Southern glory seeker or die-hard Blue, your football allegiance tells us something about modern Britain

Londoners' football allegiance, mappedIt's complicated, this football thing - just ask Londoners.
It marks one of the great urban and social divides in Britain, illuminating some peculiarly British linguistic, social and cultural fault lines.  Welcome to the complicated world of football allegiance, says Dougal Paver.

This blog is about urban society and economics and it behoves us, dear reader, to cast a light on whatever we may find that illustrates the complexities of the social and economic ties that bind or divide communities in these fair isles.

And so we find ourselves in the village of Boldon Colliery, the very northernmost point of the Durham coalfield, just south of Jarrow on the flood plain of the industrial river Tyne.  It’s an unremarkable place, the colliery where my grandfather worked long since closed and new employment in the nearby Nissan car plant and the local Asda supermarket taking up much of the slack.

You can catch regular buses to Heworth interchange and hop on the gleaming metro network into Newcastle city centre or, if you prefer, head south east by bus ‘up the bank’ via the pretty village of Cleadon and on to Sunderland.  And therein, dear reader, lies the rub, for Boldon Colliery represents possibly one of the greatest linguistic and cultural divides in Britain.

My father describes himself as a Geordie from a social standpoint and has the remnants of a Newcastle accent to prove it.  But he is an avowed Mackem when it comes to football allegiance. For our colonial readers, a Geordie is someone from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and its tightly-defined linguistic hinterland, whilst a Mackem is someone from the neighbouring city of Sunderland, on the river Wear, or a supporter of their football team.  Whilst their respective city centres are just 14.4 miles apart and the suburbs of each are contiguous, the accents differ markedly – and accents, as the most obvious markers of a man’s breeding and birthplace, matter a lot in class-bound, parochial Blighty.

And so back to Boldon. Neighbours brought up in the village may speak with either a Newcastle or a Sunderland accent and support completely opposite football teams, as in my father’s case.  Indeed, for two cities with such intense rivalry it’s an oddity that for much of the length of the south bank of the Tyne (particularly its eastern end, where it meets the sea at South Shields) you will find Sunderland supporters’ clubs.  It’s why, I’m told, you never hear Sunderland fans chanting “we hate Geordies”, because so many of their number are ones.  They sing instead about their abiding hatred of the Magpies or, for short, the Mags (a reference to Newcastle’s black and white kit).

This all makes perfect sense up in that part of the world but leaves others baffled.  But it can be just as complicated elsewhere.  As our map shows (we love a good map on this blog) it’s a minefield in London by dint of the sheer number of professional football clubs in the capital. Lucky Paris, with just one team.

For Cockneys football isn’t purely a function of geography, despite what the map suggests.  The large Jewish community in the north east London borough of Haringey has given Tottenham Hotspur such a large Jewish following that the club’s fans call themselves Yids, much to the consternation of the footballing authorities.  But broadly, it’s about where you were born, with rivalries split on a north, south, west and east basis – though in typically contrarian British fashion, not entirely.

South-east London based Charlton Athletic’s great rivals are traditionally Millwall, a suburb in east London but who now play south of the river in New Cross.  East London favourites West Ham have a traditional rivalry not with near-neighbours Leyton Orient but with Tottenham in north London.  And north London-based Arsenal were founded originally in the south east suburb of Woolwich.  Still following?

These days the money seems to follow the glamour clubs of Arsenal and Chelsea, though ’twas not always thus. For much of their history Chelsea, in spite of their very promising west London address, were rubbish and followed by a strongly working class fan base.  Attendances were low and relegation from the top flight gloriously frequent.  Then Russian money of, shall we say, interesting provenance transformed the club and its facilities and lo! Suddenly lads with Holland Park addresses and suede loafers were claiming they’d been fans “since Chopper Harris‘s day” and the rest we know.  Glory-seeking for the modern age.

Outside of the capital much of the debate is about authenticity, too, particularly in the north west where England’s two most successful teams are to be found.  Rivals to Liverpool FC and Mancester United FC snort with contempt at their legions of followers from out of town, evidence of  the same glory seeking tendencies, suggesting allegiance is fickle and lacking in the fortitude of genuine fans, built on years of shared disappointments and near-misses.  Supporters of Everton FC, Liverpool’s neighbours and great local rivals, call Liverpool fans ‘Norwegians’, a withering put-down based on the latter’s huge fan base in Norway, which fills the city’s hotels at weekends.

The rivalry has interesting roots.  Anfield, Liverpool’s legendary old stadium, was where Everton used to play before a board room split in 1892 saw the Everton shareholders take their ball away in the best tradition and put their jumpers down on the other side of Stanley Park, leaving Anfield to a couple of Northern Irish lads, one a brewer and the other a leading light in the local Orange Lodge.  And so was born Liverpool FC.  It was a bad year, 1892.

Everton had been founded by a local Methodist chapel in 1878 and from such beginnings came the mistaken belief that there was a sectarian foundation to both the city’s clubs.  There never was – it was purely business – and from day one both teams drew on cross-community support, in spite of their shared Protestant heritage.  During the 50s and 60s it seemed that just about every parish priest in the Liverpool Archdiocese was an Everton fan and sentiment even began to suggest that the Blues were a ‘Catholic club’.  Wrong again.

The curse of sectarianism was to blight Scottish football, however, although it faded away in two of its three biggest cities.  Hibernian FC in Edinburgh long-since ceased to be a club for the city’s Irish community, as did Dundee United (formerly Dundee Hibernian), but in Glasgow religious affiliation still cleaves the city if viewed through the prism of its two largest clubs, Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers.

Back down the M6 in Manchester it is geographic affiliation that still marks out supporters of the city’s two largest clubs.  Fans of Manchester City largely come from the east and south of the city, whilst fans of Manchester United hail from the north and west.  City fans are wont to point out that there’s only one club in Manchester in any event, United being based in the western borough of Trafford rather than within the city’s boundaries.  On such details are moral victories won.

For egg-chasers there’s a similar divide in the eastern port city of Kingston-upon-Hull, a hot bed of rugby league.  There, affiliation to either of the city’s rugby clubs is a function of whether you were born east or west of the river Hull.  Easterners follow Hull Kingston Rovers whilst westerners are supporters of Hull. The rivalry occasionally manifests itself in that curse of 1980s football, hooliganism, just to keep things simmering along nicely.

Also in Yorkshire there’s an interesting back story to the rivalry between the two Sheffield clubs, Wednesday and United, whilst a little further south in Nottingham it all seems a little bit weak. (Worth noting the historical fallacy about the religious origins of Everton and Liverpool in that link).

Down in the quaint port of Bristol the local rivalry between City and Rovers may excite emotions in that parish, but it’s a mark of the city’s footballing underachievement that its local derby was only considered the eighth fiercest in English football.  Frankly, I’m surprised it made the top twenty.

But perhaps the most gloriously vitriolic rivalry of all goes to two neighbouring south coast ports – take a bow, Southampton and Portsmouth.  Bonkers, the pair of ’em.