On Monday night at Carrow Road the battle for The Friendly Cup resumes. It is never going to make headlines or spark an open top bus parade through the deliriously happy streets of Wearside or East Anglia, but it is nevertheless worthy of acknowledgement and just a smidgen of pride.
For those who are unaware, Norwich City and Sunderland have competed for the Friendship Trophy since the Milk Cup (League Cup) Final of 1985. The game was dubbed 'the friendly final' due to the warmth and sporting spirit displayed by both sets of fans towards each other. Following the final, won by Norwich thanks to a Gordon Chisholm own goal, supporters in East Anglia launched the Friendship Cup to commemorate the occasion. The trophy has since been contested every season during which the clubs have met, with the spoils going to whichever side gains more points from the two league meetings or whoever wins a cup encounter played when the clubs do not share a division. Therefore, Sunderland will go into this season's encounters in possession of the Friendship Trophy having retained it in an Andy Reid inspired 4-1 League Cup win at Carrow Road in 2009.
Many younger fans at this point may well be wondering what the big fuss was all about. Well-humoured joviality between supporters has become common-place in the modern game, and the advent of the technological age has seen friendly banter between fans a daily occurrence through message boards and social media.
But the football climate in 1985 was very different indeed. At this time, football was probably at its all-time low. It was a game blighted with hooliganism as hot-headed unsavoury characters used the inherent tribalism of our national game to satisfy their own sinister agendas. Amidst a torrent of lurid press reports of crowd violence, match attendance had fallen to the point where perhaps fewer spectators braved the games than ever before. A mere 11 days before Norwich and Sunderland took to the field at Wembley in front of a reported 100,000 crowd, large scale rioting had taken place in a cup tie at Kenilworth Road between Millwall and Luton prompting Margaret Thatcher to set up a "war cabinet" to combat football hooliganism. A mere two months following the final, 39 Italian supporters would lose their lives in the Hysen Stadium disaster when a wall collapsed as a group of Liverpool fans charged their Juventus counterparts. It was an incident which saw all English clubs banned from European competition and the most shameful thing about it was that it surprised no one.
But whilst football was fighting what looked like being a losing battle against the hooligans, Sunderland and Norwich fans steadfastly refused to be dragged down into that world and were there to not only enjoy the occasion, but to create one. Merriment reigned as fans of opposing teams mixed seamlessly before the game, all interested in nothing but the game itself, supporting their team, and representing their club with dignity and class. When southern based 'casuals', the unofficial term for the various hooligan hoards attaching themselves to different clubs, tried to infiltrate the atmosphere looking for a fight, they found no one willing to reciprocate. One Norwich fan recalls, "the jovial atmosphere was severely punctured by an unwelcome invasion of so-called Chelsea fans wielding knives and threatening City and Sunderland fans alike".
The atmosphere would not be punctured for long, however, as behind the Wembley fences – the anti-hooligan weapon of choice for Thatcher's government - pockets of fans were happily accommodated in areas allocated to the opposing club. Fans sang loudly and proudly from the minute the pre-game formalities started on the pitch and carried on until stadium-wide applause broke out when Dave Watson lifted the trophy. Norwich manager Ken Brown would later say:
"There wasn't a bit of disturbance in the crowd, Sunderland supporters were tremendous and everyone seemed to mix and it didn't seem to matter where you went in the stadium it was very light-hearted, free and easy and very nice and a great atmosphere - and I think it was a tremendous day."
Following the game and after approaching each other to offer both condolences and congratulations, fans exchanged club scarves and merchandise as a souvenir of the day. On the London Underground system as supporters began their journeys home, a Norwich chant of "we won the cup" was met with a Sunderland one of "we scored the goal".
In the cut-throat and greedy world of modern football, that there is still room for traditions such as the Friendship Cup is heart warming. The winner shall receive no prestige, no prize money, no tacky streamer-laden ceremony covered in the logos of corporate sponsors. But the contest shall serve as a reminder of a day when, in times that attending football was potentially literally cut-throat, two sets of fans chose to respect each other and embrace everything good about the game whilst rejecting the bad. In that sense alone, it is a tradition and a competition that celebrates the essence of football in a far greater and more tangible way than the more prestigious competitions could ever hope to, and one that both sets of fans can feel genuinely proud to see their clubs contest.