The Rivals Game

Inside the British Derby
by Douglas Beattie
Know the Score, £16.99
Reviewed by Csaba Abrahall
From WSC 257 July 2008 

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Together with the admission that it was watching Celtic and Rangers fans beating the crap out of each other that led to his interest in the subject, the photograph of typical 1980s terrace brawling that adorns the cover of Douglas Beattie’s study of derby rivalry raises the fear that it will provide the setting for some standard hooliganism porn. Happily, such a fear proves to be unfounded. Although there are tales of violence dating back to an all-in scrap featuring fans, players and police in Sheffield in 1892, what Beattie – an award-winning BBC news journalist – has produced is an intelligent and well written insight into the eight biggest derbies in British football.

Each chapter explores the foundation and history of two rival clubs and recounts the author’s experiences at a game between them. Whether this method allows Beattie to meet his aim to “unearth how the protagonists had come to be rivals” and “why… they still were” is debatable – for all his analysis, perhaps the most perceptive observation on modern rivalry is Liverpool MP Peter Kilfoyle’s simple view that the city’s two clubs are above all “rival businesses”.

However, it does afford Beattie the opportunity to pack the book with information to entertain and interest the reader, such as the tale of Henry Norris, who used Arsenal club funds “to have himself chauffeured round London drinking brandy and smoking cigars” while seemingly seeking to usurp and infuriate Tottenham at every turn; or the thoughtful examination into increasing tension at the Merseyside derby, which is attributed to the bitterness of Evertonians over their club’s European exclusion following the Heysel disaster, an anger that had to be long-suppressed after Hillsborough.

There is also plenty of humour. It’s difficult not to chuckle at the account of Sean Bean’s failed attempt to use his celebrity to get into the players’ entrance at Hillsborough, nor at the implication that Moira Stewart was a catalyst for growing resentment in Edinburgh in 1990 after she reported that Hearts’ chairman Wallace Mercer’s merger plans would “wipe Hibs from the footballing map”.

Yet, despite the socio-economic, religious and political reasons behind them (all thoroughly explored here), for today’s fans, derby rivalries tend to be about what happens on the pitch. More concentration on the actual football would have been welcome, therefore, particularly since Beattie showcases his writing skills in  glorious descriptions of the matchday experience. The portrayal of the passion and drama surrounding the final north London derby at Highbury is wonderfully vivid, while his depiction of celebrating Hibs fans at Tynecastle – “a moving jigsaw of humanity propelled by a single emotion” – beats the traditional “the crowd went wild” by some ­distance.

The strongest chapter is perhaps that devoted to Sunderland and Newcastle, whose footballing enmity is revealed to be based on the antagonism between the two towns stretching back to the English Civil War. This is the only rivalry covered here not involving two same-city sides. Given its success, Beattie’s allusion to another volume featuring further examples is welcome. Perhaps next time the publishers will select a cover photograph more in keeping with the book’s content and quality.

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