Every year, when the fixture lists come out, fans from all over England pore over what is basically a run down of dates, an administrative procedure to determine when games happen, and immediately look for their favourites. Perhaps it’s a local derby, perhaps it’s a long-running feud, perhaps it’s a manager returning to a former club: rivalries form the meat of what it means to be a football fan.
The most sought-after games in the world are the ones with some history behind them: Real v Barcelona, River v Boca, PSG v Marseille, Bayern v Dortmund. But perhaps in no place are these rivalries quite as important as in England, where the league system is so deep that passions are raised by levels that would be amateur in most other countries.
Here are the stories of a few of those rivalries ...
‘That lot down the road’
Local rivalries are not quite as simple as mere proximity. Take the East Midlands: Nottingham Forest don’t like Derby, a feeling reciprocated, but while Leicester City don’t like the pair of them they’re not that bothered in return. Forest and Notts County are separated by a river, the clubs’ two grounds a few hundred metres apart, but there’s little animosity between them, to the point that when County were in financial trouble a few years ago, a group of Forest fans held a collection to help them out. You need a little more than just “that lot down the road” for real animosity to fester: deep historical differences, feuds, fights, common players and managers, genuine competitiveness. All of these things feed great rivalries.
Possibly the best example of that is Arsenal and Tottenham. You will still be able to find Spurs fans who complain about Arsenal being blow-ins, a team originally formed in the 1880s in Woolwich, south-east London, but who moved north to Tottenham’s patch in 1913 after gates tumbled and financial oblivion appeared close. Already regarded as having invaded their turf, Tottenham were further enraged in 1919 after a remarkable act of brass neck by Arsenal chairman Sir Henry Norris.
That year the First Division was to be expanded by two teams, meaning both Chelsea and Tottenham, who finished in the bottom two places, could have been reprieved by a vote of Football League members. Chelsea were allowed to stay, and the remaining choice looked to be a straightforward one between Tottenham and Barnsley, who had finished third in the Second Division. But wait: Norris suggested Arsenal would be more worthy, despite only finishing fifth in the second tier, and after some politicking and string-pulling, they eventually won election using arguments that even the Arsenal official history describes as “of course, complete and utter nonsense”. These are not the sort of things people forget readily, even a century and more on.
What has perhaps kept the rivalry fresh and alive has been their similar status, and competitiveness: of course, Arsenal have been the more successful side in terms of trophies, but history is littered with examples of high-stakes games between the two. Arsenal won the league in 1971 at White Hart Lane, a late Ray Kennedy goal nicking the prize, something they did again in 2004; the 1991 FA Cup semi-final in which Paul Gascoigne scored an implausible free-kick; the League Cup semi-final replay at White Hart Lane in 1987 which showed it’s not always armed conflict and recriminations – after Arsenal had won 2-1, congratulatory champagne was sent to the visiting dressing room.
In recent years it has been almost a tragicomic feud more than a rivalry, as while Tottenham have won plenty of battles, Arsenal claim the outright war on the basis they’ve finished above their rivals for 21 straight campaigns, last season perhaps being the worst example when Spurs challenged for the title and Arsenal didn’t, but the Gunners still managed to end the season above their rivals. Animosity gives way to frustration. “It’s not a war, in terms of a war that people get killed [in], but yes, there is a lot at stake,” said Arsène Wenger in 2006. When these two say they hate each other, they mean it.
Along similar lines is the tussle between Manchester United and Liverpool. These are two teams who have each had their eras of dominance, Liverpool standing astride the 1970s and 80s while United controlled the 1990s and 2000s. For a while though, this rivalry was more one about opposing communities than football teams, Scousers v Mancs in a feud for the superiority of the north-west. “I would start rallying the troops for this game the minute the previous match had finished,” said Phil Thompson, the former Liverpool defender, of their games against United. “It meant that much to me and I’d make sure it meant just as much to the players around me.”
But on the pitch this rivalry gained its importance and ferocity because of a title tally: during United’s barren 26-year spell without a title Liverpool won the top prize 11 times, taking their total to 18, way ahead of United’s seven. Sir Alex Ferguson’s remit was clear when he arrived at Old Trafford in 1986, infamously telling reporters later that “my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch”. Off that perch they were indeed knocked, Liverpool now entering their own 26th year without success.
If you want a complex web of local rivalries intertwined and tangled like a badly-stored ball of wool, look no further than the West Midlands. Aston Villa, West Brom, Birmingham and Wolverhampton Wanderers reserve a special sort of contempt for each other, to varying extents, but the general theme seems to be this: everyone hates the Villa.
Villa against Birmingham is the big one, though. To describe the animosity as vicious might be under-playing things rather, illustrated by the example of Alex McLeish. ‘Big Eck’ moved from St Andrews to Villa Park in 2011, which turned out not to be a popular move on either side of the city, to the extent that McLeish received death threats from both sets of fans. This was after 500 Villa supporters protested upon his appointment, and their ticket office reportedly ran out of money as fans demanded refunds for their recently-purchased season tickets. This was all partly because McLeish was terrible, a man who had just been relegated taking over at a club supposedly with some ambition, but the local troubles certainly didn’t help matters.
Other local rivalries might not be as high-profile, but they’re still fierce: Southampton and Portsmouth hated each other even before Harry Redknapp ping-ponged between the two; Burnley’s games against Blackburn are often placed into the “bubble” category by police, in which away fans are not trusted to travel on their own and must be guided by the law; Newcastle’s relegation will mean the Tyne-Wear derby with Sunderland is no longer on the regular calendar, but Middlesbrough’s promotion means some local antipathy will be present in the north east.
Visiting fans have frequently been banned from Swansea v Cardiff games, such is the antipathy between the two clubs from south Wales; likewise, West Ham v Millwall games are particularly spicy affairs and ones the Metropolitan Police are presumably quite glad are fairly infrequent, especially after the violence the last time the two met, in the 2009 League Cup. Other significant rivalries have been kept apart by the relative success or otherwise of the two parties: Watford v Luton, a fixture often punctuated by crowd trouble, last saw action in 2006 as the Hatters tumbled into non-league football, while the Potteries hasn’t seen their two football clubs face off since 2002, when Stoke and Port Vale were last in the same division. Still, clubs don’t have to be near each other to create antipathy ...
The title rivals
Perhaps the defining rivalry of the Premier League era was Manchester United v Arsenal. This was a duel between two of the most successful clubs in English history, but was truly sparked when Wenger arrived in England just as United were establishing themselves as the behemoths they were under Ferguson.
This was a rivalry that had two of the most crucial elements one could ask for: that both teams were very good, and that they truly, genuinely disliked each other. The antipathy partly stemmed from the two managers, as Rob Smyth, author of the forthcoming book about the rivalry I’ll See You Out There, explains: “Ferguson was rightly annoyed by the inference that he was a dinosaur compared to Wenger. For the first decade they were equals, and Wenger was the greatest adversary Ferguson ever came across. He had seen off a heap of managers in the first four years of the Premier League, most famously Kevin Keegan, and Wenger strolled in and took him on immediately.” The pair traded insults, but more importantly, for around a decade, not only produced one great team apiece but several. Each had their own great achievement: United won the treble in 1999, Arsenal went unbeaten in winning the title in 2004, and you’ll find fans of both who will questions the sanity of anyone who doesn’t believe theirs is superior.
This served up many great encounters, but probably the finest came in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final, won eventually by United but was 120 minutes of brilliant, barely contained chaos and excitement. “It had everything,” says Smyth. “The whole thing ached with importance; it was a title decider and an FA Cup semi-final rolled into one. Had United lost that game, I’m not sure they’d have won anything, never mind the Treble.”
From Wenger’s appointment in 1996 until around 2006, games between the two pulsed with antipathy and quality, but eventually Arsenal faded from relevance, going nearly a decade without a trophy and only vaguely challenging for the title, while United won five more Premier Leagues and reached three Champions League finals. After that, Ferguson barely even goaded Wenger.
A similar thing happened with Chelsea and Liverpool. History does have examples of a few tense encounters between the two, not least the 1965 FA Cup semi-final in which Bill Shankly discovered Chelsea had already worked up a brochure for the final and pinned it to the dressing room wall as motivation. But between 2005 and 2009 the pair managed to face each other 23 times, eight encounters in the Champions League and six of those over three semi-finals. This was one case in which stormy relations (stoked by managers Rafa Benítez and José Mourinho, men who, shall we say, have different approaches to life and football) and two of the best teams in the land didn’t always combine to produce scintillating football – after the semi-final in 2005, when Luis Garcia scored the “ghost goal” to knock Chelsea out, Jorge Valdano wrote in Marca: “Put a shit hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it’s a work of art. It’s not: it’s a shit hanging from a stick.” Safe to say he probably didn’t keep the tape of that game.
Another – more low-key, certainly short-lived – rivalry to add to this category was between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s. For a couple of years, this little provincial team with scant history of previous success became the bogey team for the best side in Europe, Forest winning the league title at the first attempt after promotion. The two were then drawn against each other in the first round of the 1978-79 European Cup, and few gave Forest a chance, not least the Liverpool players – Graeme Souness would admit later: “As far as we were concerned, it was just a question of how many we were going to score.” Forest would win the competition that season, after knocking Liverpool out, and the one after that too, but Clough’s brilliant team would be broken up and would never seriously challenge again. But still, even now, with Forest stagnant in the second tier, you’ll occasionally hear the song that starts “We hate Nottingham Forest...” ring out on the Kop.
The changing rivalries
For a little while, it used to be the done thing for new Manchester City signings to remark, presumably with some encouragement, that everyone inside the M60 supported City rather than United. This, of course, is patently untrue: you’ll see as many red shirts in Manchester as you will blue, and for what it’s worth most sensible City fans don’t believe it either. Still, this seemed to speak to a slight inferiority complex from the blue side of the city to the red: you may have all the titles, but at least we have proper supporters.
This was partly due to United’s extraordinary era of dominance under Ferguson, and partly based in ancient history after United built their success in the early part of the 1900s upon players bought/stolen from City, depending on your point of view: the brilliant winger Billy Meredith was spirited away from City while serving a suspension, while Sandy Turnbull, Herbert Burgess and Jimmy Bannister were all snaffled at an auction, which City were forced into following financial difficulties. It’s also from the sense that, ever since the Busby Babes and the Munich air disaster in 1958, United had been regarded as the “big”, or at least most romantic club in the city, and even the country; that they were perceived as a great institution while City were merely a football club. “Before Munich it was Manchester’s club,” said Sir Bobby Charlton of United. “Afterwards everyone felt that they owned a little bit of it.”
Now that’s all changed. A few years ago the idea of Pep Guardiola and Mourinho, the two highest-profile managers in the world, facing off in Manchester was unthinkable, one superpower against a side whose recent history seemed to be defined by tragicomedy. Two league title wins and perhaps the most expensively-assembled squad in English football history later, and the balance has tipped in City’s favour. “The danger no longer emanated from London or Merseyside,” wrote Ferguson in his latest autobiography, of City’s rise. “It was so close you could smell it. An owner with the means to make this a serious municipal contest stood between us and control of the city.”
That extends to the country, too. The most famous Manchester derby came in 1974, when Denis Law, a United legend playing for City, backheeled a goal that he (erroneously) thought had relegated his former team, walking straight off the pitch never to kick a ball in professional football again. Yet the most symbolic came in 2011, when a City side primed for a title bid featuring Sergio Agüero, Yaya Touré and David Silva went to Old Trafford and not only beat United but destroyed them: the 6-1 final score was perhaps slightly embellished by three goals after the 89th minute, but it was an evisceration and a sign that this was when the rivalry truly changed from an entertaining local squabble to one of national significance.
A similar thing happened in the mid-1980s on Merseyside. Liverpool versus Everton was always a big event, so much so that for an FA Cup fifth round game between the two at Goodison Park in 1967, demand for tickets was such that the tie was shown on closed circuit television at Anfield, 40,000 watching on a giant screen to supplement the 65,000 there in the flesh. Some were injured in the crush to buy tickets, and a man reportedly traded his car for a ticket, but in the end Everton’s 1-0 win didn’t exactly live up to the hype. Michael Charter wrote in the Liverpool Echo: “The electric atmosphere, the packed Goodison Park, the TV replay at Anfield all made it one of the great occasions in Merseyside football history but the football was so inadequate that I felt sorry for the thousands that had struggled so hard to get a ticket.”
But the 80s was when it became greater than just two teams staring each other out across Stanley Park. For three seasons in a row they finished first and second, Everton winning the league in 1985 and 1987, Liverpool in 1986 (to add to their five other titles that decade), while they also faced each other in the 1986 and 1989 FA Cup finals and the 1984 League Cup final. This is a rivalry often characterised as the “friendly derby”, something that’s overblown, and you’ll hear just as much nastiness on the terraces during these games as any other, but there is some truth to the whole thing. Liverpool’s first match after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 was a league fixture at Goodison, during which the whole crowd sang You’ll Never Walk Alone and St Luke’s church, on the corner of the ground, was open for counselling sessions. “When the players solemnly walked side by side on to the pitch,” wrote Alan Dunn in the Guardian, “there was a spontaneous burst of ‘Merseyside, Merseyside, Merseyside’.”
And then there are some that have no immediate logical explanation. One of the most heated rivalries in England is between two teams from different cities with little more than a motorway connecting them. Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion have disliked each other with some gusto for some years now, all stemming from a series of five highly-charged matches in the 1976-77 season, when both teams were in the Third Division, the tension coming to a head in an FA Cup replay in December.
During the game Albion scored a penalty, but for reasons unclear the referee ruled it out for encroachment. The re-take was saved, Palace won 1-0 and on his way off the pitch a fuming Brighton manager Alan Mullery’s mood was darkened further as some opposing fans poured hot coffee over him. “I pulled a handful of change out of my pocket,” Mullery told the Guardian, “threw it on the floor and shouted, ‘That’s all you’re worth, Crystal Palace!’ And I’d shout it at anybody who did that.” And from that point, a rivalry was born.
The teams haven’t always been in the same division, but perhaps that’s part of it: familiarity might breed contempt, but being parted allows that contempt to simmer, too. The last time they faced was in the 2013 Championship playoff semi-final, when Wilfried Zaha scored twice in the second leg at Brighton to send Palace into the final. But before the game, an unknown culprit had left their mark on the away dressing room by – and there’s little point being coy about this – voiding their bowels on the floor. It’s that sort of rivalry.
Other odd rivalries have come about due to one-off incidents: Australia’s very own Kevin Muscat can claim to be the source of the animosity that exists between Norwich and Wolves, clubs some 170 miles apart, after his filthy foul on Craig Bellamy back in 1998. The tackle caused knee problems that would lead to Bellamy missing almost all of the following season, after which he was sold.
Sheffield United and West Ham fell out over the Carlos Tevez affair, when the Hammers illegally signed the Argentinian international who went on to play a crucial role in their Premier League survival, at the expense of the Blades. And fans from Nottingham can expect abuse whenever they travel to Yorkshire, a hangover from the miners’ strike of the 1980s when colliery workers from Nottingham were among the first to cross the picket lines and accept the government’s redundancy. But this is the joy of the rivalry: often they’re like long-running family feuds, the reason for their existence forgotten years later.
There is not enough space here to sensibly explore each in the depth they deserve. As much could be written about every one as there is in this entire article – testament to how these antipathies form part of the English game. They provide an edge, the grit, the reason that football is not merely an athletic exhibition, and is a competitive endeavour that fires the spirit. We’d be nowhere without them.
This article was written by Nick Miller, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 12th July 2016 01.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010