“It’s the biggest derby in England.”

While that was a consensus in the country’s footballing infancy, an overwhelming majority outside Tyne and Wear would dismiss as sentiment the late Sir Bobby Robson’s description of Newcastle United versus Sunderland. The fixture does not, after all, involve teams from the same city, or ones consistently in combat for prestigious prizes: the Magpies and the Black Cats have failed to win a top-flight title between them in 74 years.

Those facts nevertheless fail to paint the full picture. Indeed, only five clubs have been English champions on more occasions than Sunderland (6) or Newcastle (4), while geographically they are less than 11 miles apart. Moreover, the next-nearest Premier League club is situated over 90 miles away, meaning they boast considerable fan bases and classrooms, workplaces and pubs in the area are monopolised by followers of just two clubs.

And while many would dispute Robson’s judgment on England’s fiercest rivalry, few would dispute his declaration that “football is like a religion in the region” – one which has produced (Newcastle was located in Northumberland, Sunderland in Country Durham, prior to Tyne and Wear’s 1974 formation) along with the former England manager and countless other notables, Raich Carter, Bob Paisley, Jackie Milburn, Norman Hunter, Bryan Robson, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer.

Inhabitants of Newcastle and Sunderland were in conflict centuries prior to kicking a ball at opposite goals, having been rivals during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, the Jacobite Risings between 1688 and 1746, and in trade following the Industrial Revolution. So, when they first met on the football field in 1883, there was already animosity, which had enhanced by the time of their maiden league meeting in 1898, due to the fact their previous arch-enemies - namely Newcastle West End and Sunderland Albion – had folded.

When 70,000 fans turned up at the 30,000-capacity St James’ Park in 1901, a number of those turned away climbed trees and buildings to catch the action, setting a precedent for a fixture that invariably attracted more supporters than its stages could accommodate. The fact that by 1913 the north-east duo had seized eight top flight titles between them, making them two of the country’s three most successful clubs alongside Aston Villa, only served to fuel the intensity of what was firmly established as the biggest derby in England.

Facts and figures
Newcastle and Sunderland have engaged in battle over 150 times. The Magpies achieved an unprecedented five successive derby victories between 2002 and 2006, while the Black Cats' personal best was set with a third straight triumph in 1905. George Holley’s record of 15 goals in the fixture has stood since the early 20th century and although the former England international is also the Wearsiders’ leading appearant, his 22 outings leave him five shy of Jimmy Lawrence, who kept goal for the Tynesiders between 1904 and 1921.

Tales of derbies past
Having won two of the last four First Division crowns, in rampant form and on home soil, Newcastle were expected to overwhelm their rivals in December 1908. And though it was 1-1 at half-time, Sunderland hit eight goals during an extraordinary 28-minute spell en route to a 9-1 triumph, Billy Hogg depressing his fellow Geordies with a hat-trick. Curiously, the Magpies went on to become league champions that season, largely thanks to their formidable defence!

Newcastle’s most memorable – and joint-biggest – victory in the fixture was also achieved on their short travels. With Bobby Mitchell and Jackie Milburn in irrepressible form, they won 6-1 in 1955.

In 1979 the fixture belonged to Gary Rowell. The forward, who was born just outside Sunderland, hit a hat-trick in a 4-1 away win at St James’ Park, while six years later Newcastle native Peter Beardsley managed the same feat at the same ground in a pulsating 3-1 success for the men in black and white.

In 1990 the teams met in what was dubbed ‘the biggest Tyne-Wear derby in history’. It was in the semi-finals of the Second Division play-offs, but the prize was effectively a place among the English elite given that it was correctly assumed Swindon Town would be prevented from going up due to financial irregularities. Newcastle had finished third in the league, with Sunderland sixth, and the former put one foot in the final by drawing the away leg 0-0. The visitors refused to adhere to the script at St James’ Park, however, with goals from Eric Gates and Marco Gabbiadini silencing the Geordies.

Nine years on Newcastle's loyal band of supporters, the Toon Army, were far from silent, but it was not for celebratory reasons. Manager Ruud Gullit did the unthinkable and made club icon Alan Shearer start on the bench, and goals from Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips duly earned the visitors a 2-1 comeback victory. The Newcastle diehards roared for the Dutchman’s removal from the reins and, with the sack inevitable, Gullit quit before their next game.

The rivalry today
One victory in the Premier League era enabled Shearer to atone for that aforementioned derby distress. The ex-England captain, who joined his hometown club over Manchester United in a world record-breaking transfer in 1996, scored a penalty in a 4-1 away conquest in his last professional appearance in 2006. He was not the only Geordie on target that day: Michael Chopra netted Newcastle’s equaliser just 15 seconds after rising from the bench.

The Sunderland fans were, therefore, not convinced when the Newcastle-born striker joined them from Cardiff City in 2007, but Chopra won them over by scoring the only goal against Tottenham Hotspur, on the opening day of the season, a mere 13 seconds after coming on as substitute. However, his popularity at the Stadium of Light diminished considerably when, three months later, he missed a glorious late chance to snatch the hosts victory in the Tyne-Wear derby – his subsequent lack of action in the red and white stripes was indicative of just how imperative this fixture is.