Police relaxing Tyne-Wear tactics has split opinion
19 December ~ In keeping with the recent history of the Tyne-Wear derby, talk of this weekend’s fixture among supporters has been as much about policing as players. The decision taken by Northumbria Police not to provide an escort for Sunderland fans travelling to St James’ Park on Sunday has split opinion on both sides: some see a welcome departure from past “bubble" tactics and fan criminalisation, others an either foolhardy move that will exacerbate rather than reduce tensions, or, at worst, a cynical one, designed to manipulate trouble so as to justify still tighter fan controls.
Chief Superintendent Steve Neill, the man in charge of the police operation, told the Chronicle that it was a combination of festive cheer and a “shift" in attitude following the deaths of two Newcastle fans aboard flight MH17 shot down in Ukraine in July (Sunderland fans raised tens of thousands of pounds in their memory) that set this course of action. The refusal of operator Nexus to provide "football-special" metro services on one of the busiest shopping days of the year looks also to have forced the police’s hand.
The hope of supporters’ groups, fanzine editors and fans – Neill’s words chime with the FSF’s "derby to be proud of” initiative, a joint Newcastle-Sunderland effort to work together in the best interests of both sets of supporters – is that a balance can be struck between safety and the freedom to enjoy football. Northumbria Police hope that their new approach will be seen as the implementation of what matchgoers have long been calling for, that is to be trusted to arrive at away grounds responsibly without immediately being branded a hooligan. They have also sought to make clear that no escort does not mean no plan; there will still be a "highly visible police presence" on show.
Many remain unconvinced. Leaving aside the practicality of such a plan, there is the very real worry that Northumbria Police are gambling with fan safety in order to further their own interests, taking a laissez-faire approach to policing the derby so as to make disorder more likely and allow for the return of bubble matches. Neill’s interview failed to allay this feeling; insincere and insensitive was the verdict of some fans upon hearing that he wished to "use Christmas and the very sad deaths of Liam Sweeney and John Alder and make sure December 21 is a positive legacy for the future”.
Regardless of motive, Sunday presents Newcastle and Sunderland fans with an opportunity to safeguard their derby’s future. Draconian punishments still hover on the horizon – Gus Poyet this week suggested a citywide ban on alcohol – but there should no reason that they have to be implemented. Kieran Dodds