Tonight’s match at the Riverside in Middlesbrough is the one we’ve all been looking forward to the most in the opening rounds of the 2022/23 league season.
It’s on Sky on a Monday night under the floodlights in a sold-out ground; it has all the hallmarks of a pretty big occasion.
It’s been over four years since the Lads played a competitive fixture against a team nearby; the nearest away days for our travelling legions have been at Doncaster, Hull and Bradford.
Yes, Middlesbrough is also a town in Yorkshire so not strictly north eastern either (if we understand the traditional boundaries of our area to be confined to the counties of Durham and Northumberland or the lands between the rivers Tweed and Tees). But, after the opening day and Boxing Day matches, our games against Middlesbrough were probably the ones we all looked out for when the Championship fixture list was released in the summer.
Why is that? And does it make it a derby match?
It’s an interesting question, and one that divides Sunderland supporters, albeit not equally.
Do you consider SAFC v BORO a derby?— A LOVE SUPREME (@ALS_Fanzine) September 3, 2022
Many people will say that this game doesn’t count as a “proper” derby. It certainly doesn’t arouse the same mixture of nerves, anticipation and general mayhem that a game against the Mags would, and the result will stir no more emotion in me and many others than what we achieve against Preston North End, Burnley or Blackburn Rovers this season.
But it is still, in reality, a local rivalry, and the Tees-Wear game this evening is certainly the biggest fixture in the Championship so far this season for both clubs and possibly across the whole division.
There’s plenty of mocking and jibing, but no real sense of hatred - at least from the Sunderland side - in this bilateral relationship. And that is, I think, why a majority of our supporters don’t consider this evening’s game a derby in the truest sense of the word.
Our new boss, Tony Mowbray, is one of their lot, and he clearly loves the club that he grew up with, played for, and helped to keep in business back in the 1980s. That’s all well and good, and we totally understand his professionalism comes first, that his loyalties are now to the fans who are - in one way or another - paying his wages.
We can relate to him and he to us because, despite the differences between the two places and the two clubs, there’s probably more that we share in common than that which divides us. As he explained, these are two industrial towns where hard-working people expect their football teams to reflect the values of the area, as well as to play the game in the right way.
I did get the sense from listening to Chris’ Roker Rapport Preview podcast with Stephen Jackson from the ‘Boro 12th Man pod that they find the notion of Mogga being in our dugout pretty hard to stomach. I’m not sure we would be quite as arsed if, say, Kevin Phillips one day got the top job at the Riverside.
If my circle of friends is anything to go by, Sunderland fans don’t really mind players moving between the two clubs - whether it’s Julio Arca, Grant Leadbitter or Duncan Watmore, there’s no sense of treachery or betrayal involved in such transfers. A move in either direction is generally seen by our support as a sensible career decision rather than grounds for excommunication.
The Wear-Tyne rivalry used to be this way too, even up to and including Paul Bracewell’s ping-ponging between St James and Roker Park in the mid 1990s. Perhaps it was the Lee Clark T-shirt incident that ended this mutual respect, which in the post-war era stretched back to Len Shackleton.
Bob Stokoe was a Newcastle legend before he managed Sunderland; back then, transfers between the neighbours were commonplace and many football fans often attended both Newcastle and Sunderland home games to cheer on the north eastern teams. It’s not quite so simple these days, as Messers Chopra and Colback can attest.
Sunderland and ‘Boro played our first competitive games against one another in back 1887 in the FA Cup, five years before Newcastle United were even formed - so in that sense this is the original north east derby.
It was the determination of Middlesbrough to keep up with Sunderland in the early part of the 20th century that led to Alf Common becoming the world’s most expensive footballer for the second time.
So no, this isn’t the same as the big Wear-Tyne derby for modern Sunderland supporters - but it’s still a game with a lot riding on it and a lot of history behind it. It’s a test for the vast majority our squad, only Lyndon Gooch has any experience of playing in this kind of fixture.
It’s no doubt going to be an exciting evening and I expect there to be loads to keep us and the neutrals watching on the telly entertained. Our travelling fans will be extra loud, and if we can pull off the result they’ll cheer that bit louder.
Their fans clearly expect a win, but nobody would be surprised to see our Lads buzzing the 30 miles up the A19 with the three points in the bag.
I can’t wait.