Wearside Echoes: Black Cats fall foul to Magpies

Sunderland AFC League Champions 1901/2
Sunderland AFC League Champions 1901/2
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THE kick-off of the new football season has prompted local historian Norman Kirtlan to red card the rivalry of North East teams.

“It’s that time of the year when fans look forward to when we are ‘entertaining’ the hordes in their black and white garb,” said the retired police inspector.

“But this type of obsession is nothing new. It has existed since the Civil War in the 1640s – when, incidentally, we won the first local derby. Oliver Cromwell’s Cats 1, King Charles’ Magpies 0.”

At the turn of the last century, however, fans took the rivalry to even greater heights – during an incident which, thankfully, has never been repeated.

“The date was Friday, April 6, 1901 – at a time when Sunderland were, as usual, battling it out at the top of Division One with Liverpool, Notts Forest and Notts County,” said Norman.

“Newcastle were a few places further down, while The Lads, already at the top of the table, needed just one more win to secure the Championship. Who did they have to play? Yep, The Magpies.”

It had been a season and a half for Sunderland. The Rokermen had already had knocked seven past Wolves in one of the season’s highest-scoring games and looked to be certainties for the top spot.

But, as every fan knows, statistics can often fly out of the window in the red hot cauldron of a local derby.

“In the days when a good tackle was measured in how long the opposing player spent in hospital, this was destined to be a match that no one would ever forget,” said Norman.

St James’s Park was already full by 2pm, on April 6, but the trains kept on “spilling out fans from all over the North East” – while thousands more made their way to the game on foot.

Officials were eventually forced to close the gates at 2.30pm, by which time 30,000 fans were crammed into the ground. Tens of thousands more found themselves locked out.

“Like some scene from a medieval siege, many of these 20th Century Civil War invaders smashed down the gates and forced their way inside,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Planks were pulled from what was left of the fencing and laid over the glass-topped walls. Then, like greenfly on a summer rose, the desperate fans swarmed inside in an unstoppable mass.

“Now, it doesn’t take Isaac Newton to tell you that if the inside of St James’ Park was already full, then a further injection of tens of thousands of fans would make things very uncomfortable.

“Those already within the ground were jostled, pushed and crushed. There was only one direction in which they could move, and that was forward – on to the field of play.”

As the minutes ticked down to the 3.30pm kick-off, the Newcastle and Sunderland players assembled close to the pitch – ready to run on to their usual rapturous applause.

The lack of space, however – with fans forced to crowd the pitch in a bid to escape the worst of the crush – caused a major headache. There was no space left for the teams to actually play.

“There wasn’t a blade of grass to spare. People were packed in like sardines,” said Norman. “But the fact the sardines were getting a bit agitated was an even bigger problem.

“The duty police sergeant and all 25 of his chaps were stuck in the middle of the melée somewhere, trying their best to appeal for calm and reason – a tough call with 5,000 people on the pitch.

“There was only one thing that the boys in blue could do to clear the field for kick-off – perform a baton charge. A few yards of field were secured at the expense of a few battered heads.”

Elsewhere, however, an even bigger problem was developing. As a pitched battle was fought on the grass, many fans sought a safer vantage point – the corrugated roof of the ground.

“Within minutes it was teeming with fans of both persuasions, while the press reporters cocooned anxiously underneath the roof scribbled away at their pre-match reports,” said Norman.

“But the sound of stamping feet above their heads eventually brought writing to a halt. Just as the reporters made their escape, the roof gave way and dozens of fans slid back down to the stands.”

As pandemonium broke out, so the players, referees and officials from both clubs surveyed the scene. The assessment could have only one conclusion – cancellation of the game.

“The fans heard the news with astonishment and alarm. Off? The big match – never!” said Norman.

“Some Magpie fans cheered, knowing that the Rokermen would be denied the two points needed to secure the Championship. But Sunderland fans cried “Conspiracy!” And then the match really kicked off.”

According to a report in the Echo: “Three or four thousand young persons, mainly young fellows with caps on, formed themselves into one compact body and went on an expedition of wreckage.”

The first targets were the goalposts at the Gallowgate End – which were defended by 24 police constables.

Despite the overwhelming odds of success, the fans swerved away from the officers, and charged instead towards the goalposts at the other end of the pitch.

“These were defended by one constable. Despite the copper’s valiant efforts, the posts were torn down and, horror of horrors, the constable’s helmet was ‘knocked from his head’,” said Norman.

Bloody battles, violent mayhem and “general disorder and destruction” went on “unabated for hours.”

It was well after 5pm when mounted police officers cleared the rioters.

“It was only then that the true cost of the derby match could be counted,” said Norman. “St James’s Park was in tatters but, in human costs, surprisingly little damage had been caused.

“The worst of the injuries appear to have been bruises and cuts caused by locked-out fans climbing the glass-topped walls.”

Among the injured were Sunderland men Alfred Tetley and Albert Waite, who were treated for cuts to their hands. Others, mainly Newcastle United fans, suffered fractures after falling off the roof.

“After Newcastle took out “sufficient funds” from the gate receipts to repair the damage, the rest of the spoils were divided between both Newcastle and Sunderland Borough,” said Norman.

“In the end, it would be charities supported by the local councils, rather than the clubs and their fans, which would benefit from a disgraceful spectacle.”

The riot was a disaster for Sunderland’s title hopes as well, with the club losing out to Liverpool by two points.

The results of the re-arranged derby later that month saw The Lads snatch a 2-0 win over their black and white rivals.

“A century later and passions are still raised by this clash of local Titans,” said Norman. “But let us hope that the fellows in caps do us all a favour and stay at home for our derby in October.”