Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Ugly Face of the Beautiful Game

Take a walk through Newcastle city centre on a match day and you will be met with the most dedicated and passionate bunch of footy fans in the world. They wend their way from Central Station through the Toon, tracing the soft curve of Grey Street like a swarm of anaemic wasps. From all sides they converge on St James’ Park (recently renamed SportsDirect Arena, but always and forever St James’ Park), filtering in to chaotic renditions of Blaydon Races. When Newcastle score, an atavistic bellow swells up resonating through the Toon and beyond.
“Fanaticism” really does sum up what the Toon Army is all about. They have been known to hoist a replica Alan Shearer shirt onto the Angel of the North in tribute to the great man. James Charnock, a Geordie ex-pat in Qatar, has had his own traditional robe made in Newcastle strip. You can get NUFC blinds to adorn your house. And I’ve seen house exteriors in Newcastle’s West End painted black and white. Time and time again, Newcastle fans top tables for the amount they spend and the distance they travel to get to away games. Take the example of Mitsuo Manobe, who in the glory days of Alan Shearer would regularly fly the 11,500 miles from his home in Japan to St James’ Park to see his hero play.
But just as famous as their dedication is the fierce rivalry with other north-east teams. The animosity between Newcastle and Sunderland fans is well-documented. In what is perhaps the most vicious example, a mutually-arranged fight in March 2000 saw a clash between 70 rival fans, rendering one man permanently brain-damaged. And both teams’ fans are near the top of leagues for football-related disorder—126 arrests for third-placed Sunderland fans in 2010/11, and 123 for the Toon Army, following closely behind in fourth place.
Of course, the rivalry goes far deeper than football. Back in the early seventeenth century Charles I granted coal trade rights to merchants from Newcastle, making those from Sunderland redundant. Understandably, Newcastle sided with the Crown come the Civil War in 1642, and Sunderland with the Parliamentarians. Then, during the Jacobite rebellions (1688-1746), Newcastle lent its support to the Hanoverians, while Sunderland took the side of the Stuarts. Fast forward to the nineteenth century, and Geordie shipbuilders began to refer to their Sunderland counterparts as “mackems” referencing the fact they while the Wearsiders would make the ships (‘mack ’em’) they would then be fitted out (considered by the Geordies to be a superior skill) in Newcastle—the Geordies would ‘take them’. And so the enmity is mirrored in football…
Ships: source of conflict in the north east

Middlesbrough fares not much better: the Toon Army wear gasmasks to away matches at the Riverside as a reference to pollution from the town’s chemical plants (something I believe initiated by the Mackems). The practice was banned during the Iraq War in 2003, only to complaints from the “smoggies” (Boro fans) that it actually improved the appearance of the Geordies and Mackems…
And elsewhere in the north-east, fans of Darlington FC (whose future hangs in the balance as I type) refer to their rivals from Hartlepool as “monkey hangers” (or “chimp chokers”). The tale goes that during the Napoleonic Wars a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool, the only surviving member of the crew being a monkey, for some reason dressed up in uniform. Locals who came across the unfortunate primate took it to be a French spy, and duly sentenced it to hanging from the mast of a fishing boat.

Although I would never describe myself as a sports fan, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the cultural, social and historical aspects of football here in the north east—quite simply, there’s so much more to football than meets the “why-eye”.

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