There used to be a time where there was more to a derby than an expensive Sky Sports ad, without a gravel-toned voiceover artist extoling the virtues of a city and the two sides in it teamed over slow motion pictures of modern day mercenaries. Next up it’s the Manchester derby, with both teams capable of joining the pantheon of footballing gods, if the advert is to be believed.
At least the Manchester derby finally has some relevance. At the heart of any good local rivalry is the knowledge that you are closely matched to your opponents, that a victory will be something to savour and relish, something to make the voice hoarse and to make the shirt feel as though it is part of your skin.
Where is the fun in knocking seven bells out of a side it’s barely worth showing up against? Being football betting favourites by a mile offers scant consolation.
It’s only in the last few years that the two teams in Manchester has warranted the billing of a local derby – between 1989 and 2000, the blue half of Manchester failed to win at home against their noisy neighbours bar one occasion under Sven, while they haven’t won at Old Trafford in the league since 1974.
It has taken a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family and a series of extortionate transfers but now it is a fixture worth watching. How the game has changed from an apologetic Dennis Law flick into the net.
Either side could win this weekend and that’s something. If football bets are your game, then this one is a neck and neck photo-finish.
But there is more than two closely matched teams to a derby surely? It needs to have a long history of course, but most of the others in the Premier League and beyond can offer that.
The North London derby can offer you all the rich history you require, while the Merseyside derby has been contested at the top level of English football since the 1960’s. It helps of course, to plot the map with the odd controversy and spectacular game for old men in flat caps to hark back to in anticipation of the upcoming match, it’s all part of the experience. But there is more to it than that.
Stripped back from all the Sky Sports razzmatazz and hype, away from the millions and billions thrown in the face of anyone who can win a few games in a row, and aside from each derby being more “crucial” than the last, it is, at the very heart about more than football.
If football is so engrained in a community – although not the case if Tottenham have anything to do with it – then it is because it is a focus for a wider issue; they didn’t have a kick about on no man’s land for no reason.
Class, creed and social tensions are epitomised by eleven men unified by a single coloured strip. The Old Firm for example offers a chance for tensions between religions to be played out in front of a baying crowd. The large protestant following of Rangers invest their passion, bordering on hatred, for the largely Catholic supported Celtic and vice-versa.
But that doesn’t make it the finest in the land. Violence and over-saturation have rendered the game largely impotent and the glass-ceiling of Scottish football mean it doesn’t even matter that much who wins the games between the sides.
What you need is kids scuttling around on a roughly paved playground kicking a battered piece of leather in their brother’s hand-me-down shirt from five seasons’ past. Old men in Ale houses telling tall tales of how they were once scouted for United and bright eyed teens going for a keepy-uppy record while dreaming of banging in a winner against their rivals. Misty-eyed, romantic and probably not even true in the modern game of foreign imports and television money, but an image to savour and to stir the passions of even the most fleeting of fans. The game which built the reputation and legacy of the derby is no more, so how can the derbies exist in the same way?
The quality of the football isn’t as important as the passion; new rivalries can be made and lost after all. Chelsea and Liverpool are making quite a fine history for themselves in recent years while the West London derby may as well be between two sides from different planets.
If you can have a local lad done good involved then all the better. If you can combine a history, controversy, a simmering tension and a heaving stadium with this then any derby will do.
But hype, the emergence of new competitions especially on the continent, and perhaps most of all money has corrupted the game. Ask a Sunderland fan if he would like a Champions League spot and a top-four finish or a win over Newcastle and wait for the excuses to roll about the long term financial future of the club being most important.
Supporters will continue to look forward to scanning down the fixture list in the summer and look for their rivals, but simply put, it doesn’t mean as much anymore – it’s a blue branded poster welcoming an Argentinian to Manchester or a marketing tool to class a game as “Category A” so clubs can charge the earth. What’s the best derby in England? There isn’t one, not anymore.