My English soccer tour has always been mostly about people. And in this post from my 2014 visit to Sunderland, the people — certainly not the game — were the main redeeming feature of the trip!
(Note: This post was written in 2014, when Sunderland were in the Premier League. I do intend to get back up there soon for another go, even though they are now in League One.)
There are the people I meet, of course, and the people who read the stuff I write. Ultimately, there will be people reading my book and having their own experiences – maybe even letting me help them plan their adventures.
My relationship with Sunderland has always been about the people. Before 2014, I was only aware of Sunderland as being part of the Tyne-Wear Derby, one of the most vicious rivalries in the game. But then I had an experience at Manchester United in January 2014, when I saw Sunderland get a historic win in front of 9,000 screaming, singing Sunderland fans. I have written about that before.
I took a video that night, now seen more than 90,000 times, showing a key moment in that game. This put me in touch with quite a few Mackems (people from Sunderland), and some of them met me for their game at Chelsea – which turned out to be another historic win. I wrote about that one, too.
So by the time I rolled into the actual city of Sunderland to see a game, I was in the awkward position of not being able to meet all the people who were contacting me on Facebook. I was on a whistle-stop tour and didn’t even spend 24 hours in Sunderland. “Next time” is a phrase I’ve been typing quite a bit.
So this post isn’t so much about the game I saw – an uninspiring 2-0 loss to Arsenal – but about all the various people I met along the way. It’s also about the people in Sunderland and Newcastle – two cities which, I have to say after such a short spell in town, have a pretty serious complex about each other.
I barely made my morning train out of London Kings Cross, and it was mostly filled with Arsenal fans. As it was an 8 a.m. train, they were fairly well-behaved at first. But such is their state of frustration with Arsenal that despite their annual competition in the best tournament in Europe, and despite the fact that Sunderland had lost their last game, 8-0, the Gunners that morning were mostly predicting a draw. In fact, later on, after the café opened and they switched from coffee and energy drinks to Guinness and ale, they started singing:
We draw every one.
We draw every one!
It’s like Pictionary.
We draw every one.
By the time we hit Sunderland, they had started singing songs about drinking, like:
Ooooh, if you drink, you die,
and if you don’t drink you will die.
So you might as well just drink
And be drunk when you die!
I was glad to not be sharing a train with these folks after the game! Win (joyous) or lose (bitter), they would surely be a lot more drunk, and that would be a long three hours back to Kings Cross.
I, meanwhile, was looking out the windows and having something like a revelation: The northeast coast of England is beautiful! I wish I had taken pictures, but think grassy fields atop rocky headlands, with beaches below and the occasional path or row of trees. It was lovely.
Sunderland on a Saturday afternoon looked a little deserted and, in fact, was smaller than I expected. But the vibe was friendly, and my friend Steve, who had taken me to the Chelsea game, was gracious as always, walking me around the sites and eventually over to the stadium. (RIP, marra)
Like all the others, they have statues outside, one a memorial to miners:
And the other of probably the iconic moment in club history, when they won the 1973 FA Cup. Their manager, Bob Stokoe, ran onto the field to hug their goalkeeper, who had just preserved a 1-0 win over Leeds with an outstanding save, and the image of the manager starting that run is preserved forever outside the stadium.
Here’s the winning goal, that save, and the final whistle, plus the first part of Stokoe’s run:
In a classic bit of English defeatism, Steve immediately pointed out that the very next season, Sunderland lost their first game in the Cup to Carlisle United.
We went to the club shop, where I continued my team-badge tradition, then had a walk around the stadium. It’s one of the modern ones, nice enough but not too different from the one at Stoke or even Reading: out on the edge of town, a complete bowl, though with the distinction of the sun having baked its red seats into something quite like pink.
There’s also the odd name, Stadium of Light, which apparently owes again to the mining heritage: When the miners came out of the mine, it was the light they craved. Also, a light would be kept burning until the last man was out. Either way, it’s a tribute to the city’s long coal-mining heritage.
Another nickname I had Steve explain was The Black Cats, which he said comes from the old days when a black cat hung around the club and was considered good luck.
Inside, I went to my seat and found myself surrounded by quite the happy crew, a bunch of season ticket holders, family and friends, who had obviously been sitting together for years. One, in particular, was teasing his buddy mercilessly, and I could tell he was funny as hell, but I could hardly make out a word he was saying. Some of these northeastern folk have a right thick accent! (For an example, check out The True Geordie, actually a Newcastle fan, on YouTube.)
Here are the teams coming out, to classical music! Specifically, it’s “Dance of the Knights” by Prokofiev.
The game? Well, Sunderland started well, but there are reasons they were near the bottom of the league: They don’t have much going forward, and they’re dodgy at the back. (For you Americans who might not know, I just said they’re not too good on offense and they suck on defense). For about 20 minutes they did well, then their defender pretty much said, “Here you go, highly-paid Arsenal attacker, I’ll just give you the ball here and get out of the way.” The Arsenal fans up in the end, surprisingly quiet all day, started their traditional “1-Nil to the Arsenal” song, and I think in the hearts of all Black Cats, they knew it was over.
The rest of the game wasn’t much entertainment, aside from bitter complaining aimed at the referee – and here I have to give credit to Steve for something he once said, along the lines of “I went to a game once as a neutral, and it was surprising to me how good a game the referee had.” Still, the happy crew around me lamented that little clubs like Sunderland “never get the calls, especially against these bigger clubs,” and the fans in the end started singing:
You’re not fit,
You’re not fit,
You’re not fit to referee!
Another entertaining thing was that Sunderland then had an American player, Jozy Altidore, who had not scored a goal in like a million years. The folks around me kept singing, “If Jozy scores, we’re on the pitch.” He’s gone on to better times in Toronto, but he was a joke in England.
Right at the end of the game, still down 1-0, the Sunderland defense did an even better job at giving away a goal, this time doing it about 5 yards out, and it’s hard to decide who had screwed up worse, the defender or the goalkeeper.
After the game, three of us went out for a proper curry, and I had another revelation: there’s this town called South Shields on the coast, and in that town is Ocean Drive, and Ocean Drive is all B&Bs down one side, and all Indian and curry restaurants down the other. Steve and Zena said that people always say they’ll start at one end and eat their way to the other, until they find one they like and stick with it. Steve has obviously done that: There was very little discussion about which place to go into, he never touched the menu, and the meal was amazing.
We had ourselves quite a feast, and some fun conversation, and then I was about 80% asleep and needed to get to my room. That turned out to be a minor adventure, owing to construction, but along the way I had another revelation: Newcastle is a happening town! We rolled through the city center on a Saturday evening, and I saw more young ladies dressed up and waiting in line for clubs than you would believe. Steve and Zena said it’s quite the party town and confessed they were impressed by it, as well as their 52,000-seat stadium. Steve also said we were now entering “bandit country” and needed to be on guard!
A Little Time in Newcastle
I crashed hard at my hotel and woke up to a worse-than-usual hotel breakfast. I got a taxi to the station, and when the driver asked what brought me to town, I said the Sunderland game, and then he looked at me from the corner of his eye and said, “And who was ya supportin’?” That’s when I remembered I was in Newcastle, and I began to stammer, “Well, the people hosting me are Sunderland fans …” He turned around and gave me a long look, and I said, “Really, I’m a neutral! But they are friends. Anyway, they lost.” He said, “Well, I feel a little better now,” and off we went.
Here’s a video I found that tells some more about the rivalry.
I couldn’t help but inquire, having heard about this rivalry before, from the Sunderland perspective. Steve had called it “tribal” but also said that he had friends in black and white. Talking to him, I got the impression he’s almost embarrassed by how intense the rivalry is. With this cabbie, there was no reservation at all. He said he had no friends whatsoever from Sunderland, and in fact said you can’t have one. “Mackems have a level head,” he said, quoting a local expression, “because they’ve a chip on each shoulder!” You can’t be friends with them, he said, “because they eventually turn on you. They always do!”
He said he had “no problem with Sunderland Football Club … but I hate Mackems!” He said his sister married “one of them” years ago, and he’s clearly not over it. He said the rivalry is beyond tribal: “The Rangers-Celtic thing up in Scotland, that’s religion-based. But this thing ‘ere is pure hatred.” I asked why, and he first said something about the English Civil War and Roundheads – this is from hundreds of years ago!
Another thing he said, which I promised to put in the book: When I asked about Newcastle’s team and their recent struggles, he said the problem wasn’t manager Alan Pardew but owner Mike Ashley, who hasn’t provided him with enough good players. He insisted I put this quote in the book, and I probably will: “Pardew can only piss with the cock he’s got!”
(Another 2017 update: Pardew was fired, Newcastle got relegated, and Mike Ashley is still there. They made it back to the Premier League the next year.)
(2018 update: Sunderland are now in League One.)
I was starting to like Newcastle less, and then I walked into the station and saw a few dozen NFL shirts – with some Newcastle shirts mixed in. Dear God, I thought, not another train full of football fans. The NFL had a game in London that day, plus Newcastle was playing at Tottenham. I just prayed they weren’t all on my train. I don’t know what the English NFL fans are like – other than growing in number – but I didn’t want to sit with footy fans for any more than I had to.
Luckily, they all poured onto the 7:40 for London, and the 7:45 for Leeds, where I would change for Burnley and another Premier League game, was nice and civil. We rolled southwest on the Trans-Pennine Express, into sheep and farm country, and I was left to ponder human nature as I headed for another game of football.
I mean, from my perspective, Geordies and Mackems are neighbors, with nothing of consequence to fight over. But I’ve always thought that the closer the relations and the smaller the stakes, the harder and meaner the fight. ( I would find it the same for the East Anglian Derby in 2017). This is just football, after all, and two teams that aren’t even that good! But I try to enjoy everything, and stay neutral, outside the Portland-Vancouver-Seattle Cascadia Cup of course. That shit is personal.
English football, for me, is just a tour in another world, where the people are fascinating and, occasionally, the football is as well.