There are some headline fixtures in European football this weekend but, buried among the higher-profile bouts early on Sunday is a second-tier English clash fueled by family allegiances, blurred lines, and a certain level of genuine hatred.
Aston Villa vs. Birmingham City doesn’t have the glamour or coverage of, say, the Manchester derby, but it’s an undoubtedly volcanic spectacle, one which sets the city of Birmingham alight and stands as a highlight of both clubs’ calendars. But how does it match up to an assortment of English football’s spiciest derbies?
N.B. This piece takes into account grudge matches based heavily on geographical proximity – the very foundation of the term “derby.” For instance, Manchester United vs. Liverpool is omitted as the clubs are not only in different cities and counties, but also have their own local derbies to contend with. Conversely, Newcastle and Sunderland, though not in the same city, are indisputably the fiercest rivals in a relatively small and almost secluded pocket of northeast England.
Derbies are ranked from one pepper (relatively mild) to five (maximum heat).
Dockers Derby (West Ham vs. Millwall) – 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
The derby with perhaps the worst reputation in England. Stemming from the clubs’ origins in London’s east-end dockyards, this fixture has entered folklore as a prime example of British hooliganism, most notably typified by decades-old violence between West Ham’s famous Inter City Firm and Millwall’s Bushwackers. The animosity is so strong and so famous it has even been depicted on film in “The Firm” and “Green Street.”
There haven’t been too many meetings in recent years with the clubs generally residing in different divisions. After the notorious Upton Park riot enveloped a 2009 League Cup clash, London police implemented city-wide operations to ensure the most recent bouts, in the 2011-12 Championship campaign, were as peaceful as possible.
East Lancashire Derby – 🌶️🌶️🌶️
An unfashionable derby, for sure, but Blackburn Rovers vs. Burnley has deeper roots than most. Another intense rivalry built on foundations of working-class, late-Victorian-era industries, this time in the form of cotton mills, both clubs were founding members of the Football League in 1888 but already had been playing each other for four years before that inauguration.
Blackburn’s Premier League title win in 1995, at a time when Burnley were bouncing between the second and third tiers, only raised tensions. Presently a division apart, the most recent league meetings between the two sides were a pair of ill-tempered 1-0 victories for Burnley in the Clarets’ Championship-winning season of 2015-16.
East Midlands Derby – 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Derby County vs. Nottingham Forest is a rivalry born out of local tribalism in the 19th century, which has intensified dramatically in recent decades as a result of several notable figures crossing the divide. Chief among these, of course, is the man whose name adorns a trophy given to the winner of each meeting: the late, great Brian Clough.
Clough delivered both clubs’ first-ever league titles in the 1970s but overshadowed his Derby achievements on the banks of the River Trent by leading Forest to groundbreaking back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980. Immortalized in statue form by both clubs, much of this derby’s fire is fanned by Clough-related one-upmanship among the fan bases. A series of brawls and unsavory incidents in 21st-century clashes stoked tensions further. Also notable is the fact that, across over 100 meetings in all competitions, only one win separates the teams.
Manchester Derby – 🌶️🌶️
United and City may be the two highest-profile clubs on this list, but that doesn’t make their rivalry the most heated. Quite the opposite, in fact, as United’s domination of the 1990s not only intensified the grudge between themselves and their 1980s superiors Liverpool, but also earned them rival status with other leading clubs such as Leeds United, Arsenal, and Chelsea.
The Mancunian melee has only resurfaced in recent years since City’s takeover by the Abu Dhabi Group, which elevated them to become genuine rivals to United for the first time since, arguably, the 1970s. Even in the 2010s, though, the two clubs have rarely been at the peak of their powers simultaneously, aside from City’s famous goal difference-decided 2011-12 league title win.
Merseyside Derby – 🌶️
Another high-profile but relatively lukewarm rivalry resides 35 miles west down the M62. Liverpool’s Anfield and Everton’s Goodison Park stand barely a mile apart and the derby is the longest-running in the English top flight, having been played at least twice a year since 1963.
The rivalry is often referred to as “the friendly derby” due to such factors as mixed-allegiance families, the wider Liverpool vs. Manchester rivalry, and the united response to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Comparatively recent times have seen an inflammation of on-field animosity – it’s the fixture with the most red cards since the inception of the Premier League in 1992 – but this still stands as a relatively good-natured highlight of both clubs’ calendars rather than a no-holds-barred grudge match.
North London Derby – 🌶️🌶️🌶️
This derby’s middling rating on this list is largely a result of the fact that the two teams only became local rivals after Arsenal relocated from southeast Woolwich to northwest Highbury at the onset of the First World War, as well as the corporate, middle-class nature of the two clubs and their fan bases in recent times.
There have been highly incendiary moments, most notably Sol Campbell’s hugely controversial 2001 switch from Tottenham to the Gunners and Arsenal’s Invincibles winning the league title at White Hart Lane three years later. However, this derby has increasingly become known more for exciting, high-scoring matches than animosity between the two sets of players and fans.
Second City Derby – 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
A fixture in which bad tempers and fan fury often overshadow the actual quality of football on offer – think Peter Enckelman’s horrible error in 2002 and Dion Dublin’s red card for headbutting Robbie Savage in 2003. Villa and Birmingham first faced each other way back in 1879 and though they have often been in different divisions, the ill-feeling has lingered, exacerbated by the lack of clear geographical divide with fans of both teams residing in all areas of the city of Birmingham.
Heading into Sunday’s clash, Villa are unbeaten in a fixture-record 12 meetings with their rivals, but Blues have lost just once since August. The latest instalment could be a cracker.
South Coast Derby – 🌶️🌶️
Portsmouth and Southampton have never been leading English clubs but are the two most successful and highest-profile on the south coast. The bitter rivalry began to develop fully in the 1970s and surrounded the clubs’ differing fortunes as Pompey plummeted to the fourth division while the Saints rose to the First Division.
Since then, there has been Portsmouth fans ironically celebrating a 2-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion in 2005 which relegated Southampton for the first time since 1978 and Harry Redknapp’s acrimonious flip-flopping between the two clubs in the 2000s, but no great deal of games played.
Steel City Derby – 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Two of football’s older clubs residing in a huge industrial center of a city filled with passionate football fans and considered by many as a birthplace of the sport? That makes for a great rivalry, even if Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday were only in the same league for six seasons between 1970–71 and 1999–00.
A leveling-out in quality since the turn of the millennium has reignited this longstanding feud, though the clubs themselves share a mutual respect and admiration, as do portions of each fan base. United are currently threatening to railroad the rivalry for the time being by earning a first promotion to the Premier League since their 2007 relegation.
Tyne-Wear Derby – 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️
Not many derbies get the locals’ blood pumping quite like Newcastle United vs. Sunderland. The rivalry between the two cities dates back to the English Civil War of the 1640s, and with the clubs just 20 kilometers apart in an otherwise sparse area of the country football-wise, the Tyne-Wear grudge has been northeast football’s boiling point since the 1880s.
The crux of this derby, given the absence of other genuine rivals, is that each club needs the other as its antagonist. Newcastle, themselves relegated for the 2016-17 season before bouncing back, will be missing Sunderland during the Black Cats’ alarming nosedive into the third tier, regardless of what gloating Magpies fans may say. This derby has almost everything: passionate support, large-capacity stadiums, closely contested games. Oh, and the time that guy punched that horse.