By Malcolm Dix
Friday 17 Dec 2010 10:07:00
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Derby Games are something else! So unlike other games. The intensity of feeling both on and off the pitch is amazing. The ‘media’ love to whip up the rivalry and the supporters respond. The Tyne/Wear Derbies fortunately do not have an obvious religious fervour, other than the religion of football, that is. When I first went to a derby in the 50’s, the supporters of both teams were generally good humoured to each other, there was very little violence and we weren’t segregated on the terraces either at St James’ Park or Roker Park. I personally felt, that in later years the violence was intensified by the police presence and attitude.


The aggression in those days took place on the pitch. This season will see the resumption of those Derby games, with around 90,000 supporters counting the days to those fixtures. There have been numerous epic battles between Newcastle United and Sunderland, but one in particular was memorable not so much for the game itself, but for what happened all around it. Good Friday 1901 fell on  April 5th, but there was nothing ‘good’ about it for the fans and the teams assembled for the sixth League Tyne/Wear derby at St James’ Park.


A huge crowd of some 70,000 converged on the ground and St James’ was obviously too small to accommodate all of them. With 45 minutes to kick off the ground was full to capacity. Shortly before 3pm all the gates were locked, with over 20,000 still clamouring for admission. Finding the gates closed against them , the fans in the Gallowgate and Leazes stormed the entrances and a full scale ‘riot’ ensued. The following account of ‘The Derby That Never Was’ appeared in the local newspapers.


They clambered over the rails like cats, and then not only smashed the gates down, but also carried with them a portion of the adjoining railings. Through this gap they trooped through in thousands, pushing the people before them onto the playing pitch. All opposition to their entrance by the small force of Police available on the ground was set at nought, and some five or six thousand people were in the middle of the enclosure when the players entered the arena at half past three o’clock. Several attempts to clear the playing pitch were futile, and even when the multitude were at length forced back onto the barriers they encroached on the playing pitch. The roofs of the reserved stand were black with people and part of the roof gave way, causing the frightened people underneath to make a hurried departure. Whilst in the act of writing, there was a perceptible movement in the apartment allotted to the Press representatives, amongst whom there was a feeling of anxiety as to their safety in consequence of the heavy weight of the people over their heads, indeed a calamity both to the covered-in stand and the press box was momentarily expected.  The whole building shook from end to end and in a few places the roof actually gave way under the severe pressure.

The Sunderland players made another attempt to fight their way through the crowd and reach the playing area. Eventually they were forced to give up their brave attempt and settled for the safety of the dressing room. Then came the ‘bombshell’. “The match is off” said referee Mr. J. Scott after consultation with the officials of both clubs. Within seconds all hell broke loose! Fighting raged all around the ground, the police baton-charged a bottle throwing mob and the goalposts were torn down. A numerous section of the rough element commenced to riot and wreck the wooden stands. For a time the small body of constabulary, who numbered 25, kept the unruly mob within bounds. There was, at least a score of ‘schools’ at pitch and toss, and the protests as to whether they were ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ as well as the heated arguments amongst others over the remarkable situation and the merits of Newcastle United and Sunderland led to numerous free fights!


These comparatively common incidents developed into affairs of a more serious description. Three to four thousand persons, mostly young fellows with caps on formed themselves into one compact body and went on an expedition of wreckage. They tore down the nets at the bottom goal but were thwarted by the Police in their attempts to smash the goalposts. They, however, at once besieged the top goal, which was only protected by a single Policeman. The constable gallantly held the mob at bay single- handed, but he was soon overpowered and the posts and nets were quickly demolished to the accompaniment of loud cheers. They then attacked the bottom stand and hauled down the large black and white flag and tore it to ribbons. They then moved to the other end of the ground to repeat their destruction but the dozen or so Policemen boldly held their ground.


From this report, it can be appreciated that St James’ Park went perilously close to becoming the scene of Britain’s first football disaster. Exactly a year later on April 5th 1902, 25 spectators were killed at Ibrox Park, Glasgow in a similar incident. Measures were then taken to cope with large attendances and ground facilities vastly improved. I am looking forward to our home derby game and know that it will be a GREAT MATCH!

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