In an interview with The Daily Mail, Newcastle United defender Davide Santon said the Tyne-Wear derby is bigger than the Milan equivalent - a bold statement to say the least.
But moving to the North East recently, I now know how far from hyperbole his remarks really are. Such is the reach of football’s significance in the area that even in a city half an hour’s drive from either club (Durham), the results of these two teams account for half of local pub conversation. The other half details their upcoming fixtures.
Football up here is more than a game. It’s an escapism, a weekend portal to a world detached from work, education or the recession ravaged economy. Even those few who don’t follow sport are aware of it – how could they not be? It’s the barrometer for most of the local populus’ mood for the rest of the week.
So, why is it so important? The reasons are three fold.
The first is grounded in history, before the game of football was ever invented. Amid a civil war which divided the entire nation, the North East’s two principal cities took opposite sides – Newcastle pledging allegiance to King Charles’ Royalists and Sunderland backing Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads. The dichotomous trend continued during the Jacobite Rebellion, wherein Newcastle sided with the Hanoverians, whilst Sunderland supported the Stuarts.
Moreover, it is from Newcastle’s underlying support from King George II that the term ‘Geordie’ is thought to have been derrived and it is from Scotland’s ‘Blue Mac’ army that the word ‘Mackem’ is thought to have been coined. After domestic piece was eventually achieved, the game of football provided a suitable alternative to maintain this longlasting divide.
The second reason is grounded in the game itself. Due to the shear importance placed on these two clubs, the teams have a responsibility, nay, a duty to perform. Admittedly, it’s not always a duty that is upheld – considering the followings of both clubs, there’s a case for underachievement on both parts; but the derby fixture offers some level of placate. Win the derby, and that’s something at least. It’s a game that can put a positive spin on an otherwise negative season – a strange luxury not afforded to any other region.
And the third and final reason as to what makes the North East’s football culture so different to everywhere else is the fans. The North East doesn’t have the most fans – that hollow title is held by the commercially successful- but it does have the best. How can we qualify such a sweeping statement? Quite easily. In fact, I can even quantify it, if you insist on figures.
The average gate during Newcastle’s relegation season was 51,231, higher than Serie A winners Inter Milan and nearly 9,000 more than that of Manchester City. During their brief stay outside of the top flight, they had the third highest attendance in English football, bested only by the two clubs with bigger stadiums than them.
And finally, just consider this. The Chronicle, the area’s main local newspaper, released a sixteen page pull out in addition to their usual sports coverage, four days before the derby has even happened. It’s a fixture that has so much more riding on it than points. It’s the result of the region. It is life.