In October, while the rest of the country were busy mulling over whether Manchester City’s staggering 6-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford signalled a shifting of the landscape in English football, the triumphalism in the blue half of the city was of a more tribal nature.
City had just dismantled the 19-time champions of England in their own backyard with a display of clinical swagger. But theirs was not a celebration of season-defining proportions. No, it was more the fact they had just trounced their neighbours – the team that, for most of their 130-year plus history, they ached to beat more than anyone else.
Derby matches are fuel to the fires of the football fan’s imagination.
The good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly of this global game all wrapped up in the context of two otherwise harmless words: “derby match”. It is football squared, every last drop: a phoney war for a build-up; 90 minutes of brutally intense action; all hell to pay in the aftermath. It’s Armageddon for an age where sport seems to matter more than ever before.
We’ve all got one that belongs exclusively to us. Football Derbies, like falling in love, make us deliriously incapable of rationality. Ask a fan who they most want to beat at any time of any season, and they’ll give you the name of their fiercest local rivals rather than the teams around them in the table; ask the same fan for the second result they look for on a Saturday, and they’ll admit to a weekly silent prayer that their derby day opponents have lost.
There is no bigger picture, no common sense involved in this particular equation. Clichés are strewn about with gay abandon – ‘ local pride is at stake’, ‘it’s all about bragging rights’, ‘the usual rules of the game don’t apply’.
And my favourite: ‘the formbook goes out of the window’. As this infographic by the cheap hotels provider HotelClub shows, the formbook barely even makes it to the windowsill. Look at the list of teams you would expect to have dominated their local rivals in head-to-head matches over the past 20 meetings, and their records match up: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle all have clear daylight over their geographical neighbous.
But that doesn’t make them any less important, doesn’t deter fans from dreaming of getting one over the old enemy. Derbies deal in extremes both on and off the pitch, whether you are talking about the Manchester meeting at the summit of the Premier League or Oxford v Swindon in League Two.
Once, I dared myself to believe that my team could pull off a dramatic – and highly improbably – escape from relegation. And where would we start such a fairytale finale to the season? At the home of our fiercest rivals, of course…
In April 1999, with Nottingham Forest bottom of the Premier League and clinging on to life in the top flight, I was unable to get an away ticket for the critical match at local rivals Derby County. Offered a choice between sitting with Rams’ fans and missing out altogether, I chose what I believed to be the lesser of two evils.
A tantalising afternoon of torture awaited me.
I was segregated from the Forest fans – my footballing family – by lines of police keen to keep both sets of supporters apart. I was subjected not only to the same chants I had roared Derby’s way a hundred times before but also to missiles (bricks, bottles) thrown into our midst. That was before the game had even kicked off.
As if that wasn’t torment enough, Forest had a man sent off , conceded the only goal of an awful game even later on and were effectively relegated that afternoon as the euphoric Derby fans around me exploited their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gloat while revelling in our misery.
Thing is, every single Forest fan present would have done the same were the roles reversed.
That’s derbies for you. If you want perspective, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Jonathan Stevenson (@Stevo_football) is sport live blogger specialising in football.