The tragic deaths of two Newcastle supporters on board flight MH17 could help begin a new chapter of unity between footballing rivals, it is hoped.
Sunderland fans have donated thousands of pounds to charity in honour of John Alder and Liam Sweeney, killed in the Malaysia Airlines disaster on Thursday.
And Newcastle supporters in return have invited Sunderland and other fans to join them at St James’ Park to remember the pair at the first game of the new season.
The online fundraising, which last night had topped £18,000, was started by Sunderland supporter Gary Ferguson.
The father-of-three set up an online donation page, aiming to raise enough money to buy a bouquet of flowers to lay at St James’ Park on behalf of Black Cats supporters, as a mark of respect.
But as donations flooded in, the gesture showed that the loss of John and Liam has transcended the sometimes bitter Tyne-Wear rivalry and brought the North East football family together.
Gary, a sales manager, said it was John and Liam’s loyalty to their team that Sunderland fans identified with and inspired so many to donate money.
The 48-year-old said: “These were proper fans. They were going to New Zealand to support their team. That’s what really resonated with me and with everyone else.
“I’m a Sunderland season ticket holder and I never miss a home game, but these were real loyal supporters. People might be surprised with the rivalry, but I haven’t had any negative responses at all.”
Mr Alder, 63, from Deckham, Gateshead, and Mr Sweeney, 28, of Westerhope in Newcastle, were en-route to New Zealand to support Newcastle United’s squad during their pre-season tour on the other side of the globe.
They boarded the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines jet MH17 bound for Kuala Lumpur at Amsterdam, and were killed along with almost 300 other passengers when the plane was brought down over the Ukraine.
Gary, from South Shields, said the regional football community’s overwhelming response to the fundraising has shown that the negative images of the rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle fans are untrue.
“It does make you proud of football fans,” he said. “I’m not just proud of the amount of money that’s been raised but by how many people have donated.
“The last two derby games have been ridiculous, with bottles being thrown and horses being punched and it has shown fans in a really bad light, but this has shown that that is a minority.”
Yesterday, Newcastle fans’ group The Football Social called for supporters of all the region’s clubs to attend Newcastle United’s first home match of the new season, a friendly against Manchester City, to remember Mr Alder and Mr Sweeney.
A Twitter post said: “John and Liam would have been attending this friendly match, so let’s get behind them and show them that we are supporting them and their friends and family, put your rivalry behind you and attend this match whether you are a Sunderland fan or any other fan.”
The fans added: “Divided by rivalry but united by grief.”
Some supporters have spoken of the response to the tragedy opening a new chapter for football in the region. NUFC fan Rob Waters, 31, said: “I think the solidarity that these lads have shown may have changed the North East rivalry forever.
“This is what being a North East football fan should always be about.
“I just hope we can look forward to a future of this kind of behaviour from fans in future, instead of the bunch of idiots who have dragged our proud clubs’ names through the mud on the last few meetings.”
And fellow Newcastle supporter Alex Kyle added: “It’s so moving and I’m an NUFC fan that didn’t even know the lads but feel such empathy for their family. I think come December, despite what the score is, no one is going to react how they did the last couple of derby defeats, to show and maintain that respect for the lads.”
Gary has been in contact with friends of both the victims’ families to identify charities close to Mr Alder and Mr Sweeney that the money raised can be donated to.
After buying the flowers, he will give the rest of the money to the Marie Curie hospice, on behalf of Mr Sweeney’s family, and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation in memory of Mr Alder.
“Liam’s stepmother has cancer and has been at the hospice,” he added.