When attending Sunderland matches in the mid-to-late-80s, every so often a chant would start: Geordies, Mackems, Geordies, Mackems and so it went on, each fan shouting a name that associates them with an area, but all with an unwavering support to the team they know and love. Today you’ll be lucky indeed to hear any such chant. Those brave enough to shout “Geordies” will receive a torrent of abuse or worse. My argument is this: Why do Sunderland need or have to be called Mackems?
I was brought up in Gateshead and have no connections at all with Sunderland, but to my black and white friends, I’m a Mackem simply because I support the Lads. Can anyone give me a plausible explanation as to why Sunderland fans call themselves Mackems? As far as I’m aware, it is a term which is fairly recent and was connected to the ship yard workers until they were closed for good in the late eighties. They would ‘Mack’ and others would ‘Tack’ the ships away from the Wear.
Would it be unkind to say that Sunderland fans adopted the tag ‘Mackems’ because they needed an identity or a sense of belonging to the area, so that when someone said “You sound like a Geordie,” they could reply: “No mate, I’m a Mackem.” Why does being called a Geordie rankle the red and white hordes so much? 20-30 years ago when the away fans would sing songs associating Sunderland with Geordies, no-ne appeared to care less. It is only in recent years that fans have started to distance themselves from the Geordie tag, and though I can see why the people of Sunderland needed a tag (to unite them and create a regional identity) why they waited over a century to call themselves ‘Mackems’ which was originally a derogatory term in any case, is anyone's guess.
Apparently the term Geordie covers a wide area. When researching this fact (I use the term research in it’s broadest context), I found that Geordie, refers to anyone who is born either on the North or South of the Tyne from a far as Prudhoe to the coastline and North and South Shields, down to Jarrow and Hebburn. In the Bonnie Prince Charlie rebellion in 1845 you were either for Charlie, a Jacobite for the Catholics and the Stuart cause, or else you were a Geordie for the protestant King George of Hanover. When the keelmen went down to London with their keels full of coals from Newcastle they were asked, “Are you a Charlie or a Geordie?” Nowadays, to get along as a Geordie playing for Sunderland, it helps never to have a bad game, and also not to wear offensive T-shirts calling the fans who pay your wages, isn’t that right Mr Clark?
Recently, there has been an explosion around the concept of identity. Since Sunderland, Newcastle and the surrounding areas became Tyne and Wear, each city has been keen to distance itself from the other (some would argue favouritism towards Newcastle when it comes to spending the taxpayers money). Identities are all about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being. Not “who we are” or “where we come from,” so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves.
If a Sunderland fan, or any other who wishes to beat their chests and remonstrate about the merits of “their club” and “their city” then fine. Are we in danger then of fencing off other identities simply to preserve our own, or to keep others out? Personally, I think the Mackem tag is outdated after only a few years of being used. Apart from the Nissan car factory based in Washington, what other commodities does Sunderland export? There is no glass anymore, save for what the new glass centre has to offer and there is little happening down on the Wear. So what do others “make” and others “take?” Not a lot.
Let us look at the facts. In the 80s, Newcastle, Sunderland and the North East in general were ravaged by job losses and high unemployment as well as being ramshackle and generally run down. The football clubs were the same. 15-20,000 hardcore fans watching sub-standard teams in sub-standard (crap) stadiums. Then things started to change. While Sunderland was coming to terms with the loss of its shipyards, Newcastle started its regeneration - Eldon Square, the Quayside, the city centre. Then came Keegan, McDermott and Hall, a rebuilt ground, party city and before you know it, Newcastle is the official regional centre of the North East and the eighth best place to visit for a night out in the world. Sunderland, well it’s a cracking night out and everything, but can it honestly compete?
Newcastle has also had a lot of media attention over the years, or celebrities falling over themselves to be re-associatd with their so called roots. Jayne Middlemiss, Ant and Dec, Jimmy Nail, Old Uncle Tom Cobbly and all. The rise and rise of Newcastle FC in the 90s has riled all things red and white. The entertainers, European qualification, is it any wonder that the people of Sunderland and fans of the club in general might feel left out, soulless without sense of belonging? The tension is at its highest between the two cities as they clamour to better each other.
Football has always been a working class game. In past generations its players and fans generally came from working class backgrounds. The bulk of football crowds today is made up of those fans on lower incomes. The advent of all seater stadia and increased admission prices is making it harder for these fans to attend games. The English working class is not a “thing.” It has always been a historical relationship of unity and difference. It unites one class against the other, or in football terms, one set of supporters against the other. We need to feel wanted.
A sense of belonging is necessary when attaching someone to a football club or an area; not the so called return to 'roots' but a coming to terms with our 'routes.' What does the future hold? Do we need the term Mackem or are there any suitable alternatives? There are a number of questions to answer.
Nick with the Gingham Scrunchy