Monday, 4 May 2009

The Contradictions of Footballing Rivalries

For a change of pace - and to try and extend the number of categories of topics I write about to... er, two - I've written an article examining the curious relationship between rival clubs.

It was Morrissey who first said “we hate it when our friends become successful.” As true as this may be, there is an alternate maxim that also holds some weight: “We hate it when our enemies become failures.”

This may not make much sense at first glance, but this is the realm of football fans we’re talking about: a world where little makes sense initially. It’s a state of mind where intelligent, educated men (it’s nearly always men, though they‘re often far from intelligent) are prepared to spend thousands of pounds and invest hours and hours of their time each year to follow their team around the country. In most civilised quarters, if you drove 400 miles to Wigan on a rainy Tuesday in December to watch eleven obscenely overpaid athletes - a fair few of whom had never even heard of your beloved club until their agent called and the pound signs flashed before their eyes - essentially chase a leather ball around a field. Yes, there’s the ecstasy of the last minute winner that guarantees promotion or safety, the sublime goal conjured from nothing, the thrill of an end-to-end 4-3 victory, but these occurrences are all too rare and fleeting. When was the last time you saw a football fan actually happy while watching their team? For the most part, it’s a painful, unrequited relationship, full of disappointment and resentment.

Football fans really do love their clubs though; often talking about the club as if they were part of it. “We were brilliant on Saturday,” “the referee didn’t give us anything” and so on. In fact, the only feeling or loyalty in football that even comes close to the love of the fan for their club is the hatred of that same fan towards their club’s local rivals. A small confession - I’m little better. While “hatred” is far too strong a word in my case, (I’m probably not classed as a “real” fan anyway; I’ve been to one game in the last five seasons) the result I look out for immediately after my own club (another example, calling them my club) is that of the local rivals in the hope that they’ve lost.

In mid-April, Ipswich Town beat Norwich City 3-2 in a Coca-Cola Championship match at Portman Road. Little was at stake for Ipswich other than local bragging rights, their season dissolved into mid-table nothingness not long after Christmas, but the result left Norwich in serious danger of relegation to League One. The next day, the independent Ipswich Town website, Those Were The Days ( held an online poll: “Do you want Norwich City to be relegated?” That same day, a look at the results would have told you that 30% of people voted ‘No.’

Just to get this out of the way at the earliest possible opportunity, this is hardly the most scientific or rigorous of surveys - perhaps a disgruntled Delia Smith felt the need to spend all of Monday morning vigorously attacking her left mouse button with an egg whisk while the cursor hovered over the ‘No’ option - but it still raises an interesting question: If Norwich are Ipswich’s bitterest and most-despised rivals, why are there any fans who wouldn’t want them to be relegated?

Just to put it into context, relegation to the third tier of English football would be little short of a disaster for Norwich City. As recently as 1993 they played in the UEFA Cup where they became the first and only English side to defeat Bayern Munich in Germany in a competitive match. Rivalry between Ipswich and Norwich has been fierce since their first meeting in 1902 and has maintained ferocity despite the fact that League One side Colchester United play less than twenty miles from Ipswich whereas Norwich is over forty miles away.

This is the thing about bitter football rivalries; although they are usually formed due to geographical proximity, it is historical factors that keep them on the boil. Ipswich and Norwich are both moderately successful clubs and have played in the same level of the Football League system many times. Colchester, on the other hand, are a relatively new club and have spent only two of the last forty years in the same league as their more famous cousins. Colchester fans hold a bitter grudge against Ipswich (although their main rivals are arguably fellow Essex-dwellers Southend United), possibly borne from envy, but Ipswich fans are generally dismissive of their lower-league neighbours. The history explains why clubs that have fairly recently become successful after decades in the wilderness, such as Hull City, Wigan Athletic and Fulham, don’t really have derby games. The clubs that they would see as their rivals are still languishing divisions below and whilst the media may try to create the perception of a derby around Wigan versus Blackburn or Fulham versus Chelsea, the truth is Chelsea and Blackburn are likely to not even care.

But why even create a media frenzy? Well, it sells more papers for a start but the clubs want the revenue. Ipswich’s average attendance for league games this season is somewhere around the 20000 mark, but for the Norwich game, the gate was up to 28274. At £29 for a ticket, that’s nearly £250000 more for the football club. Next season, no Norwich means no local derby, means no sell-out game. Leicester City and Peterborough United have been promoted from League One for next season; no disrespect meant, but they’re unlikely to bring in the fans in the same way.

So, they’re the teams we love to hate and the teams we hate to love. For the record, a 4-2 defeat to already relegated Charlton Athletic means that Norwich City will be spending the 2009/10 season in League One. Long trips to Exeter, Hartlepool and Carlisle await for those loyal enough to follow their club through thick and thin while they look with envy at Ipswich with their new, high-profile manager and aspirations of bigger things. Ipswich are amongst the favourites to win promotion to the Premiership next season; there will be a lot of people hoping that Norwich aren’t too far behind.

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