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The game that feeds our soul

Rewatching Netflix series ‘The English Game’ prompted Lars Knutsen to consider the DNA that we’re born with as Sunderland supporters.

Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

I enjoy thinking and writing about what lies behind the emotions we feel when watching our team play football. I have written in some depth about the neuroscience behind supporting our club, but now I want to address some other emotions, such as distrust and dislike.

I grew up around Sunderland, which I see as a privilege. The North-East of England has a strong identity, a culture of its own and some unique linguistic influences. Whoever named “the Metropolitan County of Tyne and Wear” back in 1974 just did not understand our region. Which idiotic and misguided individual would put those two rivers into the same sentence? Not me, for one. I was born in County Durham and am proud of it.

I often felt a lack of connection with the rest of England when growing up to the extent that it would have been better for this Metropolitan County to be located on an island about the size of the Isle of Man or the Isle of Wight off the NE coast. It often seemed like London was on a separate planet; we had no direct train link from Sunderland, and some of the decisions that emerged from the capital seemed baffling. It was as if nobody, at least in the government, understood the needs we had; they collected taxes and gave the money to Scotland. This had a cementing effect on uniting the locals, in the form of a common enemy, if that is not too strong a word.

I doubted whether any southerners could find us on a map of England.

Soccer - League Division Two - Millwall v Sunderland - The Den
Sunderland in action at The Den
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

My early years supporting the Lads at Roker Park was accompanied by chants like “We hate the Cockneys”, deserved for teams such as Millwall and West Ham, perhaps less so for Luton Town… geography lessons are needed for fans as well.

We later had the insult of being wound up by Charlie Methven, who constantly seemed to have trouble relating to our fans. I have nothing against Old Etonians as I have come across many, but had he ever climbed up to Penshaw Monument or tried to understand anything about the area we come from? He always seemed out of place in a working city, never came across well in the Netflix documentary. I am sure that many journalists think we live with permafrost.

This all came into sharper focus when I recently rewatched The English Game, a six-part historical drama created by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes which was released on Netflix in 2020. It’s a good watch to the extent that my wife, who has no real interest in football, very much enjoyed it. Its premise is that in the 1870s, football in the UK was a sport for the wealthy. A working-class star and his upper-class counterpart come together to change the game forever. To put this into context, our team Sunderland AFC was not formed until 1879.

As asserted by Fellowes at the time in the Radio Times, it’s notoriously hard to make any drama or films about sport, because we can see amazing, dramatic sports on TV every weekend and on many weekdays now. Have any good football films ever been made? Escape to Victory may qualify as reasonable, Fever Pitch and The Damned United probably make the list but do not focus much on the play on the pitch. Goal! The Dream Begins, about a deluded young player called Santiago Munez being taken to England to play for Newcastle United was definitely not memorable.

However, The English Game compellingly charts the origins of Association Football on these isles and explores “how those involved in its creation reached across the class divide to establish the game as the world’s most popular sport”, according to a release at the time from Netflix. What was also very clearly illustrated was the distrust between the privileged players of the south and those from the working-class north.

Lord Kinnaird
Arthur Kinnaird, 11th Lord Kinnaird (1847 - 1923), principal of The Football Association and Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, circa 1900.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Perceived from the North-East, I have always been convinced of two points:

1. Football in the UK is a working-class game, and

2. The FA were essentially upper class and out of touch with the grassroots game

Without giving away too many plot spoilers for those who want to see this compelling series, these points become clearer. Up to 1879, no working-class team had ever reached the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup. So, things were very different then – Arthur Kinnaird, the Old Etonians captain and many of the team, players of privilege who saw themselves as gentlemen, were also FA Board members.

Darwen FC, a Mill team from Lancashire, came south to play the Old Etonian side in the 1879 FA Cup Quarter Final with two paid Scottish players, Fergus “Fergie” Suter and James “Jimmy” Love in the team, in a bid to secure the FA Cup (which at the time is exclusively for amateurs). James Walsh, the owner of Darwen FC and the associated mill, said on the train journey south: “Only gentlemen have lifted the cup, men from fine schools with fine clothes, fine lives. Imagine what it would mean to see men like us lifting the cup. Well, I want to wake up and find it’s more than a dream.”

The 1879 quarter-final played at Eton ended as a 5-5 draw, and since no extra time had been agreed before the game, had to be replayed the following week. The post-match dialogue among the Old Etonians was, “This is the game for amateurs and gentlemen. It’s our game, we invented it; Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow and lots of schools played a part, but the point is we took a raggle-taggle pastime with different rules wherever it was played and turned it into a proper game for gentleman.”

When the Darwen players arrived back in Lancashire after the draw, James Walsh told Fergus Suter, “You have given these people something to believe in. The game feeds the soul when they have nothing else that does it in their life.”

Darwen did go back south the following week and lost, but the people of Darwen were really engaged in the game, by following the play on the radio. It was clear that football was building community and identity in the industrial north. The series duly told the story of how eventually, in 1883, the FA Cup Final was contested between Blackburn Olympic and Old Etonians at the Kennington Oval, and Blackburn Olympic won 2–1 after extra time.

Maybe that quote, “The game feeds the soul when they have nothing else that does it in their life”, gives us a clue to why football evolved into a working-class game. If day-to-day work is repetitive and boring, when Saturday comes, there is something to live for, if you follow a (reasonably) successful football team.

The 3pm timing of many league games came about so that men could finish their work on Saturday lunchtime and get out of the pub in time to walk to the match. It constituted a much-needed break from the tedium of work for many. Back in the late 1960s and into the 70s, football, at least at Roker Park, used to be a “man thing”. The recollections I had as a teenager attending matches were often nasal in origin: the smell of cigarettes, Bovril and hot pies.

Somehow in England, public schools moved to focus on sports such as rugby and cricket, which are seen as games for the privileged. We know that Sunderland AFC, from an industrial town, stayed in the top division of English football until 1958, and I am pleased to say we were top of the league on the day I was born. We know what a buzz we get collectively when we win, but we do not mind getting less than three points if the team puts in a collective effort; grit is admired.

It’s part of what comes from being from the north – and those things are contribute to our DNA.

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