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The Rivals Game: Inside the British Derby by Douglas Beattie

Release date: 17th April, 2008
Publisher: Know The Score Books

List Price: £16.99
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Are derby matches all they're cracked up to be? Anyone watching the Old Firm duel in midweek couldn't have failed to be impressed with the Parkhead atmosphere, but the quality of football on display left an awful lot to be desired. Fans will be treated to derby matches in the north east and the Midlands this weekend - encounters where the result, not footballing style, assumes a bloated importance. However, no-one will complain provided their side wins, a predictable feature of matches involving local rivals.
There was a time when some derby matches (with the notable exception of those played in Glasgow) offered an opportunity for supporters to hurl abuse at each other for 90 minutes before retiring to the pub where they shared a beer. Such tradition has now virtually disappeared: the only top-flight match in the land not subject to crowd segregation is the Merseyside derby, but even this has suffered in recent years from an insidious nastiness which has taken hold among both sets of supporters.

Douglas Beattie, a Scot, who first encountered an Old Firm derby as a boy in 1980, has looked at the history of eight of Britain's major derbies and the point he makes about the often fiery north London duels: "Those who follow Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are not so different" could have been applied to most of the other seven. A host of factors influence which team anyone supports, but when two big sides occupy a similar geographic space, religion, class and historical shenanigans play a major part in choosing your team's colours.

Beattie has clearly spent a lot of time talking with fans in order to unearth how they feel about the 'other' side. There are few complimentary comments, which is worrying as football's all-consuming, almost religious status shows little sign of abating. It's interesting that hard-core fans, which is not necessarily the same as violent types, offer up detailed historic reasons about why they cannot stand the sight of their nearest rivals.

Religion is the most likely cause of footballing polarisation in cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Edinburgh, although it is only in the first of these that sectarian hatred is still evident to any degree.

Aston Villa and Birmingham City were originally divided along class lines, while an Edwardian gentleman, Sir Henry Norris, is apparently to blame for the sense of enmity which continues to exist between Arsenal and Spurs. Norris took the team then known as Woolwich Arsenal from south London and, in an early example of 'franchised football' relocated them a few miles away from Tottenham in north London. Subsequently, apparently using some rather underhand methods, he promptly had the latter excluded from the post-1918 First Division. It's enough to bug Spurs fans to this day - and who could blame them?
The Rivals Game is packed with some great anecdotes and chants, not all of which are repeatable here, although they add to sense that this book has touched upon something embedded within the football fan's DNA. Why did I laugh when I saw my fiercest derby day opponents cut down in print? Beattie would attribute it to a sense of tribalism and I suspect he's right; provided it doesn't get out of hand, long may it continue.


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