In 1888, the first football league was formed by clubs from the North West and Midlands of England. It is unlikely that the clubs then would have foreseen the future for English football at the time but the growth from 12 to 92 teams across four divisions means that the professional game is no longer restricted to the North West and Midlands and interest in the English game is now global and, for some, is a matter of life and death such is the obsession.
Another element of the game that the forefathers were unlikely to have predicted is the visceral hatred that some club’s supporters reserve for their near neighbours. That hatred is not unique to England or to football but always seems more noticeable and goes against the way supporters initially behaved. For those in the North West, supporters would not always follow one team but would attend the most attractive looking match that was closest to them. Much of the rationale for this was financial. Whilst supporters today may think nothing of flying to the other side of Europe on a Wednesday to watch a European Cup tie, for supporters in the past traveling any distance was simply unaffordable. It is a generally held belief that Manchester people would watch United one week and City the next depending on who was playing at home. It was only post World War Two that supporters would chose a team to follow through thick and thin, at the expense of all others.
The origins of the visceral hatred is hard to pinpoint. There exists various legends of factors such as religious separation, differing sides of the English Civil War or industrial based rivalries but it remains difficult to explain why some teams hate one another so much. Using the example of Manchester United and Liverpool FC, the Industrial Revolution and the differing industries practiced in these cities are often cited as reasons why the mutual antipathy exists but if that was the case it does not explain why the hatred is not as strong when Manchester City and Everton are involved. The truth of the matter is that these two industrial cities have much more in common than they might like to admit.
Whilst hooliganism today is not anywhere near as bad as it has been in the past, thankfully, the game has changed in other ways that could signal the end of the hate thy neighbour mentality. Money is now King, whether it be from capitalist endeavor or rich overseas owners matters not. Since the inception of the Premier League in particular, the chances for the so called “lesser teams” winning the ultimate prize has been dramatically reduced to, in reality, all but nothing. For the traditional heartlands of the North West and Midlands, particularly for the non city clubs, competing at the top level is now a struggle. Even teams like Birmingham based Aston Villa, once a mainstay of the top division, relegation came calling.
Initially in the Premier League era, it was Blackburn Rovers who flew the flag for the North West (outside of Manchester), Bolton Wanderers then took up the mantle and it is now the turn of Burnley to represent the region. Burnley are a traditional club from an industrial town, punching above their weight in one of the biggest leagues in the world. One might argue that clubs close to them, rather than hate them, should admire them and acknowledge that this is their time in the sun. They are the representatives of the North Western towns of England so lets wish them well rather than hate them.
This year may see a changing of the guard in the Midlands as well. West Bromwich Albion unfortunately look doomed and Stoke City may also fall through the Premier League trap door. Wolverhampton Wanderers appear almost certain to go up and keep the flag flying for the traditional Midlands Clubs. Their exists a long standing rivalry between WBA and Wolves so maybe it is unrealistic to expect that to be put aside but what would supporters in the Black Country really want? A local side in the Premier League or one from the South East of the country?
Hatred in football remains completely unnecessary and any grown adult who hates people for supporting a different football club needs to have a look in the mirror. Local rivalries are well and good but the question needs to be asked if supporters prefer their neighbours to fail and be be replaced by teams from miles away or has the time come for us to put hatred in the past and acknowledge and respect the achievements of clubs when they deserve it?