Newcastle, Sunderland & A Good Friday Disagreement

by | Mar 17, 2016

On Sunday afternoon at St James Park, Newcastle United play Sunderland in what can probably – and, for once, without hyperbole – be described as the most important match between the two clubs in recent years. With both clubs sitting in perilous danger of relegation from the Premier League come the end of this season, this weekend’s match is about more than mere local pride. With a new television contract kicking in for the Premier League this summer, around £100m could be at stake should one – or both – of these clubs end up dropping into the Football League Championship.

Like so many internecine rivalries of this nature, the Tyne-Wear rivalry is also pock-marked with violence, and this unwelcome history goes back to the very formation of the clubs concerned. Indeed, it is argued that the inter-city rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle has its roots in the English Civil War or the Jacobite Rebellions. Sunderland AFC was formed in 1879 and joined the Football League in 1890. The club’s impact was immediate. Described by William McGregor, the founder of the Football League, as “the Team of All Talents,” Sunderland became the champions of England in only their second season of membership and would become the champions of England three times and the runners-up twice in the 1890s alone.

Newcastle United, meanwhile, were formed in 1892 through the merger of Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End. The club was offered a place in the Football League that year but turned it down due to concerns over the costs of travelling, but joined its Second Division the following year, being promoted into the First Division as runners-up in 1898. The first league meeting between the two clubs came on Christmas Eve 1898 at Roker Park, with the Newcastle winning by three goals to two. By the turn of the century, it was clear that Newcastle United might be in a strong position to be able to challenge Sunderlad as being the strongest team in the region and that both clubs were strong enough to be capable of tussling for the Football League Championship.

On Good Friday 1901, however, it was Sunderland who were top of the Football League, two points clear of Nottingham Forest and five ahead of third placed Liverpool as Newcastle prepared to “welcome” their local rivals to St James Park for a critical league match. Attendances – and, accordingly, tensions – had been rising over the course of the previous couple of years, but it seems reasonable to suggest that the police were woefully under-prepared for this fixture. Just twenty-five officers were on duty that day, but St James Park was full to its 30,000 capacity well before kick-off, with contemporary reports suggesting that up to 70,000 people might have been locked out of the ground.

The Manchester Guardian reported that, “After the gates were closed they stormed the palisades and forced their way on to the ground, where riotous scenes occurred. Play was rendered quite impossible, and the police had to make a number of baton charges before order could be partially restored,” while Athletic News reported that, “Some 35,000 squeezed into St James’ Park with as many more outside, desperate to gain entry. Fences were trampled down and before long the pitch became a battleground between rival fans! The club flag was torn from it’s staff and riven into shreds, the goal nets at one end shard like a fate!”, adding that, “We are delighted to hear that the cross-bar in falling fetched one or two of the rioters a reverberating ‘sock’ on the headache department!”

As the players came out onto the pitch to warm up, it was reported that up to 5,000 people were on the pitch in a dangerously overcrowded stadium. The players quickly retreated back into the changing rooms as the atmosphere turned uglier and uglier, and forty-five minutes after the appointed kick-off time the match was called off.  It was reported that the police were fairly indiscriminate in their use of force in breaking up the crowd. Remarkably – and most likely extremely fortuitously – only nine people were injured that day, including one who fell from St James Park’s Barrack Road Stand. The stand was reported to have almost collapsed under the pressure of the crowd, and was replaced five years later as part of a redevelopment that doubled the ground’s capacity to 60,000.

The aftermath of all of this was almost as chaotic as the Good Friday non-match itself. In spite of everything that happened that day, both clubs were back in action the very next day. Extraordinarily, Newcastle were at home against Sheffield Wednesday, grinding out a goalless draw, while Sunderland lost at Everton, the first of two successive defeats which allowed Liverpool right back into the title race. Away from the pitch, meanwhile, the fallout from the events of Good Friday were not insignificant. One Sunderland supporter brought a court case against the directors of Newcastle United because the match didn’t take place and lost. The £70 of legal expenses that said supporter incurred may not sound like a lot until we factor in inflation and, adjusted for that, these costs equate to almost £7,700 in today’s money. Newcastle also avoided censure from the FA after volunteering their share of the gate receipts from the match to local charities.

There was a further sting in the tail for Sunderland. Their last game of the season was the rescheduled match at St James Park, almost three weeks after the original had been scheduled. They won that by two goals to nil, but wins for Liverpool the following Saturday and Monday against Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion respectively took the Football League Championship to Anfield for the first time. Sunderland would go one better the following season, but this would be the last time that the club would lift the title for eleven years. Newcastle United, meanwhile, would go on to win their first Football League Championship in 1905.

As with the vast majority of local derbies, the tug of war that is the Tyne-Wear derby is one that can never be definitively won either way. After one hundred and fifty-five meetings, the two clubs have won fifty-three each, with forty-nine draws and even relegation for one of these two clubs and survival for the other at the end of this season wouldn’t definitively settle it, because these rivalries can never be definitively won or lost. This is, put simply, not how they work. Two clubs with striped shirts, grand histories and currently existing in straitened circumstances may well look like two sides of the same coin to outsiders, but the supporters of both know better. And they have since at least Good Friday 1901.

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