In the interests of good taste I won’t type what I shouted the moment I learned Sunderland and Newcastle had drawn each other in the FA Cup Third Round.
Earlier this month host of Newcastle United podcast True Faith, Alex Hurst, wrote an article for FourFourTwo.com headlined: Sunderland vs Newcastle is a fixture almost no-one wanted, and one the region definitely did not need. Of course that doesn’t reflect the opinion of EVERY Newcastle fan, but it did mine.
Animosity between these two cities can be traced back to the Civil War. Prior to the 2024 encounter Newcastle and Sunderland had played each other 155 times. There had been 49 draws and 53 wins each. They hadn’t met competitively since March 2016, a 1-1 draw at St. James’ Park.
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In the intervening years both have suffered relegations (Sunderland falling as far as the third tier) but it’s Sunderland who hold the upper hand in terms of recent derby history: Six wins, three draws and just one defeat in the ten games that preceded the 2023/24 Third Round draw.
If my heart sank when the draw was made, I expect the Police Commissioner had a long lie down upon hearing the news. FA provision states that up to 15% of a home club’s stadium capacity should be made available to away supporters in the FA Cup. At Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, that translates to 7,350 fans.
A bespoke plan had to be formulated with both clubs and the authorities agreeing to an allocation of 6,000 for Newcastle United. But it would be a huge operation, organised and funded by Newcastle (costing circa £150k), with all travelling supporters required to travel on a free return bus service between St. James’ Park and the Stadium of Light.
What is a bubble match?
Bubble matches are games where all away supporters must travel on designated transport, usually club coaches or nominated train fleets, from designated pick-up points under police escort.
Complete segregation from start to finish should prevent crowd violence. Bubble matches have attracted criticism in the past from bodies like the Football Supporters Association and people like former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott who branded the operations as “the most draconian travel restrictions since miner’ strike pickets were targeted.”
Only certain fixtures warrant them. Often when clubs have tense rivalries but don’t share towns or cities. Newcastle and Sunderland being one example, Cardiff and Swansea another. Large groups of fans arriving en masse into a city at a similar time can be a recipe for disaster if not properly policed.
Some view bubble-style restrictions as overkill and an infringement on civil rights, and having experienced half a dozen bubble trips to Sunderland as a Newcastle United supporter, I can confirm they aren’t pleasant. But having also witnessed the venom and animosity this fixture evokes, I recognise that significant police organisation is essential.
And so it is, I’m back in the bubble at 8.45am on Saturday morning with a bus ticket, heading to watch a game 14 miles away that kicks off in five hours. The quick-moving queue at one-point stretched quarter of a mile long.
Among the 6,000 fans travelling via this method are former Newcastle players Matty Longstaff and Ryan Taylor and referee Michael Oliver. Current players' friends and family are also inside the bubble. We’re all spread out over three time slots: 8.45am-9.15am, 9.15am-10am, 10am-10.45am. Miss your slot and you miss the match.
Towards the end of the quick-moving queue we were handed a black and white scarf, a bottle of water and Nature Valley Honey & Oat granola bar. On the steps of the Milburn Stand a DJ is playing Big River by Jimmy Nail.
The atmosphere is quiet: nerves, early rises and a lack of alcohol all contributing factors. We’re funnelled into one of four smaller queues down a set of steps and onto Barrack Road, then quickly ushered onto a bus. No ID checks or searches took place and our bus tickets are taken despite stating ‘PLEASE RETAIN BUS TICKET FOR RETURN JOURNEY’.
Am I going to be stuck in Sunderland?
There were empty executive coaches queuing up on Barrack Road but fate has funnelled me and my travel companions onto a double-decker vessel not unlike the transport I used during my school days. Possibly even from the same 1990s era.
Heading away from St. James’ Park, we park briefly in a lay-by so other buses can catch up and we can convoy. A septuagenarian travel rep gathers our attention on the top deck and reassures us that match tickets will be issued when we disembark at the Stadium of Light.
Roads all the way are closed, including the A1, and around 45 minutes later we wipe the condensation off the window for our first glimpse of the Stadium of Light. Fifteen minutes later we are queuing at ‘Cloughy’s Ice Bar’ in the lower tier of Sunderland’s North Stand (wholly occupied by Newcastle United fans for the day, to the displeasure of Sunderland supporters).
It’s 10.20am and kick off is at 12:45pm, this will be a long day. Alcohol is available and service is reasonably swift. Time passes quickly, and the game begins. I’m located in the lower tier, it transpires upper and lower tier tickets were issued separately bus-by-bus to minimise queues at the turnstiles in display of common sense cynical Newcastle fans (like me) worried would be absent today.
Negotiations to allow Newcastle fan group Wor Flags access to the away end to prep a flag display fell through, so beyond individual flags and the free scarves, Newcastle weren’t allowed decorations.
The police presence inside and outside the stadium was large but not overbearing. Police from as far as Cheshire and Yorkshire were involved in the operation under the proviso Northumbria’s Officers will assist colleagues in the south as and when those forces require numbers.
The post game bubble experience wasn’t quite as seamless as the inbound journey. A Newcastle victory doubtless sped things up slightly with Sunderland fans evacuating the stadium with relative haste following a three-goal defeat. The wait would’ve been at least an hour longer had Sunderland won.
Instead, fans inside the bubble were kept inside for around 45 minutes. Enough time for a couple of pints and for the stadium wifi to go down, thus rendering the payment system useless. Pre-poured pints were distributed for free. A final own goal for Sunderland AFC in a week where it rained them on and off the pitch.
Another half an hour wait outside the stadium wasn’t ideal, but the free alcohol and three goal victory helped matters. By 4pm darkness was falling and we were being ushered back onto buses. Thankfully, the return transport method was closer in comfort to Newcastle’s First Team coach rather than my old school bus.
Shortly after 5pm we are released from the bubble and into the noise and hubbub of Newcastle City Centre. Vera Lynn’s 1939 wartime send off song “We'll meet again, Don't know where, Don't know when…” is being sung by jovial Newcastle fans heading off to continue the celebrations in town.
Northumbria Police confirmed their were eight-people arrested on Saturday. Five of those were apprehended around Sunderland’s stadium with a police spokesman describing the operation as “extremely successful”.
Having been inside the bubble as a supporter, I have to agree with them. Newcastle United, Sunderland and Northumbria Police deserve huge credit for the logistics. Bubble matches aren’t easy, or ideal, but if that is what it takes to get 6,000 Newcastle supporters into the stadium, so be it.
Before the game Newcastle United stated: “The club does not expect the imposed conditions to set a precedent for any future league fixtures between the teams.”
I would like to think a smaller allocation for a league game between the two clubs would see a softer police operation, and more trust and freedom placed on the majority of fans to behave themselves. But the success of the 2023/24 bubble match only strengthens the argument for them to remain.
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