Does anybody enjoy derby day? There’s never been one I wouldn’t have taken a draw an hour beforehand and just forgotten about the football and the possible heartache. It’s stressful, nerve-wracking, terrifying, dangerous, all those and more. And that’s just watching it on the telly. Multiply everything by a hundred if you’re there in the flesh. Probably the safest part of the occasion is the bit in the ground. Once you’re outside you’re taking your life in your hands, though not usually from battle-hardened hooligans of the other persuasion. More likely it’s by the drunken and confused with not enough interest in the occasion to actually go to the match but who are so affronted by the very presence of people from a city a small number of miles away, people they no doubt spend at least their working lives in close proximity to, they will happily batter anyone they encounter.
Why is that? Membership of a crowd can mean that the loss of personal identity felt, the sense of unity with the group, and heightened excitement in the crowd’s activity leads to a loss of control by the individual, and a consequent increase in the likelihood of antisocial behaviour. That being said, crowds don’t necessarily turn bad, otherwise every single football match would end in the town of the venue getting smashed up. People can be led, but there has to be anger and hostility there in the first place for it to spread.
The increasing trend to portray fans of the other side as being somehow lesser human beings has a lot to answer for, and it is of course nonsense. Minor quirks in accent apart, the two areas of Newcastle and Sunderland and their respective hinterlands have more in common than in contrast. Both predominantly working class, devastated by unemployment and poverty periodically over the last century and similarly ignored and sidelined by the nation’s elite for even longer, you would think a certain sympathy if not solidarity might exist between the two cities with regard to their respective plights. Any Newcastle United or Sunderland fan portraying the other as some kind of blighted wasteland must be talking from their second pad in Bali or Belgravia because otherwise you can guarantee their home is very close to somewhere just as bad as wherever they’re referring to. Both cities have nice parts, and not-so-nice ones. It seems obvious to say it, but nevertheless it’s necessary to do so. The people of both sides, none of us will be surprised to hear, are generally personable and pleasant. We rub along with each other day to day quite nicely for all but 2 days a year, in workplaces, shops, and homes. These are the same people some will be trying to do violence to through a police cordon on February 1st. You might as well punch a random workmate at the water cooler tomorrow.
The successful campaign to rescind the decision to make the derby on Feb 1st a bubble match was based on a loose alliance of fans’ groups from both sides. It’s a demonstration of the common ground that exists even if you don’t particularly want to be best pals with the other lot. I for one, as a Newcastle fan, couldn’t care less about how Sunderland are doing, aside from feeling sympathy towards certain of my family members when they feel a little sad. It has been known for me to go to the odd game at the Stadium of Light, very much as a neutral. I don’t particularly want them to lose while I’m there, it’s just another game of football as far as I’m concerned. I would rather Newcastle were more successful than Sunderland, but only in the same sense that I want this in relation to all other clubs worldwide as well. It’s often mentioned that the tradition of people going to both clubs’ home games on alternate weekends has all but disappeared but surely the silent majority still don’t allow allegiance for one to develop into hatred for the other?
For those blinded by some kind of criminal tough-guy glamour on the part of hooligans, who quite like the idea of ‘our’ firm ( though in referring to them as that I feel bound to point out that they certainly don’t represent me) breaking some heads on the other side, let me say this: Hooligan behaviour makes it easy for the authorities to treat fans as criminals, as a homogeneous mass all as bad as each other. It’s what gave them the excuse to make this derby a bubble match in the first place, where away fans can only attend if they make use of the club’s travel arrangements. To celebrate the success of rolling back that unwelcome development then encourage those who would make it happen all over again isn’t just brainless and contradictory, it’s self-defeating.
When people talk about the other side being inbred, subhuman, or scum of some other unspecified nature, it is a very slippery slope to get onto. On a wider social scale, it is these kind of attitudes that allow the Divide and Rule strategy to succeed and keep the rich in power by persuading poor people to vote against their own personal interest, in the misguided hope that some other mythical poorer group will be kept in check. Without such attitudes the violence would be impossible. Why would anyone attack someone for being similar to themselves? So it’s not just the halfwits and horse-punchers out on the streets without really knowing why who are to blame when violence erupts. It’s everyone who’s painted the opposition as underclass or bogeyman, as nemesis or numpty.
Let’s get some perspective. It’s a football match, not civil war. The opposition are local sporting rivals not sworn blood enemies. The sky will not crack open upon defeat for either side. I hope my team win but whatever happens, let’s not embarrass ourselves again.