A Tale of two Cities – Sunderland and Swansea share more than just a footballing bond. (Featuring an interview with ex-pro, John Cornforth)

Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Swansea sits around three-hundred miles – give or take – from Sunderland, and to travel from one to the other will take approximately seven hours. Yet despite existing at opposite ends of the United Kingdom the two cities and their football clubs share many parallels.

Both Sunderland and Swansea are post-industrial cities. Sunderland built ships and dug for coal; Swansea was once central to the copper industry. Both have known decline and share a predominately working class mentality.

Both Sunderland and Swansea based their new homes on or near industrial sites. Sunderland on the Wearmouth Colliery overlooking the River Wear, while Swansea play their games West of the River Tawe, near the old copper works.

The Liberty and the Stadium of Light are relatively new builds; Sunderland moving into their new home in 1997 while Swansea moved to the Liberty in 2005. Despite a 20,000 difference in capacity the two grounds even look rather alike; both coloured white while also sharing a scaffold-like style. The Liberty resembles a miniature Stadium of Light.
In South Wales, Swansea fall behind neighbours Cardiff in terms of investment, cultural capital and facilities much like the comparison often drawn between Sunderland and Newcastle in the North-East. However, up until 2017, Sunderland and Swansea had previously managed to overcome any inferiority complex by remaining in the Premier League thus far, while Newcastle and Cardiff play in the Championship.

On the pitch this season both clubs have found themselves struggling, unable to remain relevant as they languish at the wrong end of the table fighting relegation. Sunderland have of course fallen victim to the fat lady’s song, but Swansea still have it all to play for.

This weekend’s fixture will be an important game for the Welsh club who are quite simply fighting for their Premier League lives; however, despite the importance of this weekend’s result the histories of these two great clubs will remain.

Swansea City v Arsenal - Premier LeaguePhoto by Michael Steele/Getty Images

John Cornforth – born in Whitley Bay – started his career at Sunderland in 1985. Over six years Cornforth appeared thirty-two times in red and white before a move to Swansea City in 1991.

And it was at Swansea where Cornforth made a brief foray into international football, representing Wales on two occasions, qualifying through his Welsh paternal grandmother. Whilst representing Wales at international level was a huge achievement,
Cornforth has always remained close to his roots in the North East of England.

With this weekend’s game with relegation-threatened Swansea on the horizon, we caught up with the former Sunderland midfielder to get his perspective on the two clubs and the areas that they represent.

Cornforth explained:

Sunderland and Swansea are both working class areas situated by the beach. The people of Sunderland and Swansea are very similar – they’re working class and love their football team. Great places to play. 

And when asked about any amusing anecdotes about his time at Roker Park stated that there were ‘too many to mention’ but told the story of two Welsh lads, Sean Mills and Steve Jones, signing for Sunderland.

I was in charge of jobs for apprentices, I gave the two new lads a bucket and sponge each and told them to clean the floodlights. Thirty minutes later my coach comes up to me screaming “CORNY, have you seen those dozy Welsh f*ckers and what they’re doing?” 

I went to investigate and they were hanging off the floodlights armed with bucket and sponge washing the lights! I got an almighty bollocking.

John also recalls the odd feeling of playing against Sunderland for Birmingham and returning to Swansea with Peterborough:

I played at Roker Park for Birmingham and it was strange, we lost 4-1 and I hit the bar. Playing at the old Vetch was even stranger given the length of time I spent at the club. We won 1-0, I didn’t celebrate and my name was sung by Swansea fans throughout the whole game. My manager Barry Fry said it was the best reception he’d ever heard for a returning player.

 It’s a shared love for football by people from a working-class background that binds the folk of Swansea and Sunderland, and back when John represented both clubs it perhaps rang even more true – working hard all week to watch your team play on a weekend was a form of release, something noted by Cornforth when reminiscing the old days:

Sunderland’s crowds at Roker Park were bigger but the atmosphere at the old Vetch was electric. Both sets of fans are totally loyal, through thick and thin.

John Cornforth http://www.sunderlandafcformerplayersassociation.com

Having lived in Sunderland for most my life before moving to Swansea to study, I’ve noticed that both cities share the same extreme passion and attitude towards football. Football is the dominant form of religion-like-practice to the people of Swansea and Sunderland – a way of life. Both cites see their stadiums a replacement cathedral to which both lack in the religious sense.

Swansea and Sunderland also sit amongst the most economically challenged areas in the United Kingdom. The 2016 EY Report found youth unemployment in Wales to be around 17.4%, with Swansea experiencing extreme highs of 27.3%. The same report showed the North-East’s youth unemployment rate to be 18.3%. To put these figures into context, UK youth unemployment stands on average at 14.4%. Sunderland and Swansea are suffering similar economic hardship.

The two football clubs now provide increased sources of pride coupled with much needed escapism for the inhabitants of the two struggling cities.

General Views of UK Sporting VenuesPhoto by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

It remains to be seen whether or not Swansea can escape Sunderland’s fate of relegation this season, and although I’d never dream of wanting another team to beat the mighty Sunderland, I do however hope that Swansea stay in the Premier League.

Much like Sunderland, the city and its people deserve a team to be proud of in times of austerity, cuts and general global political instability.
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