Off-field shenanigans, both fun and furious, can distract some supporters from the actual football. But not FourFourTwo, because we now present Britain’s best derbies by on-pitch entertainment over the past 25 years.
Now, don’t be angry: providing for the neutrals doesn’t mean we forgot your favourite rivalry. Some classic clashes – such as the Edinburgh derby between Hearts and Hibs – just didn’t make the cut. As nawty as Millwall vs West Ham can be, they’ve met all of nine times in 25 years, and being two divisions apart makes it less relevant in 2017. It’s the same, but even more so, for Southampton vs Portsmouth.
Elsewhere, the hard-to-fathom rivalry between Brighton and Crystal Palace brought play-off excitement in 2012/13 but little in the two decades before it, while Ipswich vs Norwich rarely catches the interest of those outside East Anglia, and it’s a similar situation with Northern Ireland’s biggest derbies. As for Blackburn vs Burnley and West Brom vs Wolves, the matches are often just dull. Sorry.
So, here’s our Top 10 British derbies for on-pitch entertainment since 1992. Enjoy.
10. Aston Villa vs Birmingham
The Second City Derby’s proud history began with a controversial win on a dodgy pitch in 1879, and featured a League Cup final clash in 1963 –won by Birmingham –but in terms of pure entertainment its reputation these days only marginally trumps the Black Country Derby across the way. While England’s top two levels average around 2.75 goals per game, the Birmingham derby manages a pitiful 2.1 in all competitions since 1992.
Still, the contests are usually close (Villa’s 5-1 hammering of the visitors in 2008 aside) and the rivalry did create a hapless Villan in goalkeeper Peter Enckelman, whose pair of cock-ups, six months apart, gifted Birmingham a league double in 2002/03.
9. Cardiff vs Swansea
Not long ago, this was the most passionate (read: violent) derby in the UK. However, Swansea earned the right in recent years to forget their South Wales enemies even exist, while Cardiff focus instead on Severnside Derby matches against Bristol City.
Yet matches between the Swans and the Bluebirds are generally entertaining and less one-sided than a prospective fight between their avian representatives, seeing as neither side has ever done the league double over the other (and they’ve each had a good 30 opportunities).
Following skirmishes in the third division, regular meetings in the Championship brought last-minute winners for Cardiff, consecutive red cards for Stephen McPhail and goals aplenty for both sides. Their two Premier League meetings produced a win apiece and a full-back (Swansea’s Angel Rangel) in goal.
Entertainment crosses the gender divide, too: Swansea City Ladies won both of this season’s derbies 4-3.
8. Derby vs Nottingham Forest
The Brian Clough Trophy regularly changes hands between two teams that are falling a long way short of his achievements. Nottingham Forest – back-to-back European champions under Clough – are fighting relegation to the third tier. Derby – the club he led to promotion, then the league title – have spent eye-watering sums in order to move sideways. As such, the derby has a wistful nostalgia about it.
Even so, the matches are hard-fought, with only four of the last 20 being settled by more than one goal. Don’t leave early: this season you’d have missed Daniel Pinillos’ 94th-minute Forest equaliser, and in 2015 it would’ve been 20-year-old Ben Osborn slamming home a last-minute winner.
For their part, Derby turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 FA Cup victory at Forest’s City Ground in 2009, and two years later recovered from being 1-0 and a man down after five minutes there in order to win 2-1. Crikey.
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7. Sheffield United vs Sheffield Wednesday
Speaking of underachieving clubs, Sheffield’s finest no longer contest the sort of nationally important derbies that they did in the early 1990s. United have now been outside the top two divisions for the longest period in their 128-year history. Thankfully that looks set to end, and unless Wednesday crash the Premier League party, the Steel City Derby will be back on our fixture lists.
It’s almost always a close game, partly as both teams seemingly lack a finishing move. United’s 3-2 Championship triumph in September 2009 – revenge for Wednesday derailing their promotion charge the previous season with a first double for 95 years – had seen the Blades lead 3-0 at half-time. In 1993, a dominant Owls side somehow needed extra time to secure a famous Wembley win against United and reach the FA Cup final.
6. Dundee vs Dundee United
There’s wish fulfilment, then there’s the Dundee Derby of May 2, 2016.
As fans of both Dundee and Dundee United know all too well, the city’s modest size means there’s no hiding place when you lose. So even Leicester becoming unlikely Premier League champions that same night couldn’t distract United fans from the horrible truth: they’d just been relegated by their rivals, entering a lower division than them for the first time in 57 years, thanks to a last-minute goal scored by a boyhood Dundee fan in 18-year-old Craig Wighton. Supporters of any club without silverware in their sights dream of such a moment.
A year earlier, the derby had reached a new – ahem – nadir when United’s Nadir Ciftci bit Jim McAlister on the knee, as you do. His agent, Pierre van Hooijdonk (the very same), said: “Nadir told me 1000% he has not bitten the other guy and I believe him 1000%.” Nonetheless, Ciftci was 1000% banned.
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Before then, United had enjoyed the better of a derby that always promises goals (39 in the last 10 league fixtures), including a last-gasp winner in the 2014/15 Scottish League Cup after Dundee had missed a penalty. For now, though, it’s Dee on top.
5. Newcastle vs Sunderland
You feel that Sunderland and Newcastle, perhaps more than any other English rivals, need each other. The Black Cats’ annual slog to safety was brightened by an unlikely run of six consecutive derby wins, while the Toon Army can remind themselves of what real football was like before their club became a tool for selling trainers.
Naturally, both sides have their heroes. Shola Ameobi, the Mackem Slayer, was never prolific for Newcastle yet averaged a goal every other game against the enemy. In Sunderland, Fabio Borini seems to wake from his slumber only when Newcastle are in town.
Tyneside legend Alan Shearer scored against Sunderland in his final game, while Kevin Phillips lobbed Shay Given to embarrass Magpies manager Ruud Gullit when he infamously dropped Shearer for a no-mark named Paul Robinson. There’s no shortage of memorable moments.
Tyne-Wear matches are usually lively and almost always close. Historically it’s an even contest, each side having defeated the other 53 times. In the Premier League era, it’s the derby with the lowest percentage of games won by more than one goal.
4. Celtic vs Rangers
The Old Firm Derby returned to Scotland's top flight this season after a five-year hiatus, and if anything hinted that the fixture no longer holds the prestige it once did, it was seeing 38-year-old goalscorer Clint Hill celebrating in the Celtic net with 37-year-old Kenny Miller. Still, Hill’s equaliser ended Celtic’s absurd run of 22 straight league wins this season, so as far as Rangers fans were concerned the ball may as well have rebounded in off the mascot’s arse.
Before Rangers’ abrupt disintegration and reformation, their matches against Celtic had lost some of their sheen. The city giants’ duopoly of Scottish football meant they’d faced each other 98 times in the preceding 20 years, with the 2010/11 season featuring seven derbies in six months. Such regular meetings bored most people living outside Glasgow, and even in the city they felt less special. Familiarity breeds contempt, and there was enough contempt to begin with.
The end to Rangers’ exile won’t change that immediately, but late winners (for Celtic in October last year) and dramatic penalty shoot-out triumph (for Rangers six months earlier) have brought back some of the lustre.
3. Everton vs Liverpool
First, let’s get the ‘friendly derby’ nonsense out of the way. Twice as many players are sent off in matches between Everton and Liverpool than in England’s other big rivalries. Whereas the North London Derby has seen 10 red cards in 47 matches over the past 20 years, and the Manchester Derby 10 in 40,the Merseysiders’ melees have brought 22 dismissals in 43 games– and that’s allowing for a five-year detente between 2011 and 2016.
While goals are relatively scarce – just 2.25 per game compared to nearly 3 in Manchester and north London – the Merseyside Derby still serves up memorable matches. September 2014 featured Phil Jagielka scoring a screamer of pure technique to equalise in stoppage time. A year earlier, spectators were treated to a breathless 3-3 draw with both sides scoring almost immediately and match-winning chances still coming after 95 minutes.
The best of the lot came in April 2001: five goals, 12 bookings, Igor Biscan sent off and Gary McAllister scoring the winner in stoppage time by drilling home an inch-perfect free-kick from fully 40 yards. That’s entertainment.
2. Manchester City vs Manchester United
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a rivalry created by cash – City and United have gone at it hammer and tongs even when they weren’t on a level playing field.
In the Premier League era alone, two of City’s most memorable derby wins came in less moneyed times, from Shaun Goater inspiring a 3-1 victory in the last derby at Maine Road to 2004’s 4-1 triumph. Neither will United fans forget their 1993/94 team coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2 in the blue part of Manchester, especially as City fans sang “two-nil and you f**ked it up” in reference to their rivals’ Champions League exit to Galatasaray. There’s nothing like tempting fate.
Nor is this a rivalry in City minds only. Why else would the Red Devils be responsible for eight of the derby’s 10 red cards since 1992? They weren’t all Roy Keane on Alf-Inge Haaland.
The past decade has only produced more crackers. There was the 4-3 win to United in September 2009 that brought two goals for Darren Fletcher – Darren Fletcher! – and a brief purpose for Michael Owen, who scored the 96th-minute winner. There was Wayne Rooney’s famous overhead (mis)kick in 2011, when the ball came closer to hitting his knee than his boot. And of course there was City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford later that year, when Mario Balotelli asked, ‘Why always me?’ and Darren Fletcher – him again – notched a contender for history’s Best Meaningless Goal.
So why isn’t this our No.1, especially with Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola renewing their rivalry in Manchester? Simple: there’s one derby that’s even more entertaining.
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1. Arsenal vs Tottenham
Once upon a time, Spurs fans could see this game as little more than an opportunity to put their superior rivals’ noses out of joint, especially after Arsenal’s Invincibles won the league at White Hart Lane in 2004. However, the past decade has seen the sides grow closer together – albeit not in friendship. Off-field narratives have taken this fixture to a new level, with 2017’s title-chasing, stadium-building, homegrown Spurs outfit underscoring Arsenal’s stagnation. Yet it is the matches themselves that make the North London Derby a classic.
Predicting the outcomes is a fool’s errand. Tottenham’s 5-1 tonking of the Gunners in the 2007/08 League Cup semi-final second leg followed 21 derby matches without a Spurs victory. Neither team has scored more than twice in any of their last 10 meetings, yet there’s been only one goalless draw this century. Goals fly in from anywhere (David Bentley, 40 yards) and from any source (Noureddine Naybet, anyone?).
Things have calmed down a bit of late, following a bonkers 10-year run between 2003 and 2013 that brought 101 goals in 25 games, including a 4-4 draw and a 5-4 away win for Arsenal that Jose Mourinho dismissed as “a hockey score”, because people briefly weren’t paying attention to him. The highlights of those matches serve to suggest that the main reason north London derbies have fewer goals now is that both teams have vaguely competent goalkeepers.
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But it’s not all about goals. The 1-1 draw at Highbury in 1995 was a classic of its time, and not long before that came Paul Gascoigne’s famous free-kick at Wembley.
The modern North London Derby has everything: two teams fighting at the same level, background stories still unfolding for both clubs, tight contests, exotic talent and local stars. Above all, it has an endless capacity to surprise us. What more could you want from a derby?
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Huw was on theFourFourTwostaff from 2009 to 2015, ultimately as the magazine's Managing Editor, before becoming a freelancer and moving to Wales. As a writer, editor and tragic statto, he still contributes regularly toFFTin print and online, though as a match-going #WalesAway fan, he left a small chunk of his brain on one of many bus journeys across France in 2016.