Clough, Paisley, Revie, Kendall, Robson... I moved away from Sunderland eight years ago, and one of the first things I noticed was how little everyday conversation the rest of the world devotes to football.

You can’t walk down a street in Sunderland without seeing a replica shirt; 77% of season-ticket holders at the Stadium of Light - the highest proportion in the Premiership - own one

Returning, you realise just how impossible it is to avoid the game in the North East. On every bus, in every pub, in every shop, the main topic of conversation is football.

You can’t walk down a street in Sunderland without seeing a replica shirt; 77% of season-ticket holders at the Stadium of Light – the highest proportion in the Premiership – own one, even though a 2001 survey showed Sunderland fans to have the lowest average income of any in England.

Claudio Reyna

Reyna believes that the Tyne-Wear derby rivals the Old Firm

The place lives and breathes football. As you drive north on the A19, just south of Sunderland you pass the offices of the local newspaper, the Sunderland Echo. High on the wall, drawn out in neon lights, is a football with legs, arms and a cap.

On a matchday, if Sunderland have won, the ball-man will be smiling; if they’ve lost, frowning; if they’ve drawn, somewhere in between. This is how much football means; in the days before car radios, it was seen as necessary to broadcast the score to people as soon as they got to the edge of town.

In an area where football is the number one talking point, it is only natural that it’s through football that the hostility between Sunderland and Newcastle should most obviously manifest itself. “I’ve played in the Glasgow derby,” says Sunderland midfielder Claudio Reyna, “and this is as close as you can get to that level of intensity.”

NEXT: 1400 years of bickering