What constitutes a local derby seems, on the face of it, to be a question with a pretty obvious answer. However, if we take a couple of minutes to actually examine it, it becomes more nuanced that you might at first think. Derby matches are usually local, but they don’t necessarily have to be. The rivalry between Brighton and Crystal Palace is thirty-odd years old now, even though the two clubs are over forty miles part and haven’t spent that much of the last three decades in the same division. There is an historical element to it, brought about by the abrasive management styles of Malcolm Allison and Alan Mullery in the mid-1970s. The flame hasn’t been extinguished to this day, and doesn’t take much to spark back to life.The nature of the local derby – or, to be more succinct, the local rivalry – is more complex than that, but it is a critical part of the existence of the football supporter. It taps into the urge that we have within us to define ourselves against something and to measure ourselves against something. It is a barometer for how well or badly is doing. And it is a universal phenomenon within the game.
Rivals are often two clubs with more in common than either of them would care to admit. Manchester United supporters, while aware of the importance of winning the derby match against City, turn the majority of their ire upon Liverpool, who reciprocate fully. Lop-sided derbies don’t work. To a Notts County supporter, there is nothing more annoying than the patronising, feeble “half support” of the Nottingham Forest supporter, who in turn considers Derby County to be his true rival. Notts want little more from their footballing life than parity with their city neighbours, but instead spend their time in the humiliating role of the city’s footballing little brother. In the early 1990s, St Albans City looked as if they might get a meaningful derby match going with Stevenage Borough, but Stevenage shot up past the Saints like the crew of Apollo II overtaking Phileas Fogg in his hot air balloon. The clubs finally got to meet again in the Conference during the 2006/07 season but, while the Boxing Day match at Clarence Park brought in a season high crowd of 3,000, the re-match at Stevenage, played a few weeks later on a wet Tuesday night, attracted one of Stevenage’s lowest crowds of the season. “You don’t matter any more” is a hurtful thing to have to come to terms with.
Now is an appropriate time for this to be said because, tomorrow afternoon, Northampton Town make the fifteen mile journey to the land of concrete cows and foam fingers to play Franchise for the first time. There has been an effort in the local press to drum this match up as a “local derby”, but it fails in almost all respects apart from the sheer physical proximity of the football club and the supermarket-backed franchise experiment. There is no historical rivalry between Northampton Town and Franchise. There can’t be. Franchise have no history. These aren’t clubs with anything in common. Northampton have diced with extinction, had one glorious season in the First Division in 1965/66, were the victims of George Best’s famous double hat-trick on “Match Of The Day” in 1970, and were the first club to offer the great Herbert Chapman a managerial role, in 1907. They were the first club in England to form a Supporters Trust. Franchise… well… they won League Two last season. And the Johnstones Paint Trophy. But that’s more or less it. Neither are they clubs of equal size. Franchise had a 30,000 seater stadium built for them. Northampton, until 1994, played at The County Ground, the last three-sided football stadium in England. Even now, their Sixfields home holds a modest 7.600 people.
The truth of the matter is that Franchise will never have a local derby. For Northampton Town supporters, the true local rivals are Peterborough United, against whom they have identified themselves for decades. Closer to home, should they ever fall upon hard times, there are Kettering Town and that other mutant club, Rushden & Diamonds, waiting in the wings. It is important, at this point, to differentiate between “rivals” and “enemies”. Everywhere they look, Franchise see clubs looking in the other directions. To the south, there’s poor, beleagured Luton Town, but Luton supporters store their bile for Watford. To the south-west, the only other League club in their county, Wycombe Wanderers, still turn their attentions largely in the direction of Colchester United (for historical reasons) and southwards, towards Oxford United. Franchise do, however, have plenty of enemies. When the Grimsby Town fanzine “Cod Almighty” made anti-MK t-shirts ahead of this year’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final, they weren’t after the easy dollar. They were tapping into something that many, many football supporters feel – the feeling that it has taken decades for our clubs to be where they are, and to have that taken away from you must be the most devastating feeling possible in football. Franchise have enemies wherever they look, but no rivals. To this day, the venerable football magazine “When Saturday Comes” still refuses to invite Franchise to submit answers to its pre-season preview supplement.
The local press in Northampton are doing their best, and we all know that, at the end of the day, they have papers to sell, but selling this as a “local rivalry” isn’t going to cut much ice. Town’s fan’s spokesman on the board of directors, Anthony Collett, summed it up pretty neatly thus:
I know some of the people who helped form AFC Wimbledon after the move and I know just how bitter they felt about their club being taken away. There is no way I will be going into the boardroom and condoning what they did. I will not be shaking Mr Winkelman’s hand, I will be cheering on my team from the away end, but that is it. There’s plenty of people who won’t even be going to the game, that is how strongly they feel.
The time is right to serve up a reminder to football’s Franchise experiment that they are not, and never will be, a “football club”. Northampton supporters that do make the trip tomorrow should spend the minimum amount of money possible whilst there and spend the afternoon singing anti-Peterborough songs, in order to reinforce one of the unwritten laws of being a football supporter – that you can’t simply “create” this culture because it would be convenient for it to be there. If the peculiar breed of people that sacrificed the clubs that they previously supported to watch Franchise don’t like that, then there are plenty of other entertainment options available in Milton Keynes. I understand that ice hockey and ten pin bowling are very popular.