Many a word has been spoken or written detailing the major events that make a club such as Newcastle United the giant that it is today and how and why the rivalry with Sunderland developed. I don’t want to repeat what others have said but hopefully I can provide some insight that you probably haven’t considered before, sprinkle it with my opinion and hopefully leave you with an informed thought or two.
I have often been asked where I would go if I could travel through time to a year in history. On first consideration, I would probably go back to the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Final to see Bob Moncur and the boys hoist that European trophy into the air. Before I set this down in stone as my choice for time travel, I thought I should consider the wider history of our club and the events that have shaped it, to really get a feel for a point in time that deserves a visit. Maybe there’s another period that deserves more attention. Okay, so where to start? How about we go all the way back to the 1890s?
The bad blood that exists between the Tyne-Wear clubs in the modern era was unheard of in the 1890s. The beginning of Newcastle United as a truly unified club of the city starts in 1892. I have to say I love nothing more than hearing the chant reminding us of United’s origin - “This club is my club, made out of two clubs, to form United, oh what a great club”. Two teams from across town came together to create a real “United”, and this merger, combined with the folding of “Sunderland Albion”, opened up the real potential for the rivalry we know today.
However, at this point in our history, our cousins down the road, established some thirteen years earlier, were already busy winning their inaugural First Division title. One of the craziest and possibly the funniest of matches to take place, two centuries past, is a friendly between the Champions of England and those from Scotland. Sunderland played Hearts and after winning 5-3, declared themselves “Champions of the World”. It’s difficult to resist the chance to take the mickey here even though back then the regional hatred must have been almost impossible to conceive. I’m not sure my time travel opportunity should be used to escalate that.
Our rivalry as settlements clearly dates back to a time before football. Our first all-out war with the Mackems was in the 1600s and when I say war I mean WAR. King Charles was collecting coal taxes from Wearside and was shipping them to London. Given the support he had in our city and the changing political climate he decided to move collection to be paid from Sunderland to Newcastle; as you can imagine this didn’t go down too well. Once the Civil war started in earnest, the Toon stood strong behind the Crown while the Mackems took the opportunity for revenge by supporting the Parliamentarian movement. In 1664, a Parliamentarian force began a 10- week siege of Newcastle. The culmination of the fighting was a battle in the Bigg market, where Geordies defended the square to the death, against a vastly superior force containing men from all but 10 miles away. This incident laid the groundwork for a bitter rivalry, with later battles reopening the old wounds and the violence even continuing into the Jacobean War hundreds of years later.
Getting back to football, I think it should be noted that Newcastle took first blood in the off-the-field battle. The year is 1897 and having been stuck in Division Two since their acceptance in to the league, NUFC were looking to press for promotion. Meanwhile, in this short time Sunderland held on to the same squad of players to secure the league twice more. The Magpies made the bold move and raided Wearside to steal a star player who had been astronomically important to our unwashed cousins’ success. John Campbell, a Scottish born striker had joined 5under1and in 1890 scoring 151 goals in 215 appearances. He was the top scorer in each of the championship seasons. The striker became one of the first players to move across the Tyne-Wear league divide; a move that in itself is made all the more bizarre when you consider the factors surrounding the transfer. Given that Campbell was in the twilight of his career it may not have been that unusual for him to take a step down to a lower division, but he did so at a time when his brother had recently taken over at Sunderland. I cannot find evidence to link the transfer to a dispute at his old club but rather that the move was facilitated by some creative individuals who were now running NUFC. The man you should know about was called Frank Watt, a fellow countryman of Campbell’s, who upon joining Newcastle as a board member and secretary, declared “We’re going to be the best team in the country”. I cannot stress the importance of these events leading up to that season in 1898. Not only did Campbell’s transfer give us a proven goal scorer to lead the line but it highlighted the end of an era with the breakup of the ageing Mackem “dream team”. Campbell went on to score 12 goals for NUFC in 29 appearances. These stats don’t set the world on fire but the signal of signing a three-time title winner from your closest rivals cannot be underestimated. That year Newcastle were promoted to the top flight for the first time. This promotion was partially due to the first division’s expansion from 16 to 18 teams but without Campbell it never would have happened. Maybe the final game that season would be worth a watch but with Campbell retiring to run a pub, I think my time traveling visit would more likely end up there drinking the night away.
Newcastle went on to arguably their strongest period in history winning the league three times (1905, 07 & 09) and reaching five FA cup finals. At the time there were reports of the team that played with “a short passing game the likes of which had never been seen before”. I was thinking this would be an ideal time to return to and celebrate… but once I considered the manner in which I would celebrate in the 1900s it became less appealing than a later date in history that I will come too.
One other often ignored point of history was the effect that Newcastle United had on other sides, even to the point of inspiring Manchester United’s choice of name. On 24th April 1902, the “excellent football” shown by NUFC is one of the cited reasons that inspired the Newton Heath Committee to choose United over the other nominated names of “Celtic” and “Central”. Maybe I could head back and get them to reconsider? Maybe manager of Manchester Celtic would have deterred Alex Ferguson from taking take over? Goodness only knows how history would have been different.
Ok so let’s get down to the nitty gritty… Where would I actually go then? I never thought it would be such an easy a choice after all… Have a guess which year I am talking about. It gets off to a great start with a Friday night party into a New Year’s Day match. It sees Newcastle United beat Leeds United at home. No big deal, right? Well, that win propels us to the top of the table and there we remain until the end of the season. A few days later, construction starts on arguably our region’s most famous land mark- The Tyne Bridge. I would love to see that. February brings one of the things I love the most, a win at Anfield. I have seen two wins in my life there (out of eleven visits) and I would love to make it three. March sees NUFC beat Sunderland, got to have a little smile at that - although plenty of other years I could visit have also seen this event occur. As the season draws to an end Newcastle United will be crowned Champions of England. Not only that, come August I could witness the birth of my Grandfather and maybe most importantly celebrate it all with a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale fresh from the first production draft. Ladies and Gentlemen, if time travel ever becomes possible I am setting my dial to 1927.