So far, all fans have really heard about is what is not going to happen with regard policing (i.e. no escort) of the Tyne and Wear derby with Newcastle United, but what actually will happen and what can Sunderland fans travelling to St James Park expect?
We, along with other fans, had a chat with Northumbria Police and Sunderland AFC to find out, so see below for the information that came out of the meeting.
The police were keen to stress that a lack of police escort does not equate to a lack of police protection. In fact, there will be more officers on the ground than there were last year, with all routes to and from St James Park manned: "You won't be able to walk 50 yards without seeing another copper".
They said the decision not to offer a specific escort to away fans was heavily influenced by the timing of the game, adding that derbies in the past have ‘ground the whole city to a halt' and it was unfair to shop-keepers and those who rely on the retail/entertainment industries for their livelihood to do that - essentially restricting trade - on the biggest shopping weekend of the year.
However, they conveyed a sentiment that ‘the pendulum has swung' away from the manner in which they have policed the fixture in the past and there are no plans or intentions to bring back escorts or more heavy-handed policing in the future, declaring the rejection of the bubble trip last year a ‘watershed moment'.
Drinking in Newcastle
There will be no restrictions on any fans' movements on the day of the derby, with fans welcome to get early metros to Newcastle and enjoy a drink in however many numbers as they want.
There will be no designated ‘Sunderland pubs' or anything like that, but fans are advised to inform a nearby officer where you are going and they'll either keep a close eye on it for flash points or even post coppers outside.
The whole ethos of the new way of policing the derby is to give freedom of movement to fans without compromising their safety - to trust supporters - and work with them to ensure it rather than just herding everyone around.
Again, it was stressed that from the moment you hit the streets of Newcastle, you will never be more than 50 yards away from a copper, so feel free to communicate with them.
The metro will be running a normal service on derby day, meaning fans are free to use whichever train, stations and route that they want. There will be officers posted at all stations and metros will be monitored for which, if any, need a heavier police presence to ensure safety.
Fans are urged to remember, however, that there will be a large amount of shoppers on metros too, so the atmosphere will be very different to those on ‘football specials' in previous years.
After the game
When fans get to their seats in St James Park, there will be a leaflet on it explaining the plans for what happens after the game. Basically, away fans will be held in the ground for a short time with the concourses and bars remaining open, whilst the police ‘persuade' any gathering home fans outside to vacate the area.
When fans do leave the ground, the streets will be the same as they were before it - i.e. a copper every 50 yards with all routes open and freedoms afforded.
One major difference this year is that all the roads outside the ground will be open with traffic passing through it, rather than closed off for the escort to use. The hope is that traffic will ‘flush' the home fans back towards the town, and deny them a large area to congregate where they know away fans will be marched through.
See below for information from the club on the free bus service:
SAFC supporters attended Sunday's Tyne-Wear derby are being reminded that a complimentary bus service is available to and from St James' Park.
The buses will depart from the Stadium of Light at 11:15am on Sunday morning, taking fans directly to St James' Park. The buses will follow the most direct route on the day and will be escorted by Northumbria Police for the duration of the journey, affording the quickest and safest travel option for those attending the game.
Due to the festive period, public transport across the region will be exceptionally busy and to avoid any delays or issues in getting to the game, Sunderland fans are strongly advised to take advantage of the free bus service provided by Sunderland AFC.
Almost 2,000 SAFC fans have already indicated they will be using official club transport and any supporter who wishes to use the bus service can still obtain a pass from the Stadium of Light ticket office by telephone - 0191 5515004 or email email@example.com. The ticket office will be open from 9am until 5:30pm Thursday and Friday and 10am until 1pm on Saturday. Supporters can also simply show their match ticket on the day in order to use the bus service.
Buses will board from 10:30am in the Green Car Park, located next to the ticket office/Black Cat House. The east stand concourse at the Stadium of Light will be open for the comfort of supporters from 10am, with catering services and toilet facilities available until the buses depart.
The buses will return from St James' Park to the Stadium of Light after the game and again, SAFC is urging as many supporters as possible to use the service to ensure they can return to Sunderland both quickly and safely.
Sunderland AFC head of safety, Paul Weir, said: "The derby is a fantastic occasion and one that every fan looks forward to. Of course we want to ensure that our fans have an enjoyable day, but above all that they enjoy the game safely and the complimentary bus service is by far the best option to ensure this is this case.
SAFC safety staff will travel on the buses and will also be on duty at St James' Park to assist Sunderland supporters.
The important thing to stress from the meeting with the police and club is that the buses will take around 45 minutes to get from ground to ground, and that's a target both parties are confident of hitting despite acknowledging in the past they have been far slower. A lot of work has been done on the process and they will be ‘green-lighted' through.
Furthermore, between the branches and the club buses, around 2000 fans are expected on the buses for the outbound trip to St James Park.
It's IMPORTANT to stress that the free bus service after the game will be available to ALL Sunderland supporters, and not just those who boarded them at the Stadium of Light. So if you fancied a pre-match drink in Newcastle beforehand so used the metro, but want a quick getaway afterwards, you are free to board the buses.
Degree of personal responsibility
Despite the efforts of the police to ensure both safety and freedom of supporters, it's worth noting that fans carry a degree of personal responsibility themselves for their own safety. You should be safe to show your colours and chant Sunderland songs etc. and it's all part of the derby day experience, but fans are urged to be aware that it can be provocative so make a judgement call on where and when to do it.
Similarly, the safety and comfort of shoppers and other visitors to the city centre that day is encouraged to be considered, particularly since there will be children about for pantomimes and other pre-Christmas festivities.
What if it all kicks off?
It's always a possibility, no matter what football game you go to. But the police assure supporters that they have the numbers and planning in place to activate any of the ‘contingencies on top of contingencies' they have in place.
Therefore, in theory, you are free to enjoy the day with layered protection, not less protection.
It's a trap!
It really isn't. The police were directly confronted with the suggestion that this year's arrangements were to almost encourage disorder to provide justification for a return to heavy-handed measures in the future, and they assured everyone present that they are committed to changing the methods for, and attitudes towards, policing the derby.
Go to the game, have a good time, don't do anything stupid, and ask any of the literally hundreds police officers on hand for help or guidance if necessary.