I can pinpoint, to the day, when I first became aware of the animosity between my own club, Newcastle Utd, and Nottingham Forest: 16th May 1998. Up until then, I’d been relatively ambivalent about the Reds. If anything, I’d been inclined to look on them kindly for their part in what remains the single most enjoyable day I’ve ever experienced as a Newcastle supporter, one year earlier, when a 5-0 victory over the already demoted East Midlanders secured us the runners-up spot in the Premier League with the reward of a Champions League place at the same time as results condemned both Sunderland and Middlesbrough to relegation. Having started university in the city in the autumn of 1997, I imagined that passing interest in Forest might develop into something more partisan in much the same way that in Fever Pitch Nick Hornby recounts his flirtation with Cambridge Utd while a student there.
So, why 16th May 1998, then? Well, it was the day Newcastle took on Arsenal in the FA Cup Final, our first appearance at Wembley since a 2-1 League Cup defeat to Man City in 1976. My fellow Black & White & Read All Over author Paul and I had somehow managed to secure ourselves tickets via someone with Everton connections, at a cost of £80 each – a hefty sum back then, and even more eyewatering for a couple of permaskint students.
We caught the train down to London on what was a gorgeous early summer day, soaked up the pre-match atmosphere and excitement, found ourselves sitting within spitting distance of Angus Deayton and South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, enjoyed Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley (a Gunners fan) being on ‘Abide with Me’ duty – and then watched on in dismay as Arsene Wenger’s men overpowered us with all the ruthless efficiency you’d expect of a side whose midfield boasted Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit in their majestic prime. Alan Shearer may have hit the post and Nikos Dabizas the bar, but the outcome was never in doubt and they duly clinched the double with ease.
We were among the numb and dazed black and whites who applauded the Gunners’ achievement and who, filtering out of the ground, smiled as fellow Geordies urged the bizarrely glum-faced opposition supporters to cheer up. Lagers were purchased for the journey home – which was when the realisation sank in: two years after conceding that 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League, we’d blown it again in spectacular fashion. When would the opportunity for glory come around again? (Little were we to know we’d be back at Wembley for the FA Cup Final the following season, again side by side, again at exorbitant expense – and again to witness a defeat, this time by a Man Utd side en route for the treble…)
So it was that we arrived back into Nottingham utterly despondent. Off the train and onto a bus. And it was at this precise moment that an ageing local, eyeballing our shirts with disgust, decided it was appropriate to vent 24 years of accumulated spleen at us.
* * * * *
It’s the spring of 1974, and we’ve been paired with Forest in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Our glory years are fading gradually into the distance, but theirs are yet to come and, at home to a side from the second tier, progress to the semi-final looks a safe bet. Not so. With nearly 60 minutes on the clock, we find ourselves 3-1 and a man down. A number of incensed home supporters decide they can contain themselves no longer and, with flares flapping, stream onto the St James’ Park turf.
The result was absolute chaos, with more than 50 people ultimately arrested or hospitalised. The referee had little option but to take the players off for their safety – and even then Forest’s Dave Serella was clocked in the face. When the game was somehow able to resume eight minutes later, we were a side transformed – as were Forest, into trembling wrecks. We roared back to level, before Bobby Moncur struck a last-minute winner from a Supermac nod-down, the linesman apparently fearful of flagging for the obvious offside.
The result may not have stood, the FA belatedly acknowledging Forest’s grievance and insisting on a replay at Goodison Park, but we won that (at the second attempt) and wound up in the final – where, needless to say, we (and the gobby Supermac in particular) suffered a humbling 3-0 defeat to Kevin Keegan’s Liverpool.
And now here Paul and I were, 24 years later, dejectedly returning from the club’s first FA Cup Final appearance since that similarly disappointing occasion, being harangued by someone who evidently still harboured a bitter grudge against anyone in black and white for cheating his beloved Forest out of a semi-final spot. Let’s put this into context: neither of us was born in 1974, and yet it seemed to be assumed that we were personally culpable in this horrendous miscarriage of justice, that we had personally invaded the pitch that day and wrestled the chance of glory from the hands of those in red. There can have been few situations in history more deserving of the simple riposte we gave: “Fuck off“.
And yet, as was to become clear to me, when it comes to this particular inter-club rivalry, it’s not just the Forest fans who hold long-term grudges.
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My first Newcastle v Forest game took place at the City Ground in March 1999. In the wake of that 1997 relegation, our hosts had returned to the top flight at the first time of asking, but were once again deep in trouble. We emerged 2-1 winners courtesy of Dietmar Hamann’s long-range thunderbolt, and while there was no pitch invasion, the game itself wasn’t short on controversy, Forest once again feeling themselves to have been the victims of injustice.
The thing I remember most clearly about the match, though, is a curious chant that went up from those in the away end several times over the course of the evening. While not exactly a regular at St James’ Park, I’d been to enough games to be surprised never to have heard it before. It was simple, just one word repeated over and over again, and with a considerable amount of gusto and venom: “Scabs“. Intrigued, I looked it up and was fascinated by what I discovered.
* * * * *
“Coals to Newcastle“: an idiomatic expression that underlines how inextricably linked the North East is with mining. Much the same is true of the region’s biggest football club. The legendary Jackie Milburn, hero of our FA Cup-winning exploits in the 1950s, was born in the pit town of Ashington and worked down the mines as a fitter even when turning out for the club during the war years. Like the Pitmen Painters, he and others like him seized the opportunity afforded to them during their time above ground to express themselves as best they could, the only difference being that their canvas was the muddied turf of St James’ Park. A more recent saviour, Sir John Hall, may be a self-made millionaire but he too comes from humble roots, the son of a miner.
By 1984, the industry was in crisis. The Miners’ Strike had brought disaffected mineworkers, fearful of imminent pit closures and goaded on by the NUM’s left-wing firebrand Arthur Scargill, into direct head-on confrontation with Margaret Thatcher, hell-bent on destroying the unions. (Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’ may have been written about the Cold War a year earlier, but it could just as easily have been about the Miners’ Strike.) What isn’t in dispute is that she succeeded in vanquishing what she famously branded “the enemy within“, but how and why that victory was achieved remains contentious to this day.
Some claim it was the Sun (and others) wot won it, and certainly the mainstream media, broadly sympathetic to Thatcher, were instrumental in moulding public perceptions. But more significant was the Tory government’s introduction of a raft of anti-union laws – and, of those, the most critical was that which decreed that unions were now legally obliged to ballot members on strike action. It was this law that Scargill chose to flout, instead allowing the various regions to determine their own participation in a nationwide strike.
It’s unclear whether this decision was taken under pressure from particular factions of miners who wanted a speedy resolution, or out of concern that some regions might block the right of others to strike, or simply because Scargill was too arrogant to deem a national ballot necessary. Whatever the reason, though, the fact that proper legally binding procedures hadn’t been adhered to gave an excuse to opt out to those who wanted to do so.
Support for a national strike was strong in the North East as well as in Yorkshire, South Wales, Scotland and Kent – all areas where jobs were most at risk. However, it was a somewhat different story in the East Midlands, where the mines boasted both large reserves of coal and modern equipment, and were therefore least threatened with closure. Miners in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire refused to recognise the strike, ostensibly on the grounds that no ballot had taken place, and as a result earned the derogatory label “scabs“, eventually forming their own splinter group the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. As Billy Bragg once sang, “There is power in a union” – the emphasis on the singular. With the miners fractured and fighting among themselves, Thatcher had triumphed, the strike only limping on until March 1985. The Iron Lady was as good as her word: “not for turning“.
Former miners in the East Midlands, who view the term “scabs” as being “like grafitti on walls“ – “it is obscene and wants removing, it needs washing away” – have since sought to defend and justify their actions. They point to Scargill’s flouting of the law and the intimidatory, coercive tactics of the NUM, but also claim that, in the face of horrendous hardship, refusing to strike and give up entitlements was a “sensible“, pragmatic decision. That may indeed be the case, but it wasn’t as though all those miners (and their families) in other regions weren’t suffering extreme hardship themselves – a friend of mine whose dad was a Northumberland miner at the time has childhood recollections of a year spent eating nothing but baked beans.
It might be going a bit far to brand the Nottinghamshire miners who formed the UDM as class traitors who helped Thatcher’s government to defeat the strike, or to describe with gleeful relish their comeuppance when they were themselves betrayed, but, despite protestations to the contrary, there does still seem to be a whiff of “I’m alright, Jack” about it all. (Not that I’m necessarily judging – after all, how many of us, put in the same stressful and impoverished situation, could honestly say we’d unflinchingly continue to maintain a principled stance for the benefit of others?) Appropriate, really, that individualistic self-concern and disregard for fellow feeling – values cherished under Thatcherism – should have condemned the Miners’ Strike to failure.
* * * * *
Whole communities were destroyed as a direct result of the pit closures the Miners’ Strike failed to prevent. The North East’s pits may have been destined for closure anyway, but there seems little doubt that the Nottinghamshire miners’ refusal to back the strike helped to accelerate the process. 170,000 mineworkers lost their jobs in the period between 1984 and 1997, many of them in the North East, and one of the headline findings of the most recent census is that there are now more people who describe themselves as working in the mining industry in Kensington and Chelsea than in Gateshead. As Harry Pearson ruefully observes in The Far Corner, mining is now a heritage industry, and mines are visitor attractions, whether at Beamish or in an enthusiast’s back garden.
In the circumstances, then, I think it’s understandable that there should have been considerable animosity felt by those in the North East (and other mining-dependent regions) towards those in the East Midlands who opted not to stand in solidarity with them. What’s remarkable, though, is that that raw sentiment doesn’t appear to have subsided, more than 25 years since the strike ended.
Football, still an undeniably working-class sport in the mid-1980s, has undergone an extraordinary transformation over the past couple of decades. The players are millionaires rather than mineworkers by day, and there has been a similar revolution among football spectators, who the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report revealed were perceived, like the striking miners, as a feral and dangerous mob as recently as 1989. Since then a gentrification or middle-class-ification has taken place, with seating replacing standing and prawn sandwiches replacing pies. (In this respect, the aforementioned Fever Pitch is fascinating documentary evidence from the midst of the seachange.) An illuminating analogy can be drawn between football and Northumberlandia, appropriately enough: an open-cast mine transformed into an enormous sculpture of a reclining nude by a world-renowned landscape architect – or, to put it another way, a post-industrial, working-class landscape given a veneer of respectability by the imposition of middle-class cultural values and tastes.
And yet, despite the radical changes that have taken place within football, the sport remains estranged but not quite divorced from its working-class roots. That history is ingrained and runs deep, even if some of those Newcastle fans chanting “Scabs” at their Forest counterparts are spotty teenagers who are only echoing what they’ve heard from others, who bandy it about like any other term of schoolyard abuse and who wouldn’t know who Arthur Scargill was if he handed them his CV. Regardless of what the East Midlands’ ex-miners might hope, it seems that the grafitti just won’t wash away.
* * * * *
The most recent Newcastle v Forest match that I’ve been to, in October 2009, took place in a truly poisonous atmosphere. Our hosts revelled in our Championship status, reminding us at every opportunity that we were no longer a big club and rubbing salt into the wound by winning the game 1-0. Sure enough, though, chants of “Scabs” formed an integral part of the away end’s response.
Revenge was sweet, a 2-0 victory at St James’ the following March all but clinching an immediate return to the Premier League and condemning Forest to yet another play-off failure and further campaigns in the second tier. Now, though, with my club struggling and the Reds upwardly mobile under Sean O’Driscoll and new ownership, there’s every chance we’ll be clashing once again in the near future.
Both sets of supporters often stand accused of living in the past – not unjustly so, when you consider the fixations with events that took place in 1974 and then a decade later. Newcastle v Forest seems forever destined to be a rivalry spiced with something more than just the present day, or even football history.
But then perhaps it’s obvious there’d be a mutual dislike. After all, Forest’s closest rivals just across the Trent are a bunch clad in black and white with the nickname of the Magpies…