Sitting on the bus waiting to get into St James’ Park, I couldn’t take my eyes off the Newcastle supporters.
I knew all about the Tyne-Wear derby but to be in the eye of the storm is a really unique experience. You are left in no doubt about the feelings they have for you as a Sunderland player – and my concentration was broken by a hefty thwack as a Coke can thudded against the coach window.
If you didn’t know what the game was all about before then, that coach ride leaves you in absolutely no doubt. And let me let you into a secret: I absolutely loved that genuine hatred the supporters had for us.
It was something I fed off through my entire career and the Tyne-Wear derby was the perfect game for me.
I’ve been lucky enough to play in a lot of brilliant derby games. England v Scotland was one of the highlights of my career and scoring at Wembley is something that will live with me forever. Playing for Everton in the Merseyside derby was another highlight.
But the Tyne-Wear derby is completely different. In Liverpool there is a bit of love for the other side, if truth be told. Families can be split down the middle, with parents and even grandparents donning the shirts of either side.
You very, very rarely get that in the North East. It’s either Newcastle or Sunderland and I think that breeds a certain amount of hatred that comes from the pride that the two clubs’ supporters have for their areas and their football clubs. It makes the atmosphere absolutely brilliant.
People say it’s a shame that the game isn’t a bit more respectful and of course no one wants to see it boil over to violence or some of the idiotic stuff that happened away from the ground last time. But if the hatred is just shouting, booing and noise I don’t see a problem with it. Shout yourselves hoarse: it’s why every British player would give anything to play in this game. For me, I had crossed the divide by playing for Sunderland but coming from a Newcastle family.
I know for some that is the biggest no-no in football, but I don’t regret it for a second. I loved playing for Sunderland and I approached that move like I did everything in my career – by putting heart and soul into my time there.
Yet when I stepped out at St James’ Park for the first time, I knew the kind of day it was going to be. The announcer was reading out our team before the game and for the first time in my life I couldn’t hear a word he said because the boos were so ferocious. It was brilliant, I loved it.
It must be weird for a manager in the run-up to the game and it is a lie when anyone in football says the derby is just another match.
It’s not, and that’s why you see some players and managers having a good record in derbies because the challenges are very different from your run-of-the-mill Saturdays.
Gus Poyet and Alan Pardew will have to bring their players down on Saturday, which is the reverse of a normal week when your job is about getting the players in the right frame of mind by getting them up for it.
That one week you have to bring them off the ceiling – literally in the case of the lads who are punching the walls before the game. I’m serious, I’ve seen that happen.
Peter Reid was brilliant in that situation. He had a way of getting through to players and he would time some of that stuff for the derbies.
The week before that game at St James’ Park he went through all of our pre-game instructions and then after lifting the last piece of paper on the white board he told us he would not swap one of their players for ours.
It sounds easy to say but the way he said it, the way he had just taken apart their team made you feel on top of the world. We were the best team in the world for a few minutes after that.
Humour is another way you can do it. Adrian Heath was part of the management team and I’d know him from Coventry. I loved him and he would stand up and say things like ‘This is nothing lads when you’ve been to a World Cup’. It would take a sting out of it for the lads who might have been a bit anxious.
I’d got a habit when we were on the bus to a big game of taking a tape of that Diego Maradona goal in 1986 and whacking it on the video player on the bus just before we got into the games. Reidy was left for dead for that goal and he’d be reminded of it on a regular basis so one week he got up and said: “Hey lads, I might have caught him if I was on the same gear as him at the time!” The whole bus erupted.
When you get out there, the pace is 100mph. Players need to be ready for that and it is about who can cope with that and start to play their natural game.
A lot is made of the French players at Newcastle. I think that’s a load of a rubbish, they’ve played in derby games in France, they know what these kind of matches are all about. They can cope. Believe me, John Carver will have told them about it too because it means more to him than anyone.
When we won at St James’ Park it was a great day – followed by a brilliant evening. We got out of Newcastle as quickly as we could and got straight into a nightclub in the centre of Sunderland, still in our tracksuits!
The chairman (Sir) Bob Murray put a couple of thousand behind the bar for us to celebrate and the evening was magical.
I’m jealous of each of the players on Saturday getting to experience it!