In recent history Sunderland fans have had more reason than our black and white counterparts to be grateful for its place on the footballing calendar. Whatever it may do to us and however much it may shorten our lives, the Tyne Wear derby is, for better or worse, what we’re all in this for.
Having grown up in a Newcastle dominated area as one of the few Sunderland fans in my school and the only one in my year, life was not as easy as it could have been. My formative school years unfortunately coincided with one of the golden eras of Newcastle United, as well as a low point of Sunderland’s history. Several relegations and two record breaking low points totals in three years for Sunderland, all the while Newcastle had enjoyed Champions League football, top three finishes and sacked their manager when he had the audacity to finish fifth.
I wore my Sunderland shirts to none uniform days and when doing so, suffered universal booing as I walked through the door. On occasion I’m sure even the teachers joined in. When given permission to personalise my year 6 history book, I adorned it in Sunderland stickers, only for the teacher to graffiti it. I wore my Sunderland shirts for football practice, and was picked last every time. I choose to blame this on my choice of shirt rather than my footballing ability. But this was all in good fun and was never personal or intimidatory.
Far from giving me a deep loathing of all things Newcastle, I found myself more aware and appreciative of my footballing opposites, while most of my best friends are Newcastle fans. I still enjoy their defeats as much as any Sunderland fan, but also understand their passion and good humour, and respect them as a worthy rival. Rivalry is after all a beautiful thing, when it is not allowed to control emotions or become unhealthy. Without rivalry, we would be robbed of so many happy moments and the passion of football would be dulled.
However, like anything, rivalry is good in moderation and context. While this game matters to me a great deal - perhaps too much - and I wholeheartedly believe my club to be superior in its character and appeal to any other (why else would I support them?), I refuse to lose the respect that I feel should be a cornerstone of any healthy rivalry, footballing or otherwise.
Even in the face of others who may disagree and wish the rivalry to descend into vitriolic and disturbing depths, I do not feel this is a type of rivalry worth having.
We are all guilty of lapses in good taste, where we highlight a situation or a contingent of associates of a football club and universalise these examples to create an exaggerated, unfair and cruel impression of the typical Sunderland or Newcastle fan. Both Sunderland and Newcastle fans are guilty of this, probably in equal measure.
This form of oneupmanship may seem in good jest and par for the course, particularly in situations where the examples are innocuous or humorous. But when we start seizing upon examples of malicious or criminal behaviour, which by their very nature have victims, just to make a cheap point about a football club and its fans, we descend into brutish and callous behaviour that does not enhance a rivalry, but poisons it.
If you gather tens of thousands of people in one place, there’s bound to be a few idiots. I am a realist about this and know that some people cannot be reached by reason. I do not lose one moment of sleep to know that I support the same club as some people who I find thoroughly reprehensible, as I know all clubs suffer from this problem. Nor does it make me wish to change allegiances knowing how many fantastic friends I have who support Newcastle, or any other club for that matter.
We are individuals, clinging to an identity that has struck a note inside us, giving us a feeling of belonging to a club that was here before us and will long outlive us. We belong to a community of fans, but each of us can choose to make those who thrive on intimidation and cruelty, who would prefer a poisonous rivalry to a fierce but respectful one, a minority within that community.
It is important we strive to make ourselves better and shame the elements within who sully the name of the club. Just as we do not wish to be judged by the worst among us, nor should we judge others by their worst.
While in sport we all rejoice in the footballing failures and shortcomings of our closest rivals, we should all be grateful nonetheless for their existence, respect the individuals who comprise these clubs and wish them no harm.
After all, without our great antagonists, we would not have the joy and emotion of this great day. There are some on both sides, however, who rejoice and revel in awful tragedies occurring outside the world of football and gleefully utilise them in an attempt to besmirch football clubs and their fans. These tragedies have victims and strike at the very core of peoples lives, causing real suffering and pain. Those fans who act in such a way go beyond the boundaries of decency that are expected of every person, standards which football fans cannot and should not be exempt from.
This game is one of the biggest derby fixtures there has ever been and with so much riding on it, there is bound to be an overspill of emotion and frustration during the game or afterwards. However, there will be children at these matches, taken by families who may be put off from returning given the unsuitable subject matter poisoning the atmosphere, with accusations made regarding criminals, opportunists and deviants who have donned either shirt.
Also, there are fans on both sides who may have been victims of such crimes and for whom the referencing of these individuals could uncover painful memories and dissuade them from attending. Football, particularly the feeling of being in a stadium, is beautiful and should be for everyone. In the past for myself, like many others, football in the North East has been a safe escape from harsher realities in life. I would hate for this to no longer be the case.
So I’m asking you, Sunderland and Newcastle fans alike, enjoy the derby. Revel in victory and despair in defeat. Acknowledge it as a game, but do not buy into the myth that this cheapens or negates the purity or intensity of the rivalry. See each other as people in love with the same game, two sides of the same coin and take humour in the mutual search for each others footballing failures, from which much joy can of course be found. But never rejoice in the criminals and real world villains, nor the shortcomings of decency and humanity, examples of which are found on both sides.
Do not allow this rivalry to become poisonous in your desire to intensify it. We can both respect each other, and antagonise each other. That is the best rivalry of all.