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Monday, January 7, 2013
The tackles fly in harder, the studs stay up a moment longer, the goals are cheered that much louder and the results stay in the memory for years after most of the season’s other fixtures have long been forgotten.
There is nothing else in the world of sport quite like a football derby match. And for most fans, the rivalry extends far beyond the time their teams spend thrashing it out on the pitch: it is a year-round obsession as a result of which shunning anything connected to the rivals becomes a badge of pride.
There are Norwich City supporters who wouldn’t drink Greene King beers during the brewery’s sponsorship of Ipswich Town, and Ipswich fans who won’t have peas and sweetcorn together on their dinner plate as they can’t abide the combination of colours. Some rivalries are sectarian, most notably between the Protestant Glasgow Rangers and the Catholic-supported Celtic. In Spain ‘El Clasico’ pitches the traditionally working-class and collectively owned Barcelona – from the would-be independent Catalan region – against the royal club from the Spanish capital, Real Madrid.
Other affiliations depend simply on where supporters live within a city – for instance Bristol Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday fans generally hail from the northern ends of their cities, and Bristol City and Sheffield United from the south. The grudge between the two big north London teams meanwhile proves that a long memory is an essential for the dedicated fan. Like many other Tottenham supporters, a friend of mine says he’d have no problem with Arsenal whatsoever if they’d only do the decent thing and “go back home to Woolwich”. This year marks the centenary of Arsenal’s move from south of the river to Highbury.
Ask any of these fans which is the world’s greatest derby and, whether or not they believe it deep down, they would feel obliged to name their own. Given that the whole business of fandom is so subjective and irrational you might think it impossible to analyse football derbies and arrange them into a league table – but Norwich-based author Mike Mosley would beg to differ. Mike, whose own allegiance lies with the red half of his home city of Sheffield, first witnessed the excitement of a derby game as a nine-year-old on the terraces of Bramall Lane and was marked for life by the experience.
“It was so wonderful, so frightening in many senses – being part of a 40,000 crowd and getting knocked over,” he remembers. “It was a worrying experience but there was the sheer sense of colour and excitement and noise. And we won!”
More than 50 years on he remains a Blade but having lived in Norwich since 1990 the Canaries’ result is the second he looks for. Now he has examined those two derbies and another 58 from around the English leagues in a book that aims to understand the passions aroused by these intense local clashes – and to pinpoint which are the greatest of all.
“They’re just much more exciting than ordinary games,” he says. “It can be towards the end of March, your team’s mid-table and going nowhere, but no matter – the setting of the derby will always be one of the biggest games of the year.
“When Norwich were promoted to the Premier League it was a wonderful year anyway, but I’ve no doubt that breaking the home and away records against Ipswich was the highlight for everyone.”
In case anyone has forgotten, the 2010-11 season saw City confirm their position as the Pride of Anglia by beating a sorry Town side 4-1 at Carrow Road and, in the season’s single most memorable 90 minutes, 5-1 at Portman Road. But even when nothing else is at stake – and perhaps especially then – a derby can still provide the season’s definitive fixture.
“I think increasingly for a lot of clubs, they’re never going to win anything,” says Mike. The financial imbalances in the modern game are responsible for that, and nowadays most half-decent Premier League teams aspire at best to finishing fourth. For those clubs, “even more so than in the past it’s a litmus test of whether you’ve had a good year or not, whether you’ve beaten the local rivals.
“I started to look at the history of some of the derbies a long time ago, noticing how some of them had changed over time,” he adds. “For instance the year before the second world war Manchester City were still the bigger club, better supported, and there was a massive turn-around at that point and Manchester United have become the bigger club, going from the country’s 18th most successful club to the most successful club. Now we see Manchester City re-emerging.
“I then wanted to find out, what would make a derby great. I read some of the attempts to classify derbies and thought they were very good but didn’t take everything into account, so I wanted to come up with the ultimate formula for determining the best derbies.”
That formula rests upon 10 factors (see panel on the left).
By methodically sifting through data from all of the English leagues’ derbies Mike was able to produce a Top 30.
Titled Love, Hope and Hatred, the book has a format loosely inspired by a football match, with a ‘warm-up’ introduction first, a ‘half-time break’ in the form of a quiz and finally an ‘extra time’ section that looks at the football derby’s likely evolution in future.
Along the way we learn some great facts about the quirks of local rivalries, some of them serious, others less so. The commonest derby is in the Isles of Scilly where the football league has only two teams, Garrison Gunners and Woolpack Wanderers. They play each other every week and also have two cup competitions. When Plymouth Argyle, the country’s southernmost club, play their local rivals, their followers yell at the Torquay fans: “You dirty northern bastards!”
But there remains genuine anger in the clashes between Chesterfield and Mansfield Town. During the later stages of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Mike explains, most of northern Derbyshire remained loyal to the striking workers while much of Nottinghamshire did not. Almost 30 years on Mansfield fans shout “scabs!” at their rival fans when the two clubs meet.
Remaining in Nottinghamshire, Nottingham Forest and Notts County are the English clubs whose grounds are closest together – only the River Trent lies between them – but since the 1970s the bitterest rivalry in those parts has been between Forest and Derby County. Why? Because of Brian Clough, who took Derby to the league title – and then did the same for Forest. To make Derby County fans feel even more bitter, Clough went on to bring the European Cup to Nottingham, twice. The stage was set for a rivalry that ranks second in Mike’s league table.
Number one is Newcastle United vs. Sunderland, and number three, perhaps more surprisingly, is the Black Country derby of West Bromwich Albion vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers.
And there at number eight is the fixture wryly dubbed The Old Farm, the East Anglian clash of the Titans that is Norwich City vs. Ipswich Town.
No doubt who has had the upper hand of late, but the statistics compiled here offer something with which the Tractor Boys can console themselves as they hover above the Championship’s relegation zone. Ipswich beat Norwich 5-0 in the clubs’ first meeting in September 1946, and of the 93 derbies they’ve contested in total they have won 40 to Norwich’s 36. Ipswich also possess the superior silverware record, as their fans sometimes mention, and have finished higher in the league 46 times to Norwich’s 21.
They also have 26 seasons in the top flight to Norwich’s 22. But why of all the derbies around the country did ours rank so highly – above, for example, Arsenal-Tottenham and Manchester United and Manchester City?
One of the vital factors was what Mike terms ‘focus’. “By that I mean are there other games that distract from the derby?” he explains. “The most obvious example is Manchester-Liverpool.
“The two Manchester derbies are obviously very strong but there’s a huge distraction in the form of Manchester-Liverpool, which has been the biggest game for a long time; it’s now starting to change a bit because of Manchester City’s elevation.
“But even if you take the number one derby, Newcastle-Sunderland, it’s largely focused but there’s just a little bit of poison left over from Middlesbrough.
“There’s a slight distraction. In terms of Norwich-Ipswich, I would rate them in the top two for focus because no one else gets in the way. I know Colchester United and Peterborough might think they have got some sort of distraction but there isn’t really. The only one that compares is Southampton-Portsmouth, where again there’s a minor distraction from Plymouth and from Bournemouth.
“In ferocity, it’s a lot more ferocious than most people outside of East Anglia think, though it still doesn’t compare with the likes of Blackburn-Burnley, Cardiff-Swansea, Millwall-West Ham, etc.
“And in competitiveness, there are two strands: one is historic competitiveness, in terms of silverware won by the teams.” In that sense Norwich-Ipswich scores poorly because of Town’s distant ‘golden era’ of the 1960s and 70s in which they won the league, FA Cup and UEFA Cup. “But judged on recent history, by which I mean the last 20 years since the Premiership started, it’s been much closer and scores more highly,” says Mike. “Ipswich lead 12-8 in league placings – but in the derbies of the last 20 years Norwich lead 14-11. So that’s really competitive.”
Mike, who’s 61, has lived in Norwich since 1990. Before taking early retirement, he was Deputy Chief Executive of the East of England Regional Assembly. Since the assembly was disbanded he’s had time to crunch plenty of numbers and research a rich trove of derby-related stories, and the results may be seen in this first book from the new Norwich-based Shift Publishing, run by former Norwich City Council cultural development officer Marion Catlin. His findings have already raised eyebrows among observers: “I know a lot of Norwich fans who are quite upset that they’re so low!” he says. “But outside East Anglia I think people will be surprised to find it so high.”
And that makes the book a good starting point for many an argument in the pub – which is half the appeal of being a football fan. That and getting one over the local rivals whenever possible.
Love, Hope and Hatred: the Story of English League Football Derbies, by Mike Mosley, is published by Shift Marketing at £14.95.
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